Taiwanese Party Crowd-Funds the Old Way - via Piggy Banks

  • In era of online giving, Tsai seeks coins from `pig farmers'
  • Opposition chief leading polls in effort to unseat ruling KMT

As small, digital donations propel insurgent candidates from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders in the U.S., one opposition party an ocean away is relying on old-fashioned pocket change to fuel its rise.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party could unseat the well-heeled Kuomintang and win both the presidency and the legislature for the first time in island-wide elections less than three weeks from now. The party’s surge has been funded largely by loose coins -- lots of them, collected in thousands of colorful, plastic pigs, each no bigger than a football.

The ’Piggy banks’
The ’Piggy banks’
Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

The DPP credits the piggy-bank fundraising campaign with bringing in NT$260 million ($7.9 million) during standard-bearer Tsai Ing-wen’s first, unsuccessful bid for president four years ago. That sum -- more than 140,000 pigs worth -- represented about a third of the total collected by the party during that campaign. Tsai expects the effort to provide a similar share as she tries to raise as much as NT$700 million before the Jan. 16 vote.

"DPP doesn’t have much financial assets," Chian Hung-chun, 81, a retired grocery owner, said while taking part in one DPP fundraising event on Dec. 20 in Taipei. "I’m donating my piggy so that the young generation can put food on their tables. Each coin in this piggy bank is meant to help change Taiwan."

Measured by their balance sheets, the DPP-KMT contest is heavily lopsided. The KMT -- the party of the ruling elites who fled mainland China during the civil war more than six decades ago -- had assets of NT$25.6 billion at the end of last year, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior. 

The DPP, which has won the presidency just twice since Taiwan completed its transition to democratic rule in 1996, had just NT$479 million. The success of its grass-roots financing did help the DPP raise more than the ruling party last year, pulling in NT$254 million to the KMT’s NT$175 million. 

Anonymous Donors

KMT spokesman Eric Huang dismissed the DPP’s pigs as a fundraising gimmick that lacked transparency. "It’s not a conventional method because they openly raise funds from anonymous donors," Huang said.

Volunteers unload Taiwanese coins and banknotes from the piggy banks
Volunteers unload Taiwanese coins and banknotes from the piggy banks
Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

Tsai seized on the piggy bank idea in 2011 after three children donated their savings to her campaign on the advice of a family member. The DPP returned the cash after a government watchdog flagged regulations requiring that donors are adults. Undeterred, Tsai produced droves of plastic pigs and spread them across the island for her "pig farmers" to stuff with coins.

"Pig farmers believe piggies will change Taiwan," Tsai said at the Dec. 20 event at DPP headquarters.

Heavy Lifting

Tsai isn’t Asia’s first presidential candidate to raise funds by piggy banks. In 2002, South Korea’s Roh Moo Hyun received plastic pigs full of cash from around the country before winning the presidency on a pledge to accept no dirty campaign money.

Schlepping loaded piggy banks around Taiwan requires a huge effort at a time when Tsai’s peers elsewhere are raking in millions in weightless digital donations. Such online fundraising has helped insurgents such as Cruz and Sanders upstage establishment rivals like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

The DPP also collects credit card donations on its website, although they haven’t taken a central place in the campaign like the piggy banks have. Tsai’s campaign offices also feature ATM-like units to convert people’s cash donations into bits and bytes. They are, of course, shaped like pigs.

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