Shelley Rigger, Brown Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, is one of the leading academic authorities on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She is the author of From Opposition to Power: Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party, published in 2001. On a recent trip to Taipei, she was interviewed by TOPICS editor-in-chief, Don Shapiro. Excerpts follow.
TOPICS: The DPP seems to have a shortage of expertise and personnel in the areas of economic and financial affairs. What in the party's background or makeup accounts for that?
Rigger: A central feature of the DPP is that it started as a political movement for political objectives. And it has never had a comfortable place on the conventional left-right spectrum of politics that we recognize as the basis of political conflict in the West. The DPP has within it anybody who from the 1970s onward had discomfort or frustration with the KMT Ð including labor, environmentalists, and feminists, but also a lot of small- and medium-enterprise entrepreneurs who felt that the state-dominated sector was hyper-privileged and that they were being left out.
So you had this huge spectrum of interests and opinions within the DPP that simply can't generate a coherent economic program. One problem for the DPP in dealing with business is that there's no business or economic-related ideology underlying the party, because any time they try to develop one, they offend important constituencies.
Another factor is that the DPP is composed of people who are outside the traditional intellectual mainstream. The KMT used the educational system to cultivate people for its bureaucracy Ð both for the party and the state. People who were being cultivated as technocrats were sponsored and recruited by the KMT. What was left for the DPP were people in non-technical fields like law and medicine, but you don't have a lot of nerdy, technocrat types, because the KMT recruited those people for its own purposes.
TOPICS: Before the DPP became the ruling party, some people were afraid that it was anti-business (though others said no party in this country can afford to be anti-business). Also some people were afraid that it would be excessively pro-welfare and bankrupt the system, or be led by the nose by the environmental lobby. How have these elements in fact played out since the party came to power?
Rigger: One can overestimate the influence of those lobbies on this government by focusing on a few events. A lot of people thought their suspicions about the DPP were confirmed by the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant business. But looking at that now over a year later, it's clear that they learned a great lesson there and they have great regret. Lin Yi-hsiung [the party chairman at the time] has been blamed for having really screwed things up for the party by pushing too hard for an ideological point.
So I don't think this is an anti-business party or an anti-business administration, but it has made some forays and detours that look anti-business because it does have that ideological baggage.
The criticism that is more widespread and probably more accurate is that the DPP has sold out some of its constituencies in order to become more pragmatic in government. Someone I was just talking to in the legislature said the next big ruckus in the DPP would be a fight over the welfare bill. The minister of the interior is saying we can't afford to extend the pension plan to more people, we may have to cut back the generosity of the social welfare network, and the DPP legislators can't do that, not because of ideology but because of politics.
This is a government that recognizes it's pinched between budget constraints and political preferences. It's not so much an issue of the DPP versus other political parties as it is the executive branch versus the legislature, where the executive branch has to be fiscally responsible and the legislators have to worry about getting reelected.
TOPICS: If we could gauge the various political parties in Taiwan according to their business-friendliness, would there be much difference among them?
Rigger: No, there wouldn't be much difference. It's more a matter of what kind of business gets the ear of government. The KMT was a pro-business party in government, but it was also a hands-on economic manager, mostly for the better. You see much less of that kind of heavy-handed state-run economic style under this administration, but that's not to say they're uninterested in economic issues or in business. It's just, as we said before, they don't have the technocratic expertise or the grasp of government to implement a centralized economic plan. And at the same time, this administration is more oriented toward small and medium-sized enterprises and also the very large private ones, which as we've seen have really pulled this administration very far away from its roots in terms of opening up to cross-Strait economic connections.
TOPICS: On the cross-Strait issue, many international businesspeople with operations here would like to see opening of the Three Links, more economic interchange, the ability to bring in personnel from the PRC for meetings or training, and so on. Does that look possible given the constraints on the DPP?
Rigger: Some things are more possible than others, and those things that are entirely under Taiwan's control are the most possible. Lifting restrictions on visitors from the mainland, for example, is more feasible than the Three Links. A lot of these things aren't necessarily heavy ideological topics for the DPP, although it may require some persuasion that making certain changes is desirable. But where the DPP is more likely to draw the line is satisfying Beijing's preconditions on things that are not under Taiwan's control Ð such as establishing the Three Links.
TOPICS: When President Chen says that he accepts the desirability of the Three Links, do you accept that that's his intention or is he just paying lip service to the idea?
Rigger: Here's the deal: the Three Links has benefits and it has costs to Taiwan. There are pluses and minuses. However, in a vacuum, to quote what a DPP person said to me the other day, the "elites in my party" have a consensus that the pluses outweigh the minuses. But it doesn't happen in a vacuum. I think what we're seeing now is that, while in a perfect world they may genuinely want to pursue the Three Links, the cost that they would have to pay today to get them is too high. That's why we're seeing a rollback. And then there are people in the DPP Ð and people throughout the society Ð who question the desirability of the Three Links in the first place, on economic grounds, not on ideological or political grounds, saying this is not the cure-all for Taiwan's economic woes.
