One of the most powerful things about being multilingual is that it allows one to see a far more complex side of people -- and deromanticizes what would otherwise be rendered as exotic. American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young, for example, is multilingual and so has the ability to observe Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (
Most people of influence in Washington are not privy to the wealth of Ma's throwaway comments and actions over the years that reflect the subordinate status of democracy in his thinking. But these people are privy to the analysis of foreign correspondents who prefer to wax lyrical, for example, on Ma's beautiful features. Wiser heads in Washington would do well to carefully note this schmooze factor in Ma's politicking, and how it plays a more important role for his presidential aspirations than coherent policy.
Much has been made of Ma's disarming language skills and congenial manner as he travels across Europe and the US, contrasting acutely with Chen's scattershot English and ventriloquist dummy's grin. And for Ma, the timing of his US trip is quite superb. Exploiting US jitters over Iraq by presenting a pragmatic "solution" to ominous problems in the Taiwan Strait could not be a more lucrative strategy.
It can only be hoped that those who expect more from Ma than a warm handshake, a dazzling smile and complete English sentences will continue to probe him on his willingness and ability to stand up to Chinese violence.
The skeptical will also have noted that with Ma, there is only a small gap between being smooth and being slippery. It has proven impossible for anyone to establish why, in Ma's opinion, Beijing would take the slightest notice of a president who fails to keep his military fully armed. This is because Ma has patronized his US audiences with a mix of carefully structured evasiveness and mistruths. There's also been a hefty slice of pie in the sky: The idea that China would consider Ma's proposal of a 30 to 50-year moratorium on unification and then honor any agreement is so naive as to be pitiful.
US officials whose knowledge of Taiwan does not extend beyond the odd meeting with visiting officials and irregular Internet surfing would not know that the KMT's innermost ideology only pays lip service to democratic ideals. This is not to deny that there has been democratization in the KMT, but any sober observer who witnessed events after the last presidential election would know that the KMT remains only a few budding demagogues away from regression to its earlier putrid self. That the DPP is flailing in its attempt to do better does not make this any less true.
Ma appears not to be a demagogue-in-waiting, and the average Taiwanese is unlikely to back such regression. But the mischief that led to former KMT chairman Lien Chan's (