Notwithstanding the lack of rigor in Taiwanese polling, there is food for thought in a survey by Taiwan Thinktank that claims 60 percent of the public have reservations about the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) wants to sign with China sometime next year.
The poll also suggested a majority believes that the fourth round of cross-strait talks between Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his Chinese counterpart Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), scheduled for next week, should be delayed over concerns of a replay of the violence that accompanied Chen’s previous visit.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the pace of Ma’s cross-strait policies, as well as their long-term impact on sovereignty and the economy, is causing apprehension. Ma and Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) constantly argue that those fears are the result of “poor communication” and that a new public relations campaign will alleviate these fears. Last week, Wu went so far as to say that Taipei would seek 60 percent support for an ECFA before it signs one.
What Ma administration officials say and what they do, however, are often two different things. As numbers can be massaged in so many ways, it can be predicted that in a few months from now Wu will be able to tell a press conference, poll results in hand, that 60 percent of Taiwanese support an ECFA.
This, however, is only half of the equation — and the less important one. The real pressure for an ECFA and other cross-strait pacts comes from Beijing, which stands to gain more from them. Given the size of its economy, China does not depend on an ECFA with Taiwan, and whatever pressure exists is the result of political goals, as highlighted by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) recent admission that an ECFA is a “stepping stone” to unification.
Aware that Ma could run out of time if his party’s fortunes are reversed in the 2012 presidential election, it is difficult to imagine Chen, Ma or Wu telling Beijing that the plans must be put on ice, or the pace reduced, simply because they haven’t managed to obtain 60 percent support. After all, what interest does an authoritarian regime have in opinion polls?
What this means is that surveys and debates, however democratic, are unlikely to gain traction with an administration that has only shown disdain for opposition to its policies. It has already turned down a request for a referendum on an ECFA, using semantics to justify the decision.
This is an administration that from the beginning has been on a quest of faith. Both Ma and Wu, in fact, have used paternalistic language — “trust me, trust us” — to justify policies that are too convoluted or shrouded in secrecy to be understood by those whose lives will be directly affected.
Why the Ma administration can ignore the opposition and wax paternal is simple: The opposition is weak and lacks credibility, so much so that the government has not bothered to consult it as Taipei prepares for negotiations with Beijing. This handicap stems not from the opposition not having a valid argument, but because it has been unable, or unwilling, to warn of dire consequences if it is not listened to.
Words and opinion polls are not enough — not when a government is party to a fait accompli process that threatens to change the nature of this country forever. Concrete acts are the only thing that will exact a price from the government for its aloofness.