By Trista di Genova / The Wild East, political beat
The Breakfast Club really outdid itself this time, inviting DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-Khim (蕭美琴) to speak at its monthly gathering on July 27. Hsiao discussed the life and work of Taiwan legislators and addressed major issues facing the foreign community, such as a double standard for obtaining dual citizenship and the dilemma of Chinese asylum seekers.
Meeting at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Legislator Hsiao Bi-Khim began by assuring the group of about 50 experienced expats that the drama and fisticuffs for which the Taiwan legislature is known “happens only when TV cameras are around.”
“The taste for blood and gossip of our media is actually part of the reason you have some problems here,” she reasoned. “To get media attention, people have to be more dramatic, exaggerate and be very forceful to get attention, which is maybe not such a positive thing. However, there are many diverse media outlets, which is important for maintaining Taiwan’s media openness,” at which point she addressed the media monopoly issue. “We want to prevent the monopoly of media outlets, especially if they have a Chinese influence. It’s an ongoing issue here.”
There’s actually a lot of hard work that takes place behind the scenes, she said, and the grandstanding behavior is just one of the almost necessary ways that legislators try to get media attention for their issues.
Besides, she said, quoting Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng: “It’s better to have fights in the Legislative Yuan than tanks in the street.”
Hsiao then spoke of important changes to the Taiwan legislature in recent years, in particular the number of legislators halved a few years ago to 79 districts, with 6 seats reserved for aboriginal representatives, “three each from the mountains and flatlands.”
Each legislator can be a voting member on one of the 10 standing committees, Hsiao explained. However, any legislator may attend the other committee meetings and ask questions, for example, but they just can’t vote.
Describing the nuts and bolts of the average schedule of a legislator, she said “Our main job here is to legislate.” This entails one-third of one’s time spent in meetings, and another third in the district they represent. Everone attends three committee meetings per week, and each has the important feature of having rotating co-chairs every week.
For example, “That means if I’m co-chair that week, I can review any bill I want, I can set the agenda for the week, and I can ask a minister to come and make a report at the meeting.”
When the legislature actually manages to pass legislation, it’s sent to the president and 10 days later bills go into effect. That seems fairly speedy to an outsider.
Overall, Taiwan’s been through a period of privatization of its state companies, Hsiao observed. She personally sits on the committee, which supervises the financial affairs ministry (Control Yuan), the national security bureau, the overseas compatriot association, and Veteran’s Affairs organization.
Hsiao spoke of one of the particularly quirky aspects of life for Taiwan legislators: ‘We’re especially busy on weekends and holidays, when funerals and activities take place.”
She pointed out in an amusing fashion that however ‘unromantic’ it might seem to have a legislator speak at your wedding, that’s not the case here in Taiwan!
One US-educated Taiwanese visitor asked why it was considered normal in the Taiwan legislature to be associated with, or even a part of, the more criminal elements in society, the triads for example – an association that might ruin the career of, say, a politician in the U.S.
Hsiao replied that she wished that sentiment was shared here in Taiwan. But it happens because the machine politics mentality here creates a ‘Catch-22’ type of situation.
People vote for candidates who are out in their districts, attending these funerals and weddings, she said. However these purely ceremonial functions takes away from legislators’ ability to work on important national issues for which they were elected.
Hsiao said that it’s possible to be a gifted legislator in committee, but if the people in your district don’t see you– and they will hold it against you if you can’t do them the “one small favor” of speaking at their wedding or funeral – constituents won’t vote for you in elections.
One of the most important issues raised in the Q&A discussion afterwards was the double standard foreigners face in obtaining dual citizenship in Taiwan. Two participants raised this issue: Why is it that Taiwanese can obtain dual citizenship fairly easily, but if say an American wants a Taiwan passport, one must relinquish one’s U.S. citizenship first?
Legislator Hsiao’s response to this question was quite comprehensive. She began by citing a number of bills she has proposed regarding immigrant rights and the Immigration and Nationality Act.
“There has been a push to open” Taiwan to dual citizenship, she began. “Since the 90s we started having immigrants wanting to naturalize. Most of those who are currently giving up their citizenship are Indonesian are Vietnamese. “
However, Hsiao said, “We have a double standard. They [Taiwanese] can immigrate to a foreign country without abandoning their Taiwan citizenship.” She cited the example of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) daughters, who both have dual American citizenship, “and legally there is no problem with that. The problem is when foreigners [want to immigrate] here and they’re required to abandon their citizenship. And not everybody is willing to do that.”
“My proposal is if you live in Taiwan more than six years you should be qualified to get citizenship.”
Hsiao mentioned how she gave up her American citizenship to run for office in Taiwan, and believes that was “a reasonable demand.” But “We should delete the requirement for ordinary citizens, and delete requiring proof of nationality.”
“For new immigrants, they have to wait 10 years to run for public office. I think this is also discriminatory,” she added.
“So this is my bill, it’s been debated in the legislature, and in general Taiwanese are open to foreigners. The problem is with the Chinese,” she continued.
“People from the PRC are recognized as ‘foreigners’, so the PRC cannot forfeit their own nationality to get Taiwan citizenship. I think it’s extraordinarily unfair,” she said.
Hsiao says her colleagues are fearful of legitimizing the Chinese campaign to open up Taiwan to more immigrants.
“There’s a lot of fear and concern about Chinese citizens coming in. They [The Chinese] ARE on another track,” she observed. “The Chinese are now demanding equal treatment, claiming they shouldn’t be discriminated against.”
“So to keep them out, she proposed, “ we should be more open to the rest of the world, in order to dilute the Chinese influence.”
“That’s been my argument,” she concluded, “and I’ve been presenting this argument in committees and debates. The good thing is it has not been thrown out. But our government, our executive remains quite conservative, and they’re not interested in adding to the law right now.”
The other refugee act is “completely blocked now,” she said, “so that for Chinese asylum seekers, there is still no basis to allow them to legally work or seek political asylum. The [currently in power] KMT party is blocking it, fearful of offending the Chinese.”
By allowing Chinese to seek political asylum here, “Taiwan would become a bastion of democracy,” she argued, “and I don’t think it would do any harm if they were basing their political activities here.”
Wikipedia’s information on Hsiao Bi-khim:
Hsiao Bi-khim (Chinese: 蕭美琴; pinyin: Xiāo Měiqín; Wade–Giles: Hsiao Mei-ch’in; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Siau Bí-khîm; born August 7, 1971) is a Taiwanese politician and member of the Legislative Yuan. Born in Kobe, Japan, Hsiao grew up in Tainan, Taiwan before moving to the United States. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1993 and Columbia University in 1995.
She is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and an important figure in DPP foreign policy circles. She is also a vice president of Liberal International.