Changing the Face of Politics Podcast
Episode 6: Seyi Akiwowo interviews Bi-Khim Hsiao
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this inspiring conversation, Seyi Akiwowo interviews Ambassador Bi-Khim Hsiao, Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office about gender equality and democracy in Taiwan and the importance of representation.
Seyi Akiwowo: Hello. Welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Seyi Akiwowo and I am the Founder and Executive Director of Glitch, a small charity dedicated to ending online abuse and championing digital citizenship in the UK. My amazing guest today is Ambassador Bi-Kim Hsiao, who is the Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. Ambassador, what do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision making in the last 25 years, and what has stubbornly stayed the same?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well you know, statistics show that we have made some progress around the world. There have been increasing number of women in elected representative offices in many countries around the world. We have made inroads, we see women actually reaching 50% in a few countries and over 40% in many others. But of course, there's more work to be done and I don't think we'll see true equality unless we have at least 50% women in terms of representation. We also have a number of outstanding women in top leadership positions as heads of state and we have witnessed their character, their leadership throughout the pandemic crisis. And there have been many analyses on the character of women leadership in terms of the different aspects of leading their countries through the pandemic crisis and I think that is worth noting. However, there remains problems. We see political crises around the world involving refugees, involving conflict, involving areas that are in your specialty corner, online bullying, online abuse, that even though are not gender specific issues, but very often the victims tend to be women more frequently than men. And I think we do need to pay attention to the changing environment for political discourse, including the transition into digital space, cyber space, and what that also means for gender equality.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah. Thank you so much. Can I ask a personal question? What motivated you to get politically-active? Was there a personal connection to an issue or political party, your family?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well I think multiple experience in life actually led me to politics. My interest in politics started while I was in college. I studied in the United States and prior to attending college, I had intended to study other fields like science, I think, even math. However, on my campus there were a lot of discussions about general social justice issues. Not only domestically in the United States, but around the world. Gender issues, race, class, global politics, all of these drew my interest and I started to get involved in the fact that Taiwan as a country requires greater international participation and the unfairness of excluding Taiwan from the global fora for international discourse on dealing with these issues. And that kind of drew my interest into being involved in Taiwan's international space. And so, after leaving school, I immediately got involved in a political party that had offices in Washington, DC, but, really going back to Taiwan to get involved directly into political process and electoral politics was actually an incident where we were having our first ever presidential election.
Seyi Akiwowo: Wow.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: The Chinese, the PRC decided to threaten us for having those elections by test firing missiles towards Taiwan. And I felt that was just totally unacceptable. I mean, we were celebrating a process of democratization and we had fought very hard to bring about those basic rights of electing our own political leadership after 37 years of martial law. It was a time to celebrate, but we were being threatened. And in the meantime I was in the United States, I felt I should go back to Taiwan and be part of that change to stand with my colleagues in the democracy movement. And so I returned, I started getting directly involved in the political process and in 2001, I decided to run for office myself.
Seyi Akiwowo: Wow. That's so brave. How did you, how did you combat the fears or the anxieties around that?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well the fact was that all of Taiwan was being threatened and it has been a long process actually, and, and it, and it's an issue for many democracies democracy doesn't just fall from the sky. Freedom is not free, you have to fight for your freedoms. You have to fight for a democratic process in which people feel empowered, in which sovereignty belongs to the people. And it was not easy to arrive at where we were in ‘96. Of course, in my generation, we had the privilege of coming of age after the martial law, but we understood well that many of our predecessors had to sacrifice their freedom. Some of them were exiled or imprisoned in this fight. And so I think I wasn't particularly courageous because I was among many people who had the same commitment and the fact that we were in it together, I think was quite empowering and made, made the cause feel, that we were making progress that, that there was solidarity in the process. So, but the hard thing about it is we had our first ever election in ‘96, we've had several elections, we've seen the first democratic change in government, in my country. But still, we are facing external threats of military attacks in each democratic process and in each step we try to take in terms of international representation.
