On major streets at rush hour, the two parties have people standing on street corners with signs, and handing out packets of kleenex. Here a bevy of young beauties supports the DPP.

Today began with a lightning ride up to Taipei to attend some of the events that are happening around the capital as the election approaches. First up was the ICRT Roundtable on the Election. ICRT’s Jeffrey Mindich acted as moderator of the panel, which consisted of the DPP’s own Hsiao Bi-khim, Ho Si-ying from the KMT, and three academics. Bi-khim was outnumbered, which was not to say outgunned, since two of the academics, Raymond Wu, and Alexander Huang, gave every appearance of being strongly pro-KMT. The third academic, Dr. Lin of the Academic Sinica, did a better job of appearing neutral. I was upset for Bi-khim’s sake: on an island with 160 universities, ICRT could only find one academic willing to sound uncommitted? It was an excellent example of the way the KMT’s networks continue to pay off — enabling it to get its people to key events so that it can get its talking points into the media as “analysis.”

My notes on the Q&A session are given below:

Jeff began by introducing everyone, and saying that the format called for the reps of the two parties to speak for a minute and then the floor would be open. Hsiao Bi-khim opened

She started by asking, since the two platforms do often appear the same, who is better at getting things done? In terms of general tone of campaign, she said, the DPP was now focusing on “reversing the tide.” This concept originated with the “dramatic defeat” in the legislative elections, which has generated tremendous anxiety about one-party domination returning to Taiwan, she said. “This very difficult situation leads us to talk about reversing the tide.” After mentioning Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan, she turned to the DPP’s major themes and major policies. The party’s general themes highlighted differences, including normalizing economic relations with trade, and further liberalizing trade, vs opposition to Ma’s One China Common Market. Another theme she spoke of was “the need for checks and balances vs one party domination.” “Yes” to checks and balances, “no” to one party domination. Yes to job security, no to common market. Bi-khim sounded great — on message, eloquent, forceful. Very impressive. Totally hot too. Is there a fan club I can join?

After Hsiao came Ho of the KMT. Ho was tall, well-spoken, on message, and bluntly humorous. He hit the usual KMT themes: the economy, “corruption”, rapproachment with China. Addressing the One China Market, and One Party dominance, he said that “we believe it is only natural for a political party to pursue the ruling power in the government in both the executive and legislative branches.” No one would say in the US that one party dominance is bad. As for the common market, he pointed out that the market is global. Ma wants the cross-strait common market, he said. The term “one china market”, he argued, “presupposes area limited to Greater China only.” Responding to DPP attacks on the possibility of Chinese labor coming to Taiwan, the DPP says that market is about labor mobility, but the idea that opening will result in 200 million laborers coming to Taiwan is not tenable. He said that the One China Market is very much based on experiences in Europe and other places, based on WTO rules, and that its direction is to have a deeper business relationship with China.

Mindich then compared the US election, with so many issues, to the local election, where the range of issues appears narrow. Is my perception wrong, he asked?

Alex Huang answered first. The China factor “is always there in any campaign.” He then offered the KMT interpretation of the One China issue: one campaign, he said, says shelve issues that can’t be agreed on and go for practical stuff, the other emphasizes soveriegnty. One side thinks dignity carries more weight, but other side says prosperity comes first, Huang said. Huang’s position is a caricature, and a KMT-oriented caricature at that. These little soirees go a long way to explain why the KMT is so good at getting the foreign media to absorb its positions as the conventional wisdom. I had listened to Huang frame the referendum issues to one of the foreign press representatives prior to the panel, so I got a pretty good line on what his political beliefs were.

Mindich, who seemed, at least to me, to monopolize entirely too much of the time that should have gone to the foreign press, asked whether the panel thought that voters understood the issues.

Raymond Wu answered that the presidential elections are are candidate centered, not policy centered. Both Ma and Hsieh have policy white papers, but having such policy studies, he said, is a fact of life rather than a necessity to drive the campaign. Do people actually read the thick policy papers? Wu then went on to criticize the attacks on friends and family in the election. He then went totally off topic to talk about what qualifications each candidate should have, answering a question no one had asked.

Mindich followed up by asking whether issues been ignored for the focus on person.

Jih-wen Lin of the Academica Sinica picked that up, observing that “we know from theory and empircal research that people have already made up their minds.” “Probably most voters have made up mind several months before the election.” Short-term campaign issues boost turnout and are important in tight campaigns, he said. “If the election were close…but with Ma leading in polls, so….” He finished by observing that “20 days from now” [voters] will forget everything.

Sitting there — bored to tears, and slowly coming to understand why international correspondents must sooner or later become substance abusers — I was tempted to ask why anyone would pay attention to polls from pro-Blue papers, with their long record of error, but Mindich beat me to it. I decided not to ask any questions, so that I could preserve the possibility of attendance at future events….heh.

Mindich asked: Previous polls. Do you buy the hype about polls, Hsiao Bi-khim? Have voters made up their minds?

She neatly sidestepped that issue, for as she noted, according to Taiwan law, it is illegal to discuss or disclose polls ten days prior to an election. Instead, she pointed out the absurd polls for the Kaohsiung and Taipei mayoral elections. She observed that people are not willing to disclose their preferences when one candidate or party has a dominate position in media and society.

