The Rumors Are True: KMT Presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has selected economic technocrat Vincent Siew as his Vice Presidential candidate. The Taipei Times has the call:

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday tapped former premier Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) as his running mate in next year’s presidential election, pledging to revive the nation’s economy with Siew’s expertise in finance and economics.

“Vincent Siew will serve as the architect of a new plan to revive Taiwan’s economy — rather than simply the first person in line for succession to the presidency,” Ma told a a news conference in Taipei.

Lauding Siew, currently the chairman of Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, as a great “pilot” that the nation desperately needed, Ma said he chose Siew for his rich experience and extensive contribution in the field of economics and diplomacy, along with his popularity among both the pan-blue and pan-green camps.

Accepting Ma’s offer, Siew — nicknamed “Smiley Old Siew” because of the smile he often wears — vowed to work with Ma to promote economic growth.

Unfortunately their two presentations on Siew contain factual errors. In the article above, they claim that Siew was the minister of finance, although he has never held that position. In their editorial that asks how much help Siew will be to Ma, they observe:

The only real big election Siew has run in was the 2000 presidential election. While he was elected to the Legislative Yuan in 1996, it was as a legislator at large for the KMT. Consequently it is doubtful how connected Siew is and how much weight he carries in political circles in southern Taiwan.

That too is incorrect. Siew was not selected by Party insiders as a legislator-at-large, but won a bitterly-contested election against Chai Trong-rong in his native land of Chiayi. The Taiwan Communique has the call (old Taiwan Journal piece):

One of the most hotly contested races took place in Chia-yi, in Central Taiwan, where the DPP’s Chai Trong-rong and KMT’s Vincent Siew, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, and a three-term cabinet member, ran a neck and neck race. Both drew large crowds in the thousands to their rallies. In the end Mr. Chai lost by a very small margin, to no small degree due to the Kuomintang’s largesse with new projects in the area.

In 2000, Siew lost as Lien Chan’s running mate when the hugely unpopular Lien got less than 25% of the vote. But that loss does not mean that Siew is not a good campaigner. No one could have won at the side of Lien Chan, who is probably Taiwan’s most despised major politician (Chai would eventually win the Chiayi by-election in 1997 when Siew was moved up to Premier)..

Siew (Hsiao Wen-chang) is a technocrat, a native Taiwanese who came up through the martial law regime to emerge as Premier at the end of the Lee Teng-hui era. Sixty-eight years old, he is known for his economic expertise, and is widely respected by both Greens and Blues. The China Post notes:

Apart from his economic expertise, the constantly smiling former premier — hence his nickname “Smiling Siew” — has been able to maintain good relations with different political camps, including the ruling party.

He served as an adviser to the National Economic Development Conference under the DPP administration, and as President Chen’s envoy to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

But Ma was quick to defend Siew’s loyalty to the main opposition party.

Ma, a former chairman of the KMT, said Siew was willing to work with the DPP administration only because of his concern for Taiwan’s economy.

Some in the KMT objected to Siew’s age, his links to the failures of the past, and his prior experience working for the DPP government. Ma, who always takes fire from his right whenever he attempts to position himself as a moderate, is already forced to defend his choice of Veep from his own side.

What kind of choice is Siew? The Ma camp argues that he is a native Taiwanese from the south who can help balance the ticket, Ma being a mainlander born in Hong Kong whose power base is in northern Taiwan. Ma also argues that his economic expertise will help sell the ticket as well. The KMT really has only one avenue of attack, the economy, now that Ma has been conclusively shown to lack integrity with the revelation that he was transferring government monies into his private accounts during his eight years as Taipei mayor. Siew is a serviceable weapon for any campaign based on the stagnant economy, and a strong, reassuring signal to global business and financial interests.

The China Post article above stated:

Siew pledged that he will work hard for a KMT victory in the 2008 presidential election for the well-being of the people.

Ma’s close aides were cited by the Central News Agency as saying that Siew’s economic expertise and his upbringing as a native Taiwanese from the southern county of Chiayi complement Ma’s image as a “mainlander” — which refers to immigrants who came to Taiwan in 1949 and their descendants.

The aides said Siew can help expand Ma’s support base in southern Taiwan.

