When asked whether independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was an ally of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) before the Taipei mayoral nomination in January last year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said Ko should first clarify his “Taiwanese values.”

At the time, Ko answered that his “Taiwanese values” referred to universal values such as democracy, freedom, human rights and sovereignty. Tsai and DPP politicians seemed to be dissatisfied with that answer. Later, many politicians began to express their view of “Taiwanese values,” and they mostly referred to the same universal values.

Chen Fang-ming (陳芳明), a professor at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, even said bluntly that “Taiwanese values” is an empty phrase, and that if the DPP keeps stressing it, the party would stand to lose more than it gained and face a major defeat.

Not long ago, Ko began to fire back by asking Tsai to define her “Taiwanese values.” Tsai replied that they have been concretely realized in the policies of the DPP, especially in her recent statements against Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model and her policy against extraditions to China.

Ko said he did not understand what Tsai meant, and, using the government’s public housing policy as an example, said it was laughable to call that a Taiwanese value. Tsai has not yet come up with a more sophisticated response, and some argue that she owes Ko an apology.

First of all, what is a value? It is not only an ideal, but also an insistence on and commitment to that ideal, as one would rather sacrifice one’s own interests for it. Democracy, for instance, is an ideal, but it would not become a value unless one is willing to commit to or even make sacrifices for democracy. Otherwise, the term is nothing but an empty noun.

When Tsai asked Ko to clarify his “Taiwanese values” before last year’s mayoral nomination, she was asking him: Faced with China’s oppression, how can Taiwan safeguard its democracy and sovereignty, and what is your cross-strait policy or attitude?

Ko’s reply, filled with empty ideals such as democracy, freedom and other so-called universal values, did not satisfy the public, because anyone can come up with such an answer. Without concrete actions, ideals would never turn into values.

When Ko laughed at Tsai explaining her “Taiwanese values” with her opposition to “one country, two systems” and Hong Kong’s extradition bill, he showed that he does not understand the meaning of values.

“One country, two systems” is Chinese oppression of Taiwan, and the goal is unification. Taiwan always proclaims itself a free, democratic, independent and sovereign state. Surely remaining silent in the face of China’s threat and oppression, makes freedom, democracy and sovereignty empty phrases.

When Ko says Tsai opposes “one country, two systems” to curry favor with voters, he makes it clear that he is unwilling to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty by offending China. For him, perhaps interests are far more important than values when dealing with Beijing.

Ko does not have values, and he uses interests to measure people with values. If he cannot clarify this mix-up of values with interests, he would be a very dangerous national leader.

Of course, values can be manifested in national policies. If Taiwan launched a national housing policy that implemented housing justice, that would embody a value of the Taiwanese public — justice. Housing justice would then no longer be an empty universal value existing in name only — it would become a concrete and vivid Taiwanese value.