Mindich then asked whether DPP claims that Ma is pro-China, and in the media, where Ma is sometimes portrayed as pro-China, could be hurting Ma.

The KMT’s Ho responded that when the media says the KMT is pro-China, it is a relative term. “Compared to DPP’s position, you can say that,” he added, with no little humor. Ho said that the KMT believes that there shouldn’t be any change in political symbols like anthem and flag and constitution and so in that sense, it is for the status quo. [Yes, dear reader, get out your barf bags!] This assessment Ma has been out there for many, many years, he noted, so Ma’s campaign regards this as a constant rather than a barrier.

Mindich then observed that the two candidates appear to be meeting in the middle, with Ma becoming more critical of China, and Hsieh more moderate. Ah, I would add, the power of illusion. Mindich asked whether they would meet in the middle so voters won’t know what the differences are?

Dr. Huang said that the change is a technical change aimed at undecided voters. Confirmed or committed voters will not be affected by such tactical changes.

Dr. Lin asked: who are the centrist voters? Some say they don’t exist, but they are wrong, he said. There might be more consensus between the two candidates then differences, he noted, adding that the idea is then to shift attention to other issues. “That is why the parties aim at families, at fathers.” Everything depends on the undecided voter…how many are there? he wondered aloud. “In this campaign younger people under 35 I would consider that group.” He asked: if they come up out to and increase voter turnout to 80%…who are they going to support?

Mindich then asked about the amount of mudsling compared to previous campaigns.

Dr Wu fielded that one, and his party affiliation became blindingly obvious. He started by noting that “negative campaigning is common, look at Geraldine Ferraro, and the negative campaigning by Obama’s Reverend.” (Except that there weren’t any by him, only about him, I mentally corrected). Friends and families of these two candidates were not spared by these attacks and allegations, most of which were not founded, he said. He then took off in flights of fancy. “This is not something voters are accustomed to,” he said, piously, “and the extent in this campaign took me by surprise.” (Apparently Dr. Wu just flew in from Mars this morning.) Next came the pro forma warning about DPP dirty tricks. I quote verbatim: “We about three days left before the election and you have all been here long enough to know, and you know the ‘dirty tricks’ and you know that if we have any dirty tricks — and I think we’ll see two responses by the voters — after experiencing something that happened 4 years ago today — and I don’t think that voters will be suprised by anything…” Anyone nutcase enough to believe that Chen staged his own assassination is living in a KMT fantasy world. I quote more as he moved on to regurgitate the KMT platform: “If there are dirty tricks, we are really having some very dire economic problems, and these quality of life issues are very important to voters, and I don’t think if we are unfortunate enough to have dirty tricks in the next few days, voters will buy it.” Too bad I couldn’t convey the delightful tone of patronizing warning, complete with the piously serious stare at the audience, with which Dr. Wu conveyed these important words. Dr. Wu, your special certificate for a lifetime supply of KMT Koolaid is in the mail….

Readers can see why Bi-khim spent the afternoon wearing the grimly determined look of a Japanese suicide infantryman…..

Mindich finally opened the floor to the people the meeting was ostensibly for. The first questioner was someone from a Russian business magazine, whose name I didn’t catch. He asked whether the winner from either camp would appoint a PM from the other camp. This was dealt with quickly, and then Max Hirsch, one of the best foreign reporters here on the island — [FULL DISCLOSURE: Max bought me dinner once] asked how Tibet affected the election. Max couldn’t mention it, but yesterday Ma was saying they might consider boycotting the Olympics over Tibet — and you can only imagine what will happen to the independence movement in Tibet if it fucks up the Olympics for China — and then just this morning, after Ma had attempted to separate the Tibet and Taiwan issues, Wen Jibao of China was out there claiming that Tibet and Taiwan were the same issue and China will not be split, etc. Just what we need: China getting all bombastic as an election in Taiwan approaches. I hope voters here get the message….

Alex Huang answered first, guardedly saying that information coming out of Tbet is quite opaque, so it is a difficult question. (I thought that was an admirably evasive answer). He then went on to add that international news agencies have not provided enough information to discuss it in the classrooms. Then he made his main point, which was that his morning class of 69 undergrads care more about job opportunities than Tibet. The pro-KMT slant of that point, if not Dr. Huang, should be obvious.

A woman from the VOA, Peggy Chan (Chen?) asked about Ma, Hsieh, and relations between China, Taiwan, and the US.

Dr. Lin fielded that one, saying that it is “more complicated than we imagine.” Lin offered the conventional view that a Ma election will cool down relations between China and Taiwan (MT: I suppose if you call capitulation, “cooling down”), but if China and the US warm to each other, then who is upset? he said. A Hsieh election, he argued, would be a strong signal to the US that Taiwan wants to be separate from China.

Dr. Huang added that the question actually hangs on US election, since so many assistant secretaries won’t be confirmed until this time next year.

An academic from the US China policy center at USC then asked a question trying to get a description of the voting population.