The choice of Siew, who, as my father in law put it: pi hsiao rou bu hsiao — his smile is only skin deep — says volumes about where both Ma and the KMT are in the new century: still struggling with the legacy of the One Party State and its political values. Siew is respected, but being respected is not the same as being popular, and word has it that he hates campaigning, a serious problem, since as the Veep candidate that will be his number 1 job (see this CNN story from 1995 in which he admits this out loud). The Taipei Times again pointed out what many observers have been saying over the last few years — that after Ma the KMT has few, if any, up and coming stars. Instead of attempting to develop someone for the future, Ma reached back into the glory days to pick someone who still has the dimming luster of the miracle growth years. Authoritarian political thinking tends to project an idealized past onto the future, instead of cultivating a new future. Siew admirably serves those political values.

After the popular Wang Jin-pyng, currently speaker of the legislator and the unofficial leader of the Taiwanese KMT, had declined the position of second fiddle, Ma must have been faced with a difficult choice. He had to find someone who would have the backing of the Party insiders who hate him — in the chairmanship election in 2005 Lien Chan and most other key politicians openly backed Wang Jin-pyng. Picking Lien’s 2000 running mate was clever choice from that point of view. He also had to find a native Taiwanese who was acceptable to his Deep Blue base, to balance the ticket. Although the selection of Siew appears to be a pragmatic and moderate choice, he is actually selecting someone who came up through the System — a graduate of National Chengchi University in 1961, when few Taiwanese made it into the universities (a quota system discriminated against Taiwanese) and is thus politically reliable. By picking Siew, Ma simultaneously mollifies his Deep Blue mainlander core support, which is deeply suspicious of Taiwanese, by aligning a politically reliable Taiwanese firmly in the proper role of second to his Mainlander first, while appearing to be moderate and pragmatic to outside observers who tend to think that Ma is a centrist whereas he is actually a Deep Blue ideologue. The problem with that symbolism of Taiwanese firmly under Mainlander is that it is an old one, and anyone inside or outside the party can read it — yes, he is Taiwanese, but doesn’t that just make it even clearer that the KMT will never pick a Taiwanese to be President? Siew also solves another set of problems faced by Ma: he had to pick a Veep candidate who would not threaten his own power — Siew has no ambition to run things, and in any case, is too old — and he had to pick a Veep whose personality would not outshine his own. Satisfying that last requirement must have been especially difficult.

How useful in the campaign will Siew be? He won as a legislator, but after being promoted to Premier, in the 1997 elections in which the KMT was whipped by the DPP, Siew was unable to hold onto Chiayi for the KMT. Longtime Taiwan political observer Lawrence Eyton wrote at the time:

But the major contributing factor to the KMT’s humiliation was dissent within the ruling party itself. Under constitutional reforms, considerably more power will be devolved to county chiefs next year. As a result, the KMT leadership was not content to allow local factions to choose their own candidates as usual. Instead, central party bosses decided who would run. This alienated party footsoldiers who would normally mobilize the vote. It also encouraged disgruntled KMT members to run as independents, thus splitting the KMT vote to the DPP’s advantage in as many as five races.

Such bitterness and frustration resulted from this inept strategy that some KMT heavyweights have called for Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to step down as party chief. That is unlikely, if only because there is nobody with sufficient clout to take his place. Lee had hoped Vice President Lien Chan would succeed him, but after this debacle all bets are off. Taiwan provincial governor James Soong Chu-yu campaigned hard but his popularity seems to have been overhyped, while Premier Vincent Siew Wan-chang could not even keep his hometown of Chiayi for the party. Yet, lacking time to cultivate and introduce new talent, the KMT will have no choice but to rely on its wounded, discredited team to fight the legislative elections next year.

The KMT’s leadership crisis has been going on for more than a decade, as the previous generation ages but no one emerges to take their place.

What happened in Chiayi in 1997 is that Chang Po-ya, who founded the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union, an alliance cum political party of politicians with powerful local factional connections, defeated the other candidates based on her local clan links. She came from a powerful local political family — her mother and sister also served as Chiayi mayor. She leaned DPP, and would serve in high position under both the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian administrations. In other words, while Siew might benefit from a “native son” effect in Chiayi, coming from a poor family, he appears to lack the well-developed links to powerful local factions that would enable him to really turn out the vote for the KMT down there. UPDATE: Feiren pointed out in a comment that Siew is distantly related to one of the small local factions in Chiayi, the Hsiao family. The Aussie academic Bruce Jacobs, an expert on local faction politics here, wrote in the Taipei Times on the 2000 election:

In addition, the factional support for the KMT nominees remains unclear. Many suggest that the powerful Huang and Lin factions are lukewarm to the Lien-Siew ticket and some faction leaders may even provide quiet support to Soong. Only the Siew Family Squad (蕭家班) , which has become Chiayi’s third and smallest faction, fully supports the KMT nominees. But even this support has mixed value.

