Smoke, Mirrors, and Spin: Deception in the Struggle for Taiwan’s Legislative Reform – The Diplomat

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Over the past week, the Republic of China (Taiwan)’s legislature, the ROC Legislative Yuan, has been enveloped by chaos and disorder. Inside the chamber on May 17, a female legislator from the Kuomintang (KMT) was brought to the ground in a wrestling-style takedown by a male Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator. Another DPP legislator snatched legislative documents from a neutral 73-year-old parliamentarian then ran out of the building with the goal of quite literally bringing legislative proceedings to a halt. 

Across Taiwanese social media, pictures of mobilized protesters surrounding the legislature and calls for the occupation of the Legislative Yuan were gaining traction; others were disseminating contradictory information regarding what had happened on the ground. All of these events revolved around a series of bills on legislative reforms.

At the core of the contention is one basic dynamic: The ruling DPP controls the executive branch and therefore intuitively frowns upon any attempt to increase the level of legislative oversight of the executive power. The KMT-Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) legislative majority coalition is seeking to introduce a set of powers for improved institutional checks and balances, legislative strengthening, and democratic consolidation: the power to investigate, the power of inquiry, contempt resolutions, a normalized presidential address to the legislature, and the power to confirm appointments. 

For the United States Congress, these powers are the cornerstone of American democracy and are crucial to prevent executive aggrandizement. Fu Kun-chi, KMT legislative caucus leader, expressed his intention in January to model legislative reform proposals upon existing functions and powers of the U.S. Congress even before the current legislative session started. The goal was for the Legislative Yuan “to become the people’s stronghold.”

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The ROC Legislative Yuan has historically been a weak pillar in the country’s separation of powers. In support of the inclusion of investigative powers into the Legislative Yuan, legislators Wellington Koo (main sponsor), Chuang Jui-hsiung (main sponsor), and Yu Mei-nu (signatory) noted as their legislative intent in a bill they introduced during the first ever DPP-majority legislative session in 2016:

The principle of separation of powers is the fundamental spirit of modern democratic constitutional states, aimed at restraining government abuse and infringement of people’s rights. The legislature is inherently entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the executive branch. However, in our country’s constitution, impeachment of and correction of misconduct by public officials are assigned to the exercise of powers of the Control Yuan. Furthermore, the current questioning mechanism in the Legislative Yuan relies solely on passive receipt of information from the executive branch, rendering it ineffective in supervising instances of governmental abuse of power.

Frankly, no one explained it better than them. They pronounced it loud and clear as DPP legislators. Yet Koo is now high above as defense minister and has been silent so far. Chuang is now the DPP legislative caucus’ number 3 and has called the legislative reform bills unconstitutional; Yu is now chairwoman of the Taiwan Bar Association who previously also chaired the Taipei Bar Association.

Yu’s current responsibilities lead us to the next point: For outside observers, it seemed like the Taiwan Bar Association and the Taipei Bar Association, which are seemingly professionally neutral, “expressing concerns” over the legislative reform bills was a big deal. However, not many people understand that these two professional organizations have long been under partisan control. The same applies to the Taiwan Economic Democracy Union, in which DPP officials and hardline Taiwan independence advocates serve on its board

No one expects outside observers to understand every intricacy of Taiwanese politics, but no one should jump to conclusions either, when the first casualty of war is truth and Taiwan’s politics is operated with the first level of encryption – Mandarin Chinese.

The Necessity for Legislative Reform

According to the ROC’s post-1994 super-presidentialist constitutional separation of powers, the president has de facto control over the appointment of the premier. The premier has the power to legislate by introducing government-sponsored bills, and the president – in practice – therefore reigns over the executive and the legislative branches when the legislative majority and the president belong to the same party. This is exacerbated by the Taiwan-specific phenomenon where the president almost always controls their political party, reducing hurdles to total control over all branches of the government to near zero.

Legislative power is intended to serve as a check on the executive power. However, in the ROC, due to the constitutional allocation of executive authority to the premier, with the president ultimately responsible for all executive decisions, there exists a significant disparity in power dynamics. Under the current legal framework, while the Legislative Yuan can scrutinize the premier and government ministers, it lacks the authority to hold the ultimate executive decision-maker, the president, directly accountable. This imbalance undermines the effectiveness of legislative oversight in the ROC.