Dr. Lin answered that the voting population is not clear. There is a huge group susceptible to mobilization, but which party’s? Young people tend to have personal judgments that are perhaps positive to Ma or Hsieh, but will vote party image or issues….

Mindich jumped in to asked about the Pentagon annual report, which stated that the growing economic power of China gives it increasing economic and diplomatic tools to coerce Taiwan. Unless Taiwan can counter china’s free trade agreements that it is signing with many Asian nations, then Taiwan faces problems.

Dr. Wu observed that the possible marginalization of Taiwan in the world is a concern with. “Do we need someone to go to Beijing to break the dealock? Or can we go through Washington or some other nation?” Wu then once again veered off topic, determined to bring up issues no one had asked about. In this case he actually noted that no one asked about the referendum, but he went on to discuss it anyway.

The salon was then disturbed by a pro-Taiwan fellow, an old Taiwanese guy, who started a speech attacking the KMT (”I am Taiwanese not Chinese!) but he was hushed up and Mindich politely ignored him. He was too serious to be described as comic relief, but too comic to take seriously.

Simon from Christian Science Monitor was up next. He asked with all the different labels applied to Ma, can Mr. Ho tell us what label we should be using? Everyone laughed at that, but then he moved on to ask what changes Ma would make? What does Ma have to offer that Beijing wants to hear? Perhaps Chen can be blamed, but what really can Taiwan do? he said.

The KMT’s HO had a good chuckle over the label, evading it with a joking refusal to answer. “But bottom line is that the cross strait atmosphere must be improved. He then said, “first on the international political economy front, the KMT believes we must bow to wealth.” (direct quote, folks. My friends and I sitting there almost died laughing.) The second is tourism, which will improve cross strait relations, he added.

Bi-khim jumped all over that: “it sounds like what Mr. Ho said is exactly what my candidate is proposing.” She went on to say that Hsieh is talking about expanding flights. Because a framework for charter flights is already in place, expanded charters are most practical way to achieve that, she said. She then noted that with 70% of the island’s investment already in china, investment should be diversified to India, Vietnam, and elsewhere. She also said that Hsieh in economics has been on moderate side, “at least within my party.” He talks about normalizing trade relations. She then made an excellent observation — the One China Market is not just an economic issue, but an issue of sovereignty as well.

A long question about Tibet followed, and Mindich followed on by saying that the DPP has said that if the KMT is elected Taiwan will look like Tibet.

The KMT spokesman, Ho, said that Tibet will have only a “quite limited effect on election.” First, he argued, “we believe that most voters have made up their minds” so it really depends on how many voters will be mobilized for their cause. My count is 23% of total population.” Who is likely to be affected? he asked. The youngest age cohort. He claimed that he was in constant contact with young people, and Tibet doesn’t play a role in their voting. “I asked them if tibet will influence their voting intentions, but our situation is different. We have 90 mile strait between us and China, so it is different.” Michael Fahey, sittting next to me and kibbutzing, pointed out that those were Ma’s exact words. One way the KMT shapes the media discourse is presenting its political points as “analysis.”

Hsaio Bi-khim spoke next. She said that she agrees that “Tibet … will not create decisive waves”, but the election outcome may be close enough that a 1-2% difference in attitude change might affect the outcome. She then described how the Taiwanese and Tibetans had protested side by side, since there was a feeling that they “share a common oppression from China.” She then cleverly observed that the Tibetan Railway was supposed to bring economic opportunities but instead has only brought increased colonialism in Tibet — an oblique reference to the effects of the One China Market.

Mindich then asked what the relative quiet of Chen and Lee Teng-hui meant.

Dr. Wu answered that Chen took step backward and let Hsieh stand out. Wu then gave the strict KMT claim that Chen became symbol of division in Taiwan, and backward steps in policy. Realizing, I think, that he had gone too far, Wu then added that Chen had raised Taiwan consciousness.

Dr. Huang, said that “my personal observation is that Lee Teng-hui has always placed himself at high altitude to observe what is happening on the ground.” Huang added that Lee was hurt in the last legislative campaign. “He threw in everything into the TSU vote but was not successful.”

Ralph Jennings of Reuters asked: “moving to end of may, what is first thing your candidate will do when elected?”

Ho answered: rebuild trust with US, work on china cross-strait relationship

Hsiao Bi-khim answered: our priorities would not be too different. Hsieh has timeline for charter flights. but our society has became extremely partisan, and of course both parties must take responsibility. Bi-khim often seemed to be positioning herself for a DPP loss, for she then remarked, “For us, how do we ensure that the voice of our part of society will be heard.”

ABC News then chimed in with a question about domestic policy moves once elected.

Laughably, the KMT’s Ho said that their first move would be to strengthen transparency in government — laughable, because they’ve been blocking sunshine bills for the last eight years. He also said they would reduce the budget deficit. Ma has also promised to reduce the corporate tax, Ho said.

Hsiao Bi-khim then pointed out that there’s a fundamental contradiction between reducing taxes, reducing debt, and spending $4 trillion on infrastructure projects.

The last two questions enabled the two sides to get in their views, though, responding to a question about the KMT would control its members, Ho made everyone laugh when he growled, humorously, that you don’t control people, you control damage.

So true.