While no one suggests that Vincient Siew is corrupt, his three distant Siew relatives — who made possible his initial run for the Legislative Yuan in 1995 — have a strong reputation as black elements who have become extremely rich and now typify the “black and gold” behavior of the KMT.

In fact, one of the three main Siew leaders, former County Assembly Speaker Siew Teng-piao (蕭登標), is currently in detention, accused of six crimes, including blackmail and bribery. The Chiayi District Court will soon decide whether or not he can be released on bail three days before the election.

Another Taipei Times article notes:

He also pointed out that Siew had recently appeared together in Siew’s home county of Chiayi along with the speaker of the Chiayi City Council, Hsiao Teng-wang (蕭登旺). Hsiao’s younger brother, Hsiao Teng-piao (蕭登標), the speaker of Chiayi County Council, is currently under indictment on corruption charges and on the run from police. Ever since Siew appeared with the “Hsiao Family,” speculation has abounded over his relations with the family.

Premier Siew dismissed such allegations as unfair.

“I am a native of Chiayi. How could I turn the `Hsiao family’ down when they have stood behind me before? Besides, I have no contact with them now. I have no doubts about my moral integrity,” he said.

Further, because he has never cultivated a support base down south, he lacks wide regional appeal. Hence, my reading of Siew is that his background as a Taiwanese will be of only limited help to the KMT. This point was brought out in some of the lukewarm reactions to Siew from within the KMT and its allied parties:

NPSU Chairman Lin Ping-kun noted that Siew comes from an impoverished family in Chiayi, giving him a background close to the grassroots, and said that even if it is not a plus, it is at least not a minus.

But some KMT members expressed worry, saying that while Siew definitely will complement Ma in terms of his financial expertise and his being a Hoklo — the largest ethnic group in Taiwan — “the biggest problem of this ticket is that it is not fresh enough, given the current volatile Taiwan society and the preferences of the electorate.”

Some even said that “they are bracing for a drop in approval ratings for the KMT ticket in the next couple of days.”

In addition to being Taiwanese, Siew speaks some Hakka and can be expected to appeal to the KMT’s traditional allies, the island’s large Hakka community. One aspect of the KMT’s ability to retain control over the island’s local politics is that it has successfully incorporated Hakkas and aborigines into an ethnic coalition, playing to their fears that if the Hoklos (ethnic Taiwanese) ever gain control, they will be shoved aside. The current KMT chairman, Wu Po-hsiung, is a Hakka, and can also be expected to help the Ma-Siew ticket in this regard.

Overall, Siew is an excellent choice, given the constraints that Ma operates under, and given that the best choice, Wang Jin-pyng, refused to be second to Ma. One can argue that there are some aspects from which he does little to help the ticket, but nowhere does Siew really hurt it. Even his age has its positives: the fact that Siew is a decade older than Ma will help reinforce Ma’s own “youthful” image by comparison. Ma did well with this pick.

Postscript: Political blogger A-gu had this to say the other day:

2) Wang mentioned that he has not been tapped yet to be a legislator at large (and Chiu Yi is!?!? Will the KMT ever get with the program?) nor as a legislator in a district. Wang says at this point, he has no plans to run for the legislature again and that for now he simply wishes to take care of current legislative business. What would he do next?

In regards to his future plans, Wang softly smiled and said, “we’ll see.”

Potential Wild Card Wang Jin-pyng, who hates Ma, will have no official position after the ‘08 elections, unless there is some deal to make him Premier in the new government, as is suggested from time to time in the media. Wang is close to James Soong, the head of the KMT splinter party PFP, and twice a failed Presidential candidate. Soong has an immense but fading following around the island. A Wang-Soong ticket might be a formidable pairing politically. Over the next few months, the question of What Will Wang Do? is going to be an important postscript to the selection of Siew.

UPDATE: Feiren has some excellent comments on Siew’s alleged expertise.

Just exactly what is Siew’s supposed expertise?

Essentially, Siew is an expert on state-sponsored development–naptha crackers, freeways, high speed rails and that sort of thing. The kind of politician who believes that what Taiwan economy needs is even more mindless development regardless of the costs. This may well gain Ma points in some quarters, but I don’t think it bodes well for Taiwan’s economy under Ma, because what we’re getting is an old-school technocrat who simply doesn’t understand that the main problem with Taiwan’s economy is that it has long since outgrown the model Siew is familiar with.

It just shows how Ma’s “economic” strategy is essentially an appeal to nostalgia for the old developmentalist days, and not really a blueprint for forward movement into the 21st century.