Underground radio stations in Taiwan: a bizarre tale of politics and kidney failures

After Taiwan’s Opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the legislative by-elections, underground radio stations triumphantly broadcast the news of the victory. The radio presenters didn’t forget to remind their audience: “Taiwan has succeeded! We have taught the Kuomintang government a lesson! But after having taught a lesson, let’s not forget our health – dear supporters, pick up the phone, and order our health products! For Taiwan!”

According to the US Renal Data System’s (USRDS) 2009 annual report, no other country in the world has a higher rate of dialysis patients than Taiwan. The five areas where the clinical blood filtering treatment for people who have suffered kidney failure are practiced the most often are Chiayi City, Pingdong County, Tainan County, Nantou County und Kaohsiung County. Is it a coincidence that these five areas are the very same areas where the underground radio stations broadcast?

Until 1987, Taiwan was a dictatorship, governed through martial law. Since 1996, the Taiwanese elect their leaders freely and democratically. That this has been made possible is something the underground radio stations deserve credit for, since they were originally established to secretly broadcast propaganda against the Kuomintang (KMT) regime under Chiang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo.

From the moment the present-day KMT won the last presidential elections with Ma Ying-jeou as the candidate for the country’s top post, the underground radio stations, just like in the old days, started telling the government off. In the whole of Taiwan, their number is currently estimated to be around 190. Most of the makeshift stations are concentrated in the country’s center and south, the DPP’s traditional strongholds.

The anti-KMT broadcasters are still run illegally, and since illegality tends to bring about the non-existence of advertisement revenue, most of the presenters rely on the sale of pharmaceutical products to make a living. This is how a strange symbiosis of quackery and politics comes into being.

“Ms. Xiumei, you slept well with the pills I sold you last time, didn’t you?” Presenter Jianzai receives his audience’s telephone calls live on air. Jianzai is good at flirting, and Ms. Xiumei giggles into her phone.

Chit-chat is his special subject. Jianzai sells cooking pots, cotton socks, medical products and charms in his shows. Especially women in their late fifties are enthusiastic about presenter Jianzai, who every now and then during his broadcasts drums up support for the DPP.

“Mr. Gangbo, are the cabbages behind your house ready for harvest yet?” Jianzai receives the next call and begins his cheerful talk. Actually, he doesn’t know where Mr. Gangbo lives, but Mr. Gangbo mentioned the cabbages the last time he called, and Jianzai always takes detailed notes during the talk show.

The trick pays off. As soon as the cabbages have been mentioned, Mr. Gangbo orders a few packages of ‘energy’ pills.

“I wouldn’t be able to sell so much of that medicine if I weren’t good at talking”, the underground radio station presenter Jianizai says, not without a hint of pride, “it works especially well with the older farmers.”

Only a stone’s throw away from Jianzai’s studio – an old shipping container – the farmer Lin Quan-sheng stands on his field and does what a farmer usually does: he weeds. Every other minute, a voice croaks from the little radio in his pocket: “If you ever happen to have this kind of headache, dial the toll-free information number…”

A female voice adds stringently: “…do a good deed and recommend our health products to your extended family!”

Farmer Lin has dialed the numbers many times, and also has made countless endorsements.

The 65-year old is, like almost all Taiwanese, covered by the national health insurance, but puts his stakes on self-medication nonetheless.

The health problems that this phenomenon seems to bring about are worrying.

In a TV interview, the vice-president of Kaohsiung’s E-Da hospital Yu Tsan-jung and the specialist on renal diseases Zhang Min-yu jointly declared that the number of Taiwanese citizens who suffer from kidney failure due to wrong self-medication is constantly increasing.

Yu and Zhang said that they have to assume that there is a connection between the exceptionally high occurrence rate of renal diseases in the south of Taiwan and the underground radio stations’ sales of pharmaceutical products.

In spite of this, presenter Jianzai continues mixing the promotion of his medicine with politics: “Ah, Ms. Ayu! You haven’t called in a long time, have you? I thought you and your family might have gone to Taipei to demonstrate against Ma Ying-jeou!”

 

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