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The smiles and sighs of Taiwan's first culture minister

2014/12/06 18:21:55

By Christie Chen, CNA staff reporter

Taiwan's first culture minister Lung Ying-tai has said she will not return to her post following the Cabinet's mass resignation this past week. The disclosure of the new Cabinet lineup on Friday confirmed her departure from the country's highest cultural position in the government.

This signals an end to a trying 33 months in office for the bestselling writer-turned-minister, characterized by both accomplishments and frustrations at a time when public support for President Ma Ying-jeou and his government dropped to a record low.

In her farewell press conference, Lung said her initial goal to put the culture ministry on strong footing has been accomplished, and it is now time for her to leave the office and spend more time with her aging mother.

"The reason I agreed to take up this job three years ago was because it is a job that paves the 'first mile' of road" for the development of Taiwan's culture and arts, said the 62-year-old.

"I believe the groundwork or infrastructure that cannot be seen by the eyes is the most important," she said. "In that sense, I believe we have attained our goal."

[Lung (center) poses with reporters for a group selfie during the farewell press conference. CNA photo Dec. 1, 2014]

While the minister cited her aging mother as a reason for her departure, those close to her have revealed that the hostile political and media environment in Taiwan have worn her down.

It is no surprise that Lung, widely read and respected as an essayist and cultural critic across the Chinese-language community since before she took her government post, becomes an easy target for attacks -- at times personal insults -- in Taiwan's notoriously ruthless Legislature.

One prominent incident was when opposition Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Tuan Yi-kang called Lung the "most shameless" government worker over her evasion of discussing late President Chiang Kai-shek's role in the bloody crackdown against anti-government riots following the 228 Incident of 1947.

Tuan has also demeaned her as just a pretty face in the Cabinet, while others have jumped at opportunities to blast her for everything from her choice of shoes to her posture when fielding questions from legislators.

The minister herself sees the past 33 months as a bitter-sweet experience.

"I joke and say the job of the culture minister is like growing flowers in cement. The cement floor represents a society filled with distrust," she said.

"Working in the government nowadays, you can only get things done if you have the determination to go against the prevailing trend."

[During the Ministry of Culture's farewell party. CNA photo Dec. 5, 2014]

For Lung, perhaps more frustrating than personal attacks is society's indifference to what she calls "infrastructural" culture work.

After thousands of hours of meetings, for example, the ministry has finally drafted a museum law -- a move that would allow museums to establish professional corporations to develop cultural and creative products and generate sustainable revenues, and a bill that operators have been urging for 30 years -- "but would the (average) citizen know or care about this museum law?"

She said the same goes for an underwater cultural heritage preservation and protection act her ministry finished drafting in November. The draft law stipulates the protection and management of undersea cultural assets in Taiwan's waters and includes a hefty fine for violators.

Those are just two of five new laws and four amendments the Culture Ministry has drawn up over its short history of two and a half years.

"You have to be able to withstand the loneliness," the minister said, admitting she often felt "a little lonely" when pushing such non-glamorous legislative reforms.

But she has no regrets.

"It is the most honorable moment in a writer's or an intellectual's life to be able to realize his or her ideals and lay the groundwork for the country," she said. "I have no regrets. If you ask me if I would do this all over again, the answer is affirmative."

[During the Ministry of Culture's farewell party. CNA photo Dec. 5, 2014]

Even so, Lung said she is still concerned with many unfinished tasks.

The ones she finds most difficult to let go of are the 10,067 files from the White Terror era -- decades of political suppression, often through violent means, starting in the mid-20th century -- that the Ministry of Culture has inherited from the Compensation Foundation for Improper Verdicts after the latter disbanded in September.

She said the huge batch of files is crucial to building up transitional justice and democratization, and there is still a lot of work that needs to go into the organization of the documents.

Before stepping down, the minister also repeated her appeal for the public to give more encouragement to good government workers, saying that doing so inspires better results from hard-working civil servants, and a strong civil service is key to the progress of society.

Ministers step down all the time, so the progress of a country depends heavily on the quality of the civil servants under them, she said.

She added that she made it a priority to build a strong team of civil servants while in office, and she is now confident that the team will be able to tackle the many tasks ahead.

As for her own life after stepping down, Lung said she will return to "the quiet desk of a writer" and suggested she may work on a detective novel.

She stressed that the change in position does not mean a change of heart and said she will continue to care about social issues.

"I will just be operating from a different position. As a writer, when have I not cared about the progress of society?"


[Lung talks about life after leaving the minister post, and possible books on culture policies, but not what she saw or experienced during her time in the government.]