The decay of Taiwan’s democracy?

Written by Kai-Ping Huang.

After four months’ inquiry and clarification, the Ministry of Education (MOE) officially annulled the selection of the president of the National Taiwan University (NTU) on April 27, provoking a reaction from both sides that support and oppose the decision.

The selection of the NTU president began in June 2017, following the procedures established in the University Act and related rules. The 21-member selection committee elected Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔), a chair professor in the Department of Finance at the NTU, on January 5, 2018.

Almost immediately, questions concerning conflicts of interest and unfair election results were raised within and outside the university. Kuan was an independent director of Taiwan Mobile and the chairman of the company. Richard M. Tsai (蔡明興) who is sitting on a board, was also a member of the selection committee, yet this relationship was not revealed in Kuan’s application documents and not every member of the selection committee knew about it.

In addition, when casting votes, Tsai did not abstain from voting in order to avoid a conflict of interest. Following requests from legislators and some NTU professors and students, the MOE asked NTU to respond to these doubts. Meanwhile, more allegation surfaced, further questioning whether Kuan was qualified to be NTU president. These include an alleged plagiarism case and whether Kuan held paid teaching positions in China, which is illegal in Taiwan. Professors in public universities are public servants and are not allowed to have other regular paying jobs. Therefore, whether or not the teaching jobs are in China is not the main concern. However, the China issue does touch a raw nerve with many people in Taiwan.

NTU had looked into these accusations and concluded that there was no evidence showing that Kuan was involved in plagiarism or violated any laws. The selection committee also discussed the alleged conflicts of interest between Kuan and Tsai and concluded that they did not fall under regulations designed to prevent conflicts of interest. These relations only include having family ties and being dissertation supervisor and supervisee. As to the question of whether the final result would have affected if the relationship was known to all members of the selection committee, the committee could not make any conclusive decision. Since members’ voting intensions were unknown, it is difficult to determine whether revealing the relationship would have changed the outcome.

After reviewing concerns about Kuan’s qualifications and the fairness of the selection process, the MOE, as the supervision agency of public universities, refused to confirm Kuan’s appointment as NTU president. This appointment was postponed until mid-April when the then Minister of Education, Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠), resigned. In his statement, Pan said NTU had not resolved doubts about Kuan’s suitability for the post and that the search for the NTU president had been politicized and the MOE defamed. The new Minister of Education, Wu Maw-kuen (吳茂昆), then announced that the selection result was annulled and NTU should restart the search process, leaving another six-month power vacuum in NTU. The MOE’s justification was as follows:

The members of the selection committee and the selected candidate are suspected of serious conflict of interest violations. National Taiwan University had not fulfilled its responsibilities and thus created biased and unfair competition. At the same time, there exists a clear violation of academic integrity standards.

After four months’ stalemate, the MOE still based its final decision on the initial doubts about Kuan’s appointment, disregarding NTU’s clarifications. Given that the MOE did not give any strong reasons for rejecting Kuan’s appointment, antagonism toward the MOE and the new minister mounted in the NTU campus and the wider education community. Opponents argued that the decision undermined university autonomy and NTU refused to restart the search process, while supporters contended that the MOE had the authority to make such a decision.

As the controversy and debates continue, this incident reflects the fragility of Taiwan’s democracy. The MOE certainly has the final say on the selection results since it supervises all public universities, yet its intervention should have a solid foundation.

If Kuan was proven to have violated laws and regulations, such a decision would be acceptable. However, suspicion is not the same as guilt, which can only be determined through due process. Simply making a decision based on suspicion and uncertainty not only violates the rule of law (presumption of innocence) but also human rights. If the government can annul an election result without good reason, it can rule by whimsy. On a personal level, Kuan’s reputation is tarnished and his right to participate in the new selection process is not guaranteed; the MOE is ambiguous on the issue. The MOE’s handling of the matter indicates that the government is willing to go to great lengths to reverse a decision that is against its will. When rule of law is disregarded for political reasons, the democratic polity in threatened.

Taiwan is facing a difficult time as the number of countries that officially recognize Taiwan has now decreased to under 20. As China’s economic and military power continues to expand, Taiwan is facing a stagnating economy and an increasingly unequal society. Despite these, for many people in Taiwan, their political system and democratic values are sources of pride and have become part of Taiwanese identity. If this last fortress also crumbles, there will be increasingly little hope for Taiwan’s future.

Kai-Ping Huang is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at the National Taiwan University. Image credit: CC by TEDxTapei/Flickr.

Categories: Education, Politics, TaiwanTags: , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. Henri Dutilleux

    Why would democratic values crumble when a democratically elected government refuses to accept the nominee of a 21-member selection committee of a public university? The MOE did not press the university to have a candidate of its own preference selected and it gave a justification for its decision. So, what’s the problem?.

    As for “disregarding NTU’s clarifications”: Stating that “it is difficult to determine whether revealing the relationship [between nominee and one committee member] would have changed the outcome” is hardly a compelling argument.

    “If Kuan was proven to have violated laws and regulations”, he surely would have been punished by the appropriate legal institutions. However, not to be proven a criminal or a cheater is not sufficient to qualify for president of a university. Usually, higher ethical standards are applied in democracies to persons who hold an influential office.

    As I see it, democratic values are well and thriving in Taiwan but may have not taken root in the upper echelons of National Taiwan University.

    Liked by 2 people

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