Then there's the question of whether the PRC really wants the Three Links. And if they don't really want the Three Links, or if they have some ambivalence Ð and it looks pretty clear that they have a lot of ambivalence Ð then Taiwan has to be really careful about calculating the cost. Taiwan doesn't want to be drawn into a process where the momentum of concession takes on a life of its own, and they wake up one day and realize 'man, we've made a lot of concessions and they've hardly made any at all, and we're so strung out here that we can't pull back.'
TOPICS: Why the ambivalence on Beijing's part?
Rigger: The number one reason is that if the Three Links happens, then the likelihood increases of Chen Shui-bian's being reelected. That's a real problem for Beijing. The Three Links would be good for China's economy and in the long run, most people in Beijing are convinced and I think most people in the U.S. are convinced too, it would be good for China's reunification agenda. The problem is the short-term cost for the PRC: you make Chen Shui-bian's reelection a whole lot easier.
Also, Taiwan is a fruit hanging on a tree, and the PRC would like to get it. How ripe does it need to be before you can start to pick it? It might be that you'd be better off just to wait for it to drop. The thought is that depriving Taiwan of the Three Links might be enough to weaken it enough for the fruit to drop.
TOPICS: We often read about the various factions in the party. Are there clear-cut distinctions among them and do they have an impact on economic policy?
Rigger: No to both questions. The factionalism within the DPP is something that has gotten way more attention than it deserves. Because DPP factions have official names, web sites, and headquarters, hold meetings and collect dues, they seem like a big deal. They're not unimportant, but their importance is primarily as a vehicle for managing and channeling internal party conflict and negotiation, and for mobilizing for elections, both general elections and also internal party elections. But factions are not making policy, and they are very, very, very light from an ideological standpoint.
Another thing that factions do is institutionalize the conflict within the party. And here they're not just a neutral force, they're actually a positive thing. The KMT has factions too and look what happened there. Now there's a KMT, a New Party, a TSU, and a PFP Ð and there still are factions in the KMT. So if you don't institutionalize your factions, conflict doesn't go away, it just becomes much more dangerous. The DPP factions fight it out, but they don't have to kill each other Ð or leave the party.
TOPICS: Chen Shui-bian's decision to take on the chairmanship of the party was controversial, but was defended as necessary to increase party efficiency and improve party-government coordination. Do you think it's going to work?
Rigger: It is certainly promising. It's very likely to improve coordination within the DPP. The president is still very much the first among equals. So there are conflicts of interest between the executive and legislative branches, and there are going to be conflicts of power between the president and other people who want to see their own stars rising more sharply.
But what many people have failed to notice about the DPP's internal party reform is that this is actually a compromise for the president as much as it's a compromise for the party. The president is coming down into the party headquarters, in a sense, and becoming a participant in a decision-making process that has other participants. This is not a power grab. This is a recognition that he could not govern as a lone gunman. It's really a ceding of some of his political autonomy. Whether he's really going to be able to bring himself to do that is the real question.
TOPICS: The day Chen took office as chairman the DPP swore in as members a number of government officials and some other prominent people. Do you think that's a significant step toward making the party more attractive to the technocrats and a broader cross-section of the population?
Rigger: That's really an interesting question. I think the DPP has become more palatable to a broader cross-section of society, but it's not a radical shift. The party membership has approximately doubled since Chen Shui-bian was elected, which is quite significant, but people are not beating down the doors to get in. And legislators are not defecting to the DPP as was predicted before the legislative election. The DPP's recruitment efforts haven't been as successful as they would like. Instead of a groundswell of 'the DPP is the ruling party so I want to go out and join it,' a lot of people are taking a kind of wait-and-see attitude.
There are two other aspects of party reorganization that have been totally overshadowed by Chen Shui-bian's assumption of the chairmanship. One is the reorganization of the Central Standing Committee, which has brought much more powerful people into it. Before the party reforms nobody wanted to be on the committee because it didn't do anything. And because it didn't do anything, it didn't attract important people and became even less important. Now it will have real people with real weight on it. That constrains Chen Shui-bian. He has to sit down at the table once a week with the real heavyweights from his party, and I can't imagine he'll be able to resist all the pressure they will be able to bring to bear. He will be forced to cede some influence to other people.
The other thing the party did was to put legislators in charge of the various DPP departments, which means those departments will play a more serious role. The cynical view is that this is just a way to make those legislators feel like they matter for something, but it also forces the party headquarters to shape up, because there are real people in charge of their departments now. I asked someone at DPP headquarters how things have changed, and she said "our workload has just exploded."