Anyone, from Taiwanese voters to academics the world over, who entertained the belief that the “dark clouds” of the eight years of Democratic Progressive Party government would dissipate once the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regained power in Taiwan must be scratching their head these days, for things haven’t exactly played out as per the script.
In fact, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration seems to have tripped at the starting block. From its amateurish handling of rising commodity prices to its aloof response to floods in the south — not to mention an economy that, rather than miraculously improving as the Ma camp had promised during the electoral campaign, has sagged faster than unleavened bread, with the TAIEX dropping about 13 percent within a month — many are starting to wonder if they may not have been had.
While it would be invidious to blame the government for such developments as the rising price of oil that are clearly beyond its control, the KMT’s failure to reassure the public and its insistence on “faith” betray an administration that does not seem to have a clear plan in mind. In fact, all its promises of a “good economy” are predicated on the prospects of better ties with China, direct cross-strait flights and an influx of Chinese tourists — all of which cannot be decoupled from a world economy that is facing churning waters and will do so for some time.
With inflation at a decade-high in China, assuming that Chinese tourists will spend so much money in Taiwan as to have an appreciable impact on Taiwan’s GDP is to buy into fantasy, while hopes that tourism will create indirect business opportunities are based on theories that may not fly when they leave the nest. Any competent economist in the KMT administration must know this, and yet the government continues to regurgitate vague promises and slogans.
Caught in the headlights, the best the administration has been able to come up with is tell Taiwanese to wait for an economic Godot. Whether this is the result of incompetence or indifference remains to be seen, but regardless, a certain sense of helplessness, if not panic, must have begun to install itself within the KMT. It does not help that the results of a poll conducted by TVBS, which certainly is not unfriendly to the KMT, showed that former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) approval rating after his first month in office in 2000 was 77 percent, Ma’s on June 20, however, was 41 percent.
But the KMT didn’t exactly do nothing.
Enter history, which often provides insights that can help explain political decisions. In fact, only precedents could help explain Taipei’s ostensibly irrational response to the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands incident earlier this month, whose daft handling by Taipei threatened to cause irreparable — and certainly unnecessary — damage to Taiwan’s relations with its long-time friend Japan.
The lesson is the following: When the situation becomes untenable at home and a government does not know how, or is unable, to meet the challenge, the reflex is to shift the focus elsewhere, preferably abroad in a manner that rechannels public discontent onto some external element. The Balkans in the early 1990s provide a perfect, if perhaps extreme, example of the lengths to which governments encountering trouble at home will go to ensure their political survival. Facing hyperinflation and massive public discontent, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic — a skillful political survivor if ever there was one — made recourse to the wildcard used time and again by regimes (usually fascist) in the past, especially in the dark valley of the 1930s: nationalism.
Nothing works better to redirect the pressure cooker of public anger than the emotions attached to a state and, conversely, the fear of the “other.” In the 1930s, the “other” turned out to be Jews; in the 1990s, Milosevic used nationalist sentiment to his benefit and transformed public dissatisfaction into hatred for Croats and Bosnians, only to repeat the feat in 1999, this time targeting Kosovars.
Taiwan’s reaction to the Diaoyutai incident is of a much lower order, but it was nevertheless discomforting to see images of the Japanese flag being burned on the street, or hear calls for a boycott of Japanese products. Nationalism, meanwhile, was trumpeted by the Ma administration and gleefully picked up by the media. Just as in the Balkans in the 1990s, overnight the friendly neighbor turned into an object of hatred. The KMT government’s handling of the matter, which exacerbated the problem, invites speculation that the small matter of an accident at sea had provided a timely instrument to deflect growing public discontent.
If this indeed was the strategy, it bodes ill.
In the realm of diplomacy, the Ma government has put most of its eggs in one basket and pinned its future on better relations with Beijing. With great fanfare and expediency, the KMT launched cross-strait talks with its Chinese counterparts while promising that reduced tensions would only bring benefits, however vaguely those were spelled out.
As with the economy, however, the Ma administration’s strategy is contingent on things going its way — or rather, on events following the path that the KMT government has blurredly painted for public consumption — and leaves it exposed to Beijing’s predatory foreign policy.
Already there are signs that things may not go as planned, such as when Beijing insisted during a visit by a Japanese delegation last week that it would not allow Taiwan to join the WHO, which would seem to contradict a statement, made by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) on May 28 that Taiwan would be given more international space and that its application to join the WHO could be discussed in bilateral talks.
Of course, anyone who believed that Beijing would allow such a development could just as readily have believed that the economy would improve simply by virtue of the KMT being in power.
Unfortunately, there are many such gullible people out there, which means that as Beijing reneges on its “promises” — from reducing the number of missiles it targets at Taiwan to ending the counterfeiting of Taiwanese products, to name a few — disillusionment with the KMT government is bound to increase.
Unless some tangible benefits in the KMT’s strategy are presented to the public, its popularity will only continue to drop. The temptation to deflect criticism by creating or amplifying incidents “out there” may therefore once again be too strong for Taipei to resist.
Taiwan’s future diplomacy could well serve as a barometer for popular discontent.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and author of Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001.
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