The push for legislative reform was supposed to be just another executive-legislative power struggle, which every liberal democracy in the world has experienced at some point in their political history. The Magna Carta of Britain, the Constitution of the United States, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of France were not the result of executive aggrandizement, but rather emerged as significant documents when their respective assemblies of the people stood up for their rights. However, with the tactical, belligerent deployment of smoke, mirrors, and spin, a conflict within the established institutions has been distorted.

The legislature functions when discipline reigns. Yet, during the past eight years of aligned DPP executive and legislative majorities under Tsai Ing-wen, the legislature was turned into a rubber stamp of the presidential office. The DPP-majority Legislative Yuan from 2016 to 2024 fulfilled almost every request from the presidential office and the Executive Yuan, sometimes at the expense of the Legislative Yuan’s own integrity.

On April 26, 2017, Legislator Chiu Yi-ying, then serving as DPP chair of the joint session of six relevant committees, forcibly pushed through the 882.5 billion Taiwanese dollar Special Act for Forward-Looking Infrastructure without allowing any discussion, voting, or advancement to the inter-party consultation stage despite persistent objections from the KMT caucus. Despite clear rules mandating the chair to vote on whether the objections would be sustained (Article 32 of the Legislative Yuan Rules of Procedure), Chiu simply disregarded them. 

Despite this history, DPP legislative leader Ker Chien-ming still had the audacity to say the KMT and the TPP are turning the ROC Legislative Yuan into the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

It is evident that the Legislative Yuan is susceptible to executive aggrandizement when the executive power holds substantial political influence. A comparison between the KMT-majority 8th Legislative Yuan (2012-2016) and the DPP-majority 9th Legislative Yuan (2016-2020) illustrates this vulnerability: During the 8th Legislative Yuan, only 6.19 percent of bills that were not agreed upon in inter-party consultations were ultimately passed. In contrast, during the 9th Legislative Yuan, a staggering 87.87 percent of such bills were passed. This significant disparity underscores the potential for executive dominance over the legislative process, and there are simply no legislative countermeasures whatsoever to oppose executive aggrandizement when the executive and legislative powers are politically aligned. 

Because the ROC president almost always asserts control over their party’s legislative caucus by simultaneously assuming the chair position of their political party, the ROC’s executive-legislative-party relations damage our fragile constitutional design as the latter incentivizes the former.

Now that Taiwanese people have entrusted the KMT with a legislative plurality amid a minority government, we have a historic opportunity to move forward. The KMT-TPP legislative coalition is simply doing something any reasonable, loyal opposition in the world would do. Taiwanese people elected a non-DPP majority Legislative Yuan for a reason; it was clearer than ever that the executive branch needs proper oversight.

Unmasking Falsehoods

Before the reform package was moved to inter-party consultation, there had been two committee meetings on April 1 and 15, and three public hearings on April 3, 10, and 11. According to official minutes that are publicly available, as reported by Storm Media, 68 speeches were given, totaling 7 hours, 8 minutes, and 39 seconds. Out of the 68 speeches, 37 were given by a DPP legislator, totaling 3 hours 48 minutes and 24 seconds; 25 were from the KMT, accounting for 2 hours 31 minutes and 8 seconds; six were from the TPP, accumulating 49 minutes and 7 seconds of speaking time. The DPP spoke for 20 minutes and 9 seconds more than the KMT and the TPP combined. Numerous inter-party consultations were held, on May 8, 16, 17, etc. How was the KMT “disallowing debates”?

The provisions related to contempt of the Legislative Yuan aim to combat corruption, malfeasance, and abuse of power for personal gain. It is crucial to prevent officials from withholding information to ensure that the Legislative Yuan effectively balances the dominance of executive power – something Wellington Koo, Chuang Jui-hsiung, and Yu Mei-nu recognized back in 2016. 

According to the KMT’s proposal, which aims to amend Article 25 of the Law Governing the Legislative Yuan’s Powers and introduce Chapter 5-1 and Article 141-1 to the Criminal Code of the Republic of China, government officials who make false statements during questioning at the Legislative Yuan may face criminal prosecution. No provisions within the reform package would allow the Legislative Yuan to apply contempt charges to anyone receiving questions in regular hearings or for merely talking back. Furthermore, after a contempt citation toward a government official is passed by the whole chamber, the case will be transferred to a local prosecutor’s office and the adjudication of contempt charges will be the responsibility of judges in the criminal court.

