Jennifer Wang and Wang Ching-feng: Government Policy vs. Social Movements
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 10, 2010
Premier Wu recently made reference to free trade zones. He said he was considering delinking wages for foreign workers inside free trade zones with the minimum wage for local workers. Jennifer Wang, Chairman of the Council for Labor Affairs expressed opposition. She said that if the administration delinked the two, she would resign. Jennifer Wang's tough stance echoes that of former Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng, who stepped down rather than execute prisoners on death row. The two are mirror images of each other.
President Ma is approaching the middle of his four year term. The arguments advanced by Jennifer Wang, Wang Ching-feng, and Director of Health Yang Chi-hong, who attempted to resign over the issue of health insurance premiums, have captured public attention. Viewed in a positive light, political appointees sticking to their guns is impressive. Viewed in a negative light, the situation reveals problems of compatibility within the Ma administration. It also underscores the difficulty of reaching compromises on policy.
When the Ma administration was formed, it consisted of three categories of people. The first was political appointees with governing experience. The second was social activists such as Jennifer Wang and Wang Ching-feng. A third was intellectuals from academia. It is not difficult to understand how this situation came about. One group has cool heads and technocratic expertise. Another group has the ambition and desire to return to power. But when one reviews the actual record for the past two years, one finds the veteran bureaucrats' performance is often mediocre and out of synch. Political appointees with backgrounds in various social movements introduced a breath of fresh air. But they could not tolerate bureaucratic rigidity, became weary, and one by one left the administration. Political appointees from academia offered a variety of public and private reasons for their departure.
To be fair, Jennifer Wang and Wang Ching-feng's performance in the cabinet won them public respect. Their private conduct and public images were exceptional. Their job performance was considered praiseworthy. Wang Ching-feng resigned over the death penalty. The public did not agree with her. But she held firm to her own convictions. Such resolve is indeed rare. Jennifer Wang fought for jobs for workers during the economic downturn. Yet she was booed at labor gatherings. She wept silently when questioned in the legislature, revealing the depth of her feelings. Yet she was blasted for defending the 22K policy. She found herself caught in the middle, attacked by both sides. For her delinking the minimum wage may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Jennifer Wang and Wang Ching-feng each have a final arbiter in their own minds. Each considers it their non-\negotiable bottom line. The problem is that a government seldom operates in such a clearcut, straightline fashion. Decision-making often involves difficult back and forth compromises between harsh reality and one's moral bottom line. Only then can one make a breakthrough. Take the minimum wage for example. Suppose the issue of exploitation by employment agencies can be addressed, and workers receive their original level of real income? Is delinking wages really a sacred cow that cannot be touched? Not necessarily.
A properly functioning government apparatus must strike a balance between the considerations of bureaucracies and the ideals of social movements. It must adopt a professional posture and relentlessly seek breakthroughs and improvements. Over-reliance on bureaucracy makes one susceptible to conservative thinking and complacency. Excessive ideological zeal in pursuit of quantum jumps, as demanded by social reformers, may lead to zero-sum confrontation between reality and idealism.
Wang Ching-feng insisted on abolishing the death penalty. Her resignation may have preserved the purity of her personal convictions. But from a larger perspective, her hardline stance provoked public resentment and paradoxically compelled the Ministry of Justice to step up executions. She not only provoked social divisions, she undermined the Republic of China's human rights image. Under the circumstances, Wang Ching-feng's insistence on her own ideals was not necessarily a plus.
Jennifer Wang insists on linking the minimum wage with wages for foreign workers. Her position is the result of her long term involvement in and commitment to the labor movement. She now occupies an important post, one that enables her to delink wages without harming labor rights and to reach a win/win result. She need not sacrifice herself on the altar of her conscience. On this point, labor groups may wish to share their views. They should not be in such hurry to confront this former comrade and ally. After all, if a political appointee who weeps over the plight of labor is driven out of office, what is the likelihood her replacement will be better?
President Ma's approval ratings have risen and fallen over the past two years, allowing us to witness the tug of war between bureaucrats and social reformers within the Ma administration. Governing is not social reform. Nor is governing allowing bureaucrats to govern by the book. Governing requires finding a middle ground that enables progress. Wang Ching-feng's resignation has made the death penalty even more intractable. A solution for the minimum wage issue can be found. Jennifer Wang must not make the same mistake as Wang Ching-feng.
If on the second anniversary of the Ma administration, all those who have resigned from the cabinet are social reformers, the public will find itself speechless.
2010.05.10 02:27 am