Seyi Akiwowo: Wow. And, and did you - when you stood for election in 2004?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: 2001, yes.
Seyi Akiwowo: 2001, wow. Could you tell me about how that was for you?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, well, for me, that was my first election and I was relatively young at the time. And prior to that, actually in the academia, I had studied, I had taken women's studies courses, I had taken, had been involved in various campus activities concerned about social justice, but actually being there in politics myself, you, you feel that all the theories that you study are nothing in comparison to the hardships that you actually face in politics, all the stereotypes on, on women, all the prejudices. And, and of course, I think Taiwan society has changed a lot now, 20 years later after my first attempt in an election. But at the time I had to confront stereotypes that I was involved in politics because of a certain gender relations or I was even falsely accused of having an affair.
Seyi Akiwowo: No!
Bi-Khim Hsiao: In the assumption that women are in certain positions because of certain sexual connections. I think that was horrible accusation. And I actually felt so angry that I wanted to fight it and for myself, but it was not easy as a young woman. And the press, the media, they tend to be more interested in how you dress. They never ask a man what type of suit they wear or the color of his suit, but they pay attention to these aspects of women politicians, or their family relations and all of that. And, and you have to work twice as hard as men to be taken seriously. So, I had to take my job very seriously. And actually in the beginning, I wore black to work every day because I felt it was so much more formidable and there would be less discussion about how I looked or what I wore and more discussion about what was in my mind and what I advocated and the legislation that I brought to the floor. So I did have to overcome a lot of stigma that is traditionally attached to women in politics. And, another reality is in Asia, many women in politics initially come from families or other, a father, a brother, someone else in the, or how does husband in the family who was a politician and the woman inherits that legacy. And very often the women actually do better than their other male family members. But in Taiwan, what we had to deal with was of course we were, are, involved in politics independently of any family involvement. And we have many women in this position and to break through those traditional expectations of the role of, of women in the family, of the role of women out being public, being outspoken, being confrontational sometimes when we disagree on political issues. There was a to overcome in the initial stages, but fortunately for many of us we've come a long way. And I'm so proud to say that in 2000 we elected the first woman vice president.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yes!
Bi-Khim Hsiao: None of them came from political families, they're elected and their personal involvement in their struggle for gender equality and political justice was very much an independent initiative. And I think we are all very proud of that.
Seyi Akiwowo: That's amazing. And you're absolutely right that we need to look at women, women's progression in politics through an intersectional lens to make sure we're understanding representation of different caste systems and and sex, as well as class, as well here in the UK class is a massive factor. And we had to have political dynasties here in the UK. So I think, yeah, it's really important that when we look at progression of women in politics, that we have a bit of a forensic lens on that. Absolutely. And yeah, your story of how resilient you are and sure, I can see why the NDI team paired us together, because I think we've got a very similar story. I started my political leadership career at a young age, was elected at 23 and had to fight lots of like the stereotyping you said, and like channel the anger of the, the rudeness and the stereotyping into wanting change and being really focused, as you said, I think being focused on the vision of democracy and, and better international relations I think is one advice I try and give young people around staying focused and having that vision because there's going to be a lot of turbulence and backlash.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes
Seyi Akiwowo: But when we talk about gender equality and representation in politics, let's take a step back and have a conversation on why do you think it is important that we have more women engaged and where do we think their particular engagement leads to? What is the impact? Do you have any examples that you've seen in your country?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well I think the reality is that no democracy is complete without the representation of half the population
Seyi Akiwowo: I agree
Bi-Khim Hsiao: And women in all levels of leadership is absolutely important. Also statistics show that countries with a greater degree of gender equality are actually, society is more progressive, the economy is more prosperous also with more women involved in the workforce and in leadership positions in the private sector as well. So I think the statistics, as well as the moral agenda of greater justice all lead to the call that we do continue to need greater gender equality and political leadership.
