Written by Brian Hioe.
During the Sunflower Movement, one of the many carnivalesque moments proved to be the transfiguration of respected politicians – such as then-president Ma Ying-jeou and his vice-president, Wu Den-yih – into animals.
Many artistic depictions of Ma in the occupation encampment depicted him as having the bodily traits of a horse, such as a horse head, seeing as his surname is the same character as that for “Horse.” Other depictions saw Ma become part-deer, part-human. Ma was scoffed at for a gaffe in which he referred to deer antlers as hair growing out of their ears, which led to depictions of Ma as, similarly, having antlers growing out of his ears.
Critics of Ma had also long referred to him as “Ma Ying-gau,” changing the last character of his name to that for “dog.” This is because the last character of his name sounds the same in Taiwanese Hokkien as the pronunciation of “dog.” However, one saw relatively few canine depictions of Ma during the Sunflower Movement.
Wu was more often depicted as a part-man, part-dolphin creature. Wu had in previous years earned the moniker of “General White Dolphin.” This took place after the construction of a landfill and naphtha cracker by Guoguang Petrochemical Technology Company (國光石化), which led to criticisms about threatening the habitat of the endangered Chinese white dolphin near Taichung Harbor. In response to a query by a journalist, Wu claimed that the Chinese white dolphin has an “innate ability” to make U-turns, which would allow it to avoid the landfill. The term became a way of poking fun at the perception that Wu was himself prone to political U-turns.
Depicting politicians, such as Ma and Wu, as animals would be a means of pulling down esteemed figures in the public eye from their pedestals and, in this way, transform them into objects of mockery. However, with the subsequent rise of the Tsai administration, we have seen politicians embrace the use of animals as a way to bolster their public images; to seem more approachable and less aloof. This has mainly been the case with President Tsai Ing-wen. Additionally, during 2018, the DPP took beatings in nine-in-one elections. The year also saw the rise of Han Kuo-yu. The latter being a charismatic KMT politician, appealing to voters by presenting himself to be a man of the people. This is despite his somewhat crass persona, which stands in opposition to those politicians who actively cultivate a sleek and polished image.
One of the strategies that Tsai sought to embrace, then, was using her pets as a means of outreach. One of Tsai’s more memorable campaign ads was a five-story billboard above the Taipei Bridge featuring Tsai holding her cat Think Think. The advertisement touts Tsai’s accomplishments in cutting taxes, while a speech bubble from Think Think says “Buy me more treats.”
Another campaign stunt involved allowing visitors to pet and interact with Tsai’s three dogs—which were adopted by Tsai after she won the 2016 presidency—in the DPP’s public campaign office. This led to a flurry of individuals going to the DPP campaign office to take selfies with Tsai’s dogs.
International media subsequently termed Tsai an “Iron Cat Lady,” riffing off of the moniker of “Iron Lady” given to Margaret Thatcher. Han unsuccessfully seemed to try and mimic Tsai’s strategy belatedly, in releasing campaign advertisements featuring his Shiba Inu that started to appear relatively late in his campaign.
Other DPP politicians have sought to replicate what they saw as a successful strategy by Tsai, in spotlighting their pets. Chen Chi-mai was defeated by Han Kuo-yu in the 2018 Kaohsiung mayoral elections but became increasingly popular afterwards. In particular, there was a livestream by Chen after his defeat. During this event, his pet cat kept getting in the way of the camera, which became very popular on social media. Eventually, this led to Chen featuring his cat in billboard advertisements – similar to Tsai’s Taipei Bridge ad – when he ran in June for the Kaohsiung mayoral by-election after Han’s ouster following a recall vote in June 2020.
Taiwan’s representative to the United States and former DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim—who is, coincidentally, the original person that found Think as a stray and gave her to Tsai—has sought to play on Tsai’s international image as a “cat lady.” After taking up a diplomatic post as Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Hsiao claimed to be a flexible “cat warrior” that was capable of dealing with China’s “wolf warrior” tactics. This refers to the hardline stances taken by Chinese diplomats abroad, particularly concerning public comments on social media. Hsiao has used this moniker several times in public comments. Nevertheless, some in the DPP have questioned whether party politicians have leaned too heavily into advertisements featuring pets, leading DPP politicians not to be taken seriously in the international world.
At the same time, one can observe the DPP’s strategy as being in line with how influencers use social media to reach out by creating memes about its politicians. Tsai’s use of animals in campaign advertisements took place at the same time as other efforts by Tsai to soften her image, such as wearing Hawaiian shirts during public appearances or making public appearances with prominent social media influencers and YouTubers such as Potter King or Tsai A-ga.It is to be noted that animals themselves can be seen as a category of influencers. For example, there are several popular accounts on Instagram devoted to specific cats or dogs.
One can observe a similar phenomenon when Tsai was depicted as having animal-like traits such as having cat ears. Younger pan-Green politicians have also embraced similar images. They wear cat paw gloves or lobster gloves or mussel wings while waving to the public on the streets. This is a way to shake up how politicians traditionally wave to members of the public while wearing white gloves. Examples include Lai Pin-yu and Lii Wen of the DPP, all individuals that entered politics after the Sunflower Movement.
The depiction of politicians as animals thus comes full circle. Whereas such depictions were previously used as a way to mock pan-Blue politicians, embracing such images is now seen as a strategy of pan-Green politicians aiming not only to connect with young people but also to engage in playful self-mockery.
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. This article is part of the special issue on new media. He tweets @brianhioe
This article is part of a special issue on animals and society in Taiwan