Distraction Capitalism: Why We Might Hope that the Presidential Elections are not Based on China-Hong Kong Regional and Global issues

Written by  Hsin Hsin Chang and Ian Inkster.

Image credit: Hong Kong Protests by Katherine Cheng/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0

The following text argues four points. First, that since 2014 Taiwan has demonstrated a growing democratic maturity measured by a movement from simplistic dual-party politics, a greater focus on the policies needed for domestic social and economic progress, and a reduction of the earlier overweening presence of the ‘China’ issue during elections. Second, we argue that both main party leaders are now using the widespread conflicts in HK to raise the China issue to their own electoral advantage. Third, it is argued that if the outcome of the 2020 election is indeed based on a regression to the ‘China issue’ then this will be at the cost of progress made since 2014. Fourth, we claim that such a reversion could be seen as an example of distraction capitalism, in which normal democratic processes and debates centring upon policies concerning underlying and immediate social and economic issues become crowded-out by rhetoric centred upon distractions concerning a problematic future.

Many would agree that the first major fault-line in the easy KMT-DPP dualism of Taiwan politics came with the surprising performance in the municipal elections of Ko Wen-Je, an independent candidate with no background in politics. Using a coherent argument, style derived from medical training, and the elements of surprise and a refreshing transparency, Ko became mayor with 57% of the vote, 16.34% higher than the main KMT opposition. With hindsight this was a powerful insurgency against the old two-party establishments, where one side was relying on an outdated hereditary political legacy, with the other side unable to produce enough competent candidates.

Again, in the 2016 presidential election, Tsai combined a coherent reformist strategy with a scholarly disposition, and this certainly helped in removing the China issue from centre stage. Indeed, after spending some eight years on fostering closer economic ties with China without much seeming result in terms of growth of income, welfare or jobs (despite the famous ‘633 goals’) the KMT attempt to sell the idea of an ever closer cross-Strait relationship did not generate its earlier appeal. The continuing debates through the election period on ways of addressing the island’s innovation, industrial upgrade, education and pension reform, the aging population, same-sex marriage, and other social issues were a strong sign of a more mature democracy that maintained widespread policy debate throughout the turmoil of electioneering.

The 2018 municipal elections are yet difficult to judge but it might be argued that they – at least in certain regions – again represented more mature electorates resisting the older ideology of fixed political loyalty and supporting many alternatives in the form of independent candidates and new parties.

The example of Kaohsiung shows how positive reformist urges amongst the electorate were not the mere populist responses that many have branded them. Dissatisfaction of Kaohsiung electors with the DPP who had controlled the city for twenty years focused on very clear issues – neglect of the great regional cities beyond Taipei, the failures to exploit the potential of the city as a great trading port, and neglect of stimulation of those industries of specific importance to the region, which together measured the rise of a specific local consciousness.

But now the Hong Kong conflict means that the coming election might well represent a victory of distraction over the imminent problems of domestic policy. That is, a return to older ways in which the Chinese issue (variously defined) looms over all other critical discussions.

The evidence is mounting that both contenders are very ready to use the HK situation to their own advantage. On 13 November Tsai Ing-Wen responded to the effect that military and police arrests and crackdowns on freedom were precisely those of the white terror to which Taiwan did not want to return. HK represented ‘painful memories’. Taiwan fought to exit the darkness in which HK is now immersed. The HK government should not now act to save the face of the Beijing authorities. Because Taiwan is at the forefront of the world’s resistance to authoritarian expansion, ‘I would like to appeal to the international community, to those who believe in the values of freedom and democracy, to stand up and care about the situation in Hong Kong, that is out of control.’ On 26 November Tsai declared that democracy ‘will not fall from the sky, it must be defended by ourselves … It is a matter of time for Taiwan to really take Hong Kong as its mirror, and it has always existed that the mainland has interfered in Taiwan’s elections and infiltrated Taiwan society. My opponent should be aware of this … Each of us has a responsibility to stand up for the democracy and freedom that belongs to Taiwan.’

Han Kuo-Yu of course responded vigorously with the statement that the HK District Council election results were the considered decisions of a ‘civil vote’ establishing the future direction of HK: ‘Public opinion is what politics is asking for, and I sincerely appeal to the Beijing authorities and the HKSAR Government to face up to the results of the Hong Kong elections and implement universal suffrage through general elections … Here, I also congratulate all the winning district members, especially the representatives of the new Pan-Liberals, and hope that they will not forget their ideals and original intentions in the streets and insist on reform so that Hong Kong can move forward towards a more democratic and comprehensive general election and elect a Chief Executive and a Legislative Council that truly represents the public opinion of Hong Kong’.

Han was prepared to go much further in suggesting Taiwan as both an ally and model for HK: ‘The victory of the Pan-Democracy in Hong Kong is a demonstration not only of the determination of Hong Kong people to pursue democracy, but also evidence of the inability of mainland authorities to manipulate the outcome of the Taiwan election … If the CCP cannot control Hong Kong elections under ‘one country, two systems’, how can they control a free and democratic Taiwan? I deeply believe that democratic freedom is the common pursuit of humanity and value … we should cherish democracy, make good use of the vote, and reject politicians who deviate from public opinion, and elect our future … I hope that the Hong Kong Government will respond positively to public opinion and implement universal suffrage so as to restore its prosperity and prosperity to the past as soon as possible so that the people can regain a safe and peaceful life’.

The results of such rhetoric will unfold over the next few weeks, but it is reasonable to now forecast that it will cloud the Taiwanese elections, casting shadows over the ‘China credentials’ of the two candidates and their parties, hastening the return to attacks on individuals and away from critiques of domestic policies, increase the claims of Chinese interference and Taiwanese corruption, and widen the actual opportunity for both of the latter.

Readers of Taiwan Insight will readily grasp the political potential of all of this. The resurgence of the China element via the turmoil in Honk Kong serves to continue the neglect of pressing internal policy needs. Ironically, further growth of a diffused anti-Chinese sentiment prohibits giving greater policy attention in Taiwan towards those high-tech industries and services – and thus many small and medium suppliers in Taiwan – that could otherwise emerge as core elements of the Chinese belt and road global strategy.

More globally and problematically, if the Hong Kong element should indeed serve to determine outcomes, then it may be seen as the leading non-western component of a general global trend to distraction capitalism, where democratic processes that should revolve around general and fundamental social and economic policies are squeezed out by rhetorical clamour focusing on personalities, external events and one overwhelming internalised but badly digested issue. As shown in the clamours of the White House or the implosions of Brexit, this ‘issue’ never represents the fundamental policy problems, which are thereby smothered at precisely the times in which civil society is expected to make well-informed decisions through its duty to judge and its right to vote. Where judgement is precluded by a flood of dubiously sourced ‘information’ that carries little in the way of a deeper knowledge, it becomes more likely that the right to vote will no longer be sufficient safeguard against democratic collapse.

Hsin Hsin Chang is in the graduate school in International Social and Public Policy, London School of Economics. 

Ian Inkster is professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the International Journal of History and Technology.

From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.

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