Seyi Akiwowo: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree with you, just on the lens of democracy and how it works and its key principles. If you don't have 50% of the population there, then it's not really democratic. In the UK, I've definitely seen that when more women and girls are engaged in politics, there are, the policies are just better. They're more inclusive, they’re thinking of and championing more lived experience. Do you have any examples where you've seen the impact of women and girls engaging in democracy?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, I raised the current condition on the crisis of the pandemic in the beginning and the fact that many women leaders have done relatively well in fighting the pandemic. I think it is because women do tend to be inclusive and able to multitask on, during challenging situations. And so I do think having women in those top leadership positions and including different sectors of society in a project that does require different dimensions and inclusivity, having that leadership and representation is absolutely important.
Seyi Akiwowo: Completely, completely agree. I've definitely noticed that again here in the UK, we've not seen as many women that look like me or women more broadly making decisions around COVID lockdown and building back. And so we had discrepancies here in the UK with barbershops being allowed to be open, but not hairdressers and beauty salons. And so, yeah, it's just, it's just yeah, really weird and shows how important it is to have all forms of representation.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes.
Seyi Akiwowo: What surprises you about being in public life and political office? What have been the pluses and minuses for you and your family?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, I think after being in politics for so long, and I, of course we go through ups and downs and that's the reality of democracy. You have elections and they are, there are successes and there are failures. And I think what's important is to always learn from those defeats and the failures to understand how you can improve yourself and connect better with the people that you seek to represent or with the people that you seek to serve. And so I think in the beginning, we're never setting out to prepare for failure, but I have learned over the course of time that we do have to deal with frustrations, we do have to deal with defeats, but the goal in life is to make those, the opportunities for strengthening ourselves and for making us even stronger for confronting even more challenges in life. And in public life and political office the realities of democracy is that there will be daily challenges. And I think one thing that has changed over time is the change in the type of media and public communication. You know, 20 years ago or even 30 years ago in my society, in Taiwan, media was still a government monopoly 30 years ago, but as we gradually liberalized, there were different voices represented. But now, media is actually a citizens’ participation project. And while 20 years ago you had a day to respond to a news cycle before the newspaper print went out to print for the next day, today you have to respond immediately to crises situations and very often your time for serious or sophisticated analysis of the situation isn't adequate when you are compelled to respond immediately to a situation. And so we are confronting a very different way of public communication when dialogue might be much more abrupt, shorter, and rapid. And the downside of that is that I think we lack the ability to be much more comprehensive, analytical, and assessing all of the factors involved and the pace of politics, the pace of public communication has just become so rapid that we kind of lose sight of the deeper analysis and the need for in-depth thinking on the perspectives that we present. So that is a challenge. And I think we have to constantly find a balance in that.
Seyi Akiwowo: I completely agree. We, at Glitch, champion digital citizenship, and it's about understanding that the same way we have rights and responsibilities with human rights offline, so free from harassment, intimidation, it also applies online and, and digital rights in it of itself requires responsibility. And it feels like we've accelerated the digital rights aspect of it, but not had a conversation about what our responsibilities are when we are on those online spaces. So yes, it's great that it allows for greater participation, it's great that it allows us to connect, and build ideas. But what about the, what about making sure, as you said, it's quality ideas as in-depthness, that it's not sensationalized, it's not rapid response. And also there'll be allow people to change their minds. I think for the way that certain social media platforms are set up, it's so combative and that you have to have an opinion straight away, like you said, straight away, you have to have an opinion and you have to stick to it because of digital footprint doesn't allow us to to change our minds and for there to be ebbs and flows and refinement. And I think that is in conflict with democracy because democracy is always about changing of ideas, progression, debate, voting, and convincing. And I don't know how much social media adds to that point. And I think it alarms me because we are going to have massive conversations about the world and about our respective countries happening online, because lockdown has seemed to continue. So we're going to be having conversations about lockdown measures and about, as life has to go on, so civil liberties need to be discussed and health policies need to be developed. How do we have those really important conversations online when we haven't set up the framework? Do you have any ideas around how we could do that?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, it's complicated. And again, the world is changing so rapidly that we are dealing with multiple complexities at the same time. And I want to add some dimensions of the new challenges in terms of the online space. And that is the lack of privacy. And especially for those in public life, with multiple opportunities for photos and posts to be shared in the public space, I think politicians or other public figures of who had previously the room to balance a public life and a private life, or even family life are actually losing that space. And everything has become public. You know, that is one challenge, of course, for anyone who wants to be involved in public life will have to confront. Another aspect is the fact that a lot of the online discussion comes from anonymous sources. And when you want to have a real, responsible discussion you tend to want to know where people are coming from, what are their aspirations and what do they represent, but when you are having conversations with anonymous trolls, or individuals in multiple identities, I think that also complicates the quality of the public discourse and the quality of political responses.
