Mon, Aug 29, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Is Ma just all sizzle and no steak?

By JeromeKeating

On Aug. 19, it became official. For the first time in its more than 100-year history, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had a chairman freely elected by the party. For anyone with a sense of history it was a milestone full of potential promise and severe challenges and questions.

The potential promise followed this milestone. Had the party finally jettisoned the stodgy leadership that was mired in images of a past glory that never was? Would it now be open to younger voices more attuned to the reality and need for solidifying localization? Was it determined to shake off its dependence on hierarchical privilege and cronyism?

Severe questions and challenges came on the heels of this potential promise. The party had chosen a chairman with a glamorized and well-crafted Madison Avenue image, but was this simply window dressing? Did the new chairman have the substance to meet the challenges ahead?

Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took the party's reins on Aug. 19 with the appropriate fanfare and flag-waving. With his selection as chairperson came the likelihood of being the party's next presidential candidate. As the KMT's bright star and hope for the future, Ma has pledged to restore the party's image and regain the nation's presidency in 2008. This is a perfunctory and even required speech for any duly elected chairperson. However, in Ma's case, it raised the real question of how deeply he is committed to reform of a party so long entrenched in moneyed privilege and power, and to what extent he will put Taiwan first. To do so would require a man of clear skill and definite substance.

Does Ma have that substance? Ma has always been one to play to the gallery and court an image. He has always tried hard to keep his feet in the proverbial two boats. Anyone that has watched him over the years and has a memory has seen his inconsistencies. His past as a campus spy for the KMT in the US has never been fully examined. As he reported on democratic activities of his fellow Taiwanese students, was he simply trying to be a dutiful and loyal son of the party? How many lives and careers of fellow students were brought down by his reports?

People can change. However, before he was mayor, Ma rarely missed a chance to be seen standing up for the little man. Ma claimed he was simply a concerned citizen and not running for mayor but then of course he suddenly changed his mind. Once elected, the needs of the little people seemed to fall -- or be pushed -- through the cracks.

Nevertheless, to Ma's credit, he did not back down when former KMT chairman Lien Chan's (連戰) cohorts tried to float the idea that maybe Lien should run again for chairman. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), like a dutiful liege of the hierarchy said he would step down if Lien chose to run. Ma stated that Lien was certainly welcome to run but he would remain in the race. Lien flinched.

My call is that Lien -- the man who had never won an election in his life and had been used to having things handed to him -- wouldn't risk a finale going out as a loser. Ma would have beaten him soundly and Lien knew it. Despite this positive sign, the issues and challenges facing the new chairperson remain formidable.

First and foremost is the long avoided issue of the KMT's ill-gotten assets. Much of the nation's property and wealth was seized by the KMT in 1945. The nation's and therefore the people's wealth basically remains in KMT hands. These assets have been used for financing campaigns, buying support, and of course lining the pockets of the privileged KMT inner circle. This is an issue that will be very hard to sidestep for a reform pledged chairperson.

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