The results of the first televised debate on the proposed economic framework cooperation agreement (ECFA) came as an embarrassing defeat for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on Monday.
Initially nine to seven in favor of the planned trade pact that the KMT government wishes to sign with China, the 16-member audience — made up of students from National Taiwan University, Soochow University and Shih Hsin University — changed their minds halfway through the debate, with only one continuing to support the ECFA and the other 15 turning against it. At the conclusion of the two-hour debate, five said they supported the proposed pact, 10 were against it and one was undecided.
While skeptics may conclude that the students were planted by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), it’s worth pointing out that the debate, meant to serve as a warm-up to the debate later this month between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), was held by KMT-friendly CTiTV (中天電視).
The flip-flopping of the audience could be said to cast doubt on the Ma administration’s platform touting the cross-strait trade pact as absolutely essential and beneficial for Taiwan. Given that the government is clearly having trouble persuading even college students as to the benefits of the ECFA, how can it say with any degree of credibility that the majority of people in Taiwan support the agreement?
Director-General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Bureau of Foreign Trade Huang Chih-peng (黃志鵬), who paired up with KMT Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (賴士葆) in the debate to argue the government’s case, attributed the outcome to the students’ lack of understanding of ECFA and his own poor debating skills.
This seems somewhat disingenuous, considering that the whole point of the two-hour debate was to provide a forum in which supporters and opponents of the ECFA could both educate the audience and seek to persuade them to their point of view. It seems strange, then, to blame one’s own poor performance on the audience’s lack of understanding, when the real problem lies with the product being sold.
Huang’s second excuse is, if anything, even more alarming, given that he was the government’s lead negotiator in the last two rounds of talks with China on the ECFA.
When a head ECFA negotiator openly admits to his poor debating skills and finds it difficult to convince a group of college students about the merits of his case, it could only fuel the public’s lack of confidence in the Ma administration’s ability to do what is best for Taiwan and get the best possible deal in its negotiations with China.
The government has repeatedly said that it hopes to sign an ECFA by June. The result of Monday’s debate merely reinforces the fact that in the court of pubic opinion, the jury is very much out. Add to that a poll conducted by TVBS on March 30, which showed 54 percent in favor of holding a referendum on the ECFA, and it is difficult not to conclude that the Ma administration needs to do more than just turn a deaf ear to public opinion.
The people of Taiwan deserve a referendum.