Taiwan's Tale of Politics and Kidney Failure

Lin Quan-sheng stands in his field and does what a farmer usually does: he pulls weeds. Every other minute, a voice croaks from the little radio in his pocket: "We won the by-elections! 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 2009 annual report, no other country in the world has a higher rate of kidney dialysis patients than Taiwan, and there are concerns in Taipei that the problem may stem from the tinny radio in Lin's pocket. The five areas where the clinical blood filtering treatment is most prevalent for people who have suffered kidney failure are Chiayi City and Pingdong, Tainan, Nantou and Kaohsiung Counties, from which the underground radio stations broadcast.

"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 in his studio, an old shipping container only a stone's throw away from Farmer Lin's field - not without a hint of pride. It works especially well with the older farmers.

Since 1996, the Taiwanese have elected their leaders freely and democratically, something that has been 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, have come alive to start telling the government off. In the whole of Taiwan, their number is currently estimated to be around 190, most of them 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 render advertisement revenue non-existent, most of the presenters rely on the sale of pharmaceutical products to make a living. That is how a strange symbiosis of quackery and politics has come into existence. According to the government website Taiwan Panorama, Chinese medicine focuses on "shen," or kidneys, which include all of the organs connected to the urogenital tract as well as the adrenal glands. Thus even hair loss is thought to be curable through kidney medicines.

The absence of rigid research into medicine, according to the website, "has given rise to all manner of bizarre folk prescriptions and quack nostrums aimed at combating impotency." They include such titles as "Victorious Easterner," "Return of Spring," "Pill of the Green Dragons and Tigers" or "Thrust Eternal." All reputedly fortify the kidneys, cure sexual impotency and strengthen yang. "Users are left to determine for themselves whether any of these remedies actually works or if they have noxious side effects," the government publication says.

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 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.

This does not appear to be a concern for presenter Jianzai.

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

Chit-chat is Jianzai's specialty. He sells cooking pots, cotton socks, medical products and charms in his shows. Especially women in their late fifties are enthusiastic about the presenter, who every now and then during his broadcasts interrupts the patter to drum 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 Gangbo lives, but Gangbo mentioned the cabbages the last time he called, and Jianzai always takes detailed notes.

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

Farmer Lin lays out a sheet of plastic tarpaulin in the shadow of his banana trees. It's time for a noon nap. The voice continues croaking 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 stakes his health on self-medication nonetheless.

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!"

Jens Kastner is a freelance writer living in Taiwan. He can be contacted at kenslastner@googlemail.com