Some claim that the KMT-TPP amendments to Articles 47 and 48 of the Law Governing Legislative Yuan’s Power would allow legislators to “request all needed documents” and “could easily jeopardize the regular function of the government” which “may be harmful to Taiwan’s national security.” Aside from the fact that investigative powers are the cornerstone of the U.S. Congress’ authority and the steadfast support of DPP legislators for such powers in 2016, this situation is simply another instance where critics distort the truth, akin to removing two wheels from a car and labeling it a bike. 

The KMT-TPP amendments on investigative powers are modeled upon Koo’s and Yu’s amendments in 2016. The KMT-TPP amendment to Articles 45, 47, and 48 seek to set up an investigative commission to carry out the investigative powers, where the commission would have the power to request all documents as appropriate, and where violators would be fined and can challenge the decision in an administrative court through the appeals process. The main features are essentially a replica of Yu Mei-nu’s 2016 amendment. Yu’s 2016 amendment was co-sponsored by Cheng Li-chun, now Lai Ching-te’s vice premier, and signed by Lin Chia-lung, now Lai’s foreign minister; Kuan Bi-ling, now Lai’s minister of ocean affairs; Chen Chi-mai, now DPP mayor of Kaohsiung; Huang Wei-che, now DPP mayor of Tainan; and minority leader Ker Chien-ming.

Crucially, the KMT-TPP amendment to Article 59-4 of the Law Governing Legislative Yuan’s Power stipulates that “related individuals in investigations and hearings may be assisted by lawyers, relevant professionals, or other supportive personnel present.” The KMT-TPP amendment to Article 59-5 states that individuals may refuse to testify or express opinions under the following circumstances: 1. Matters involving state secrets related to national security, defense, and diplomacy; 2. Questions or interrogations that exceed the purpose of the hearing investigation; 3. Matters for which testimony may be refused in accordance with the provisions of the Administrative Litigation Act; and 4. Matters involving the protected personal privacy or other confidential matters as stipulated by law.

DPP’s Deceptive Red Smearing Tactic

In recent discourse, there have been conspiratorial assertions correlating KMT legislative initiatives with purportedly “China-leaning lawmakers aiming to weaken the new president,” a narrative Ker Chien-ming has been pushing. It is crucial to recognize that Taiwanese political dynamics extend beyond cross-strait relations, encompassing the holistic well-being of its citizenry. When examining the ROC as a sovereign state with dignity, it is critical to adopt a comprehensive perspective that transcends Western-centric viewpoints. Taiwan, as a foreign policy focal point of many states, possesses its own unique political landscape.

The KMT has no illusions regarding the Communist Party’s intention. The KMT supports a strong national defense and deep security relations with the United States.

Chiu Yu-hong put it brilliantly. Not only do the red-smearing conspiracy theories continue to propagate anxiety among the masses, but even incidents with fully documented livestreams in broad daylight can be fabricated into parallel versions of events. Such manipulation of emotions, regardless of means employed, serves to exacerbate polarization, and erodes societal trust, all in the pursuit of mobilizing the largest possible crowds to protest against the KMT and the TPP within a short timeframe. 

In the evening of May 24, thousands of people went on the street to protest the KMT and the TPP’s legislative reform. The assembly garnered widespread attention, with English news outlets in Taiwan labeling the bills as “controversial,” to say the least. The DPP’s cause seems to be wildly popular. 

However, in a poll done by a former DPP Deputy Secretary General Yu Yin-long, over 57 percent of Taiwanese support the amendments introducing provisions related to the contempt of the Legislative Yuan, supposedly the most controversial part of the KMT-TPP legislative reform package. In the same poll, contrary to what has been presented in the media, within the age groups of 20-24 and 25-34, the opposition actually enjoys more sympathy. Over the past eight years, the DPP has accumulated a group of extremely loyal, passionate, and mobilizable supporters, and no media outlet is making a story out of people sitting at home and rolling their eyes.

No legislation is flawless. The KMT-TPP legislative reform bills are crafted with the intention of strengthening the legislature, improving institutional checks and balances, and consolidating our democracy. It is regrettable that rather than engaging in constructive discourse, the DPP opted for disruption and polarization, resorting to political violence and mobilization. The campaigns for and the results of the January elections underscored public discontent with the unchecked power of the executive branch. However, the prevalence of misinformation and deception on the internet, concealed behind smoke, mirrors, and spin, has unfortunately hijacked the dominant narrative.

To some extent, the protests have transformed into a public assault on the legislature by the executive branch. President Lai Ching-te even thanked those who encircled the Legislative Yuan. This partisan, anti-democratic practice is concerning, to say the least.

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