Seyi Akiwowo: I completely, yeah. Completely, completely, completely agree. And do you think there's a gendered element to that as well? Do you think that it's harder for women in politics and public life to have privacy, or do you, and do you feel like that then extends for their family and their loved ones?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: You know, privacy challenges, it's not a gender specific issue. However, I do think there is, there tends to be more of a focus on the private life of women political leaders. And as I said in the beginning, in my own coming of age involvement in politics, I think there tends to be a greater emphasis on those aspects while women do have to work harder to rebalance the public attention on the public issues that really matter
Seyi Akiwowo: Absolutely 100, yeah, completely agree. Time has flown. It's been such a good conversation. I have one last question, if you don't mind.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Sure.
Seyi Akiwowo: Has the COVID 19 crisis influenced or changed your political viewpoints at all?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, Taiwan is in a unique situation in the COVID crisis because we had a headstart and we have managed the COVID crisis relatively better than some other countries. To date, we have just over 500 confirmed cases and seven deaths. Of course, that is a tragedy in itself, but relative to many other countries, I think the people of Taiwan have managed it in a fairly successful way. And we're quite proud of that fact, but the, I think my own perspective and conclusion on that is that in every significant challenge that we face, you do require public-private partnerships, you do require a good public communication strategy, and you do require transparency. I think that is a lesson that we have learned throughout the pandemic crisis. And the fact that some countries still lack democracy and transparency and accountability is actually a humanitarian crisis. You know, some people tend to say, well, this is a space of internal politics of one country or another, and that others should not have a say in it, but the reality is that as humanity, you cannot put borders around a virus, you cannot put restrictions over a humanitarian crisis. These are issues that we, as human beings, have to work on together. And so inclusiveness and broader participation, the need for good public communication and transparency have been highlighted throughout this crisis as absolute necessities. And I think that's a lesson for us, but it's also a lesson to the world on the importance of democracy and transparency.
Seyi Akiwowo: Completely agree. Thank you so much for your perspective on that. And the honesty around public conversation and dialogue needs to be better and needs to be honest. And I think, and, and how we update people. So being honest that we don't have all the answers because no one knows what this COVID beast looks like, but let's, but we make a promise to continue update you or take you to this journey and then from there's another touching point. I think infantilization around governments, not treating the public and democracy as children, but as some of that respect, I think it's completely true.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes, you're absolutely right.
Seyi Akiwowo: Thank you so much for your time, Ambassador. I've thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and learning so much about your journey. It's been hugely inspirational to me. Do you have any final words of reflections you'd love to share before we have to sadly end this podcast?
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, I want to thank you for taking time to engage in this conversation with me. I think a lot of women have personal stories, but we also have public stories and overcoming hardship is something that almost every woman has in common and by sharing our experiences and best practices, I think it helps to inspire more women, just like I have been inspired by some great women, pioneers and fighters on the journey of democracy and equal rights. And so I want to thank you for this opportunity, and I certainly hope that we can engage with more women on the course of discussing issues relevant to equal rights in the future.
Seyi Akiwowo: Thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure. Take care.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Thank you.
Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.