Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to govern Taiwan

藍鼎元 (Lan Ding-Yuan, 1680-1733)

All students of Taiwan history know this phrase "三年一小反,五年一大反", a description of the difficulty in governing this beautiful island, "an uprising every 3 years, a revolt every 5 years". This is not a Taiwan proverb as commonly believed. It was coined by 道臺Tao-tai, Xu Zhong-gan徐宗幹 (1796-1866, as Taiwan Tao-tai in 1848), originally "三年小反, 五年大反" published in the 治臺必告錄 [The Essential of Governing Taiwan, edited by Xu] and his personal journal 斯未信齋文集.

Indeed, from 1696 to 1892, there had been 138 anti-Qing incidents in all, involving mostly the Han people and in some cases, the Aborigines. Was Taiwan a land of lawlessness full of ruffians, pirates, criminals, and murderers? Or was it the common Taiwanese folks simply trying to send a message? Why did the rebellions and uprisings take place at all and so frequently too?

We'll now provide some explanation:

Needless to say, people move to another land to seek a better life. This has always been true throughout the ages in Taiwan. The Hokkienese and others migrated to Taiwan, starting in the Dutch rule, through the Ming-Cheng era, indeed to leave behind a life of extreme hardship in China. Despite the ban during the early Qing rule, this migration continued unabated.

After the sacking of the Ming-Cheng Kingdom by Shi Lang in 1683, the Qing regarded Taiwan merely as a piece of conquered land, to be stripped of its wealth and riches and the spoils to be shipped back to China. In essence, a colonial governance was imposed. The ruling principles therefore did not include economic development of the land or the construction of defendable cities/towns. Instead, the Qing expanded the taxation system based on that from the Dutch and Ming-Cheng periods, i.e., the land and head taxes, while at the same time, levied an additional mind-boggling number of new taxes. As a small example, not only land farming, all manners of fish farming were also taxed. Plus, exorbitant licensing fees were charged to all commercial and fishing ships, even tiny ferry boats. Where applicable, the tax rates were much higher, from 10% to 3 times more, than those back in Mainland China.

These days, one can e-file income tax and pay land taxes at 7-11 without ever seeing the face of a taxman. Not so during the Qing rule. The extortionary taxation implemented by a corrupt officialdom was aided and abetted by thuggish enforcer-taxmen and soldier-turned loan sharks. In other words, the encounters were quite personal: either pay up or risk bodily harm, imprisonment, confiscation of properties, and loss of family members.

The officials posted to Taiwan were often of questionable character. Their sole mission was to get rich by extracting as much as possible from the populace whose welfare be damned. Worse, each official was assisted by a contingent of law enforcers known as Li吏. The Li's were in fact Mafia enforcers on steroid (no offense). This was a well-recognized festering sore of the Qing rule (more below). Then there were the soldiers of the garrison force or loan sharks from hell, who often lent money, gained from illegitimate means, to a good number of Taiwanese who could not afford to pay off the taxes. The rate was quite high, for example, at 0.5% compounded daily. Missing one payment and the paid interest was nullified only to start all over again. This was known as the 五虎利 [five-tiger interest]. "Tiger" was mentioned together with the gov't in the Confucius fable of 苛政猛於虎 [living under a despotic gov't is worse than living with a (man-eating) tiger]. Five tigers was an euphemism which does not even begin to tell what the Taiwanese had to endure.

The presence of the thuggish enforcers persisted to the end of Qing rule of Taiwan. The Royal Commissioner to Taiwan 沈葆楨 (Shen Bao-zen, 1820-1879) in his report to the Qing Court "請移駐巡撫摺" opined that "始由官以吏胥為爪牙, 吏胥以民為魚肉 (the officials enable the Li as their claws and teeth abusing and extorting the common people)". This was during the Mu-Dan-She Incident in 1874.

Lured by the rumor 台灣錢淹腳目 [Taiwan is ankle-deep in money], the migrants continued to come. However, realizing that life was no better or even worse than the one they had left behind, the suppressed got organized, again and again, and attacked the suppressors in the vain hope of gaining self-rule or independence. This was the history of the 213 years of Qing rule of Taiwan. It is fair to say that a residual visceral distrust of the central government continues to this day - a sentiment apparently still unknown to the Chinese of today.

Had the problem been addressed before? Yes. And this brings up the story of 藍鼎元 (Lan Ding-Yuan, see photo above). Lan followed his older cousin to Taiwan, the latter was charged with putting down the large-scale revolt of 朱一貴 (1721) and the subsequent popular unrests. Lan was a learned scholar who offered these observations, "臺民喜亂,如撲燈之蛾.死者在前,投者不已 (The Taiwanese love to rebel, just like moths attracted to the flames, dying one after another)" and "方慶削平,又圖復起 (Just getting ready to celebrate a mission completed, the insurgence starts up again)" - kind of blaming the victims. Although, Lan did study everything Taiwan, including its society, politics, economy, military, and the geography, custom, religion, and education. He then proposed the 19 rules of how to govern Taiwan. In his 平台紀略說 [A Synopsis of Governing Taiwan, 1731] they were, "信賞罰 (institute believable reward and punishment), 懲訟師 (penalize the lawyers), 除草竊 (weed out petty thefts), 治客民 (reign in the Hakka), 禁惡欲 (ban evil greed), 儆吏胥[punish the Li], 革規例 (reduce regulations), 崇節儉 (encourage thrift and savings), 正婚嫁 (normalize marriages), 興學校 (build schools), 修武備 (re-build military), 嚴守御 (restrict the garrison), 教樹畜 (teach husbandry), 寬租賦 [cut taxes], 行墾日 (till undeveloped land), 復官庄 (restore official fields), 恤澎民 (help the people of Peng-hu), 撫士番 (compensate the Aborigines), 招生番 (civilize the Aborigines)". Did any of these work or even implemented in the first place? From the number of armed revolts after 1731, a no across the board. In fact, even if only two [high-lighted in red] had been instituted, Taiwan would have become a much different place, possibly even the proverbial jewel on the Qing crown. Instead, Taiwan was handled as a hot potato, to be tossed at the first opportunity. That became true in 1895.

Lan also had succeeded in petitioning the Qing Court to relax the ban on the officials' bringing family members to Taiwan. The Lan family and followers stayed in Taiwan and settled in 阿里港 in Pintung [now 屏東縣里港鄉] where their descendants still reside.