A lot has been said about the April 25 debate pitting President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) over the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) the Ma administration intends to sign with China next month.
Depending on who conducted the polls afterwards, Ma or Tsai prevailed in the debate, with some critics saying that Ma looked more comfortable than ever while Tsai failed to make eye contact and appeared too bookish. Some said the occasion helped Taiwanese better understand the reasons for and implications of the proposed trade agreement; others said it failed to persuade them. Tsai was criticized for what some said was turning the debate into an opportunity to position herself for the presidential election in 2012. For his part, Ma was accused of either not answering Tsai’s questions or of dissembling, an art — as we should all know by now — at which he has mastered.
All this post-facto analysis, however, misses the point altogether and blinds us to what actually occurred (or didn’t) on that supposedly “historic” day.
From the onset, it was obvious that Ma wasn’t approaching the debate as a means to learn more about the opposition’s views, let alone as a catalyst for a change in policy. In the tradition of the semi-authoritarian leadership that existed in Hong Kong under British rule or in Singapore today, the government is paramount: It knows what’s best and does not change its mind. At most, it engages in “consultations,” which often is a euphemism for “educating” the simple-minded “natives.”
Ma repeated the exploit a few days later when he addressed foreign correspondents in Taipei, where he also skillfully avoided giving real answers. After creating an outcry earlier in the year when foreign media were not allowed to attend Ma’s first media briefing on an ECFA, the president can now claim to have “consulted” with them as well.
Underhandedness notwithstanding, Ma played his cards masterfully and managed to push the DPP into a corner. Had Tsai refused to participate in the debate, Ma would have been at liberty to characterize the opposition as “outsiders” and “extremists” who cannot be reasoned with. Conversely, by agreeing to hold the debate, Tsai made it possible for Ma to create the illusion that everybody is now on board with an ECFA. It didn’t matter that Ma failed to “convince” Tsai and the opposition; her very participation in the debate was co-optation and a means to legitimize Ma’s policy. It created the illusion that the road to an ECFA was democratic and that Ma had “listened to the people.”
While in some limited way this may have succeeded in convincing some Taiwanese that this was the case, ultimately, the debate was an instrument by which Ma could show the international community that the entire process toward signing an ECFA was conducted democratically.
The fact that negotiations on the trade pact continue to be in the hands of a very small group of people (some of whom stand to benefit from the deal) and are still conducted in secrecy has been whitewashed by the debate.
Tsai further played into Ma’s trap by failing, after the event, to create more pressure on the administration. While she has every right to lament what she described as Ma’s failure to answer her questions (which she wasted precious air-time repeating), she should not have left it there. This, however, is exactly what her party did, which most likely was the result of electoral considerations.
Aware of the DPP’s focus on the November municipal elections and the presidential election in two years, Ma knew fully well that the DPP, which is only now starting to rebuild its image, cannot afford to cause trouble or appear to be acting “irrationally.” Thus cornered, the DPP is forced to remain polite and play along with Ma’s political game — even if it knows that doing so risks legitimizing Ma’s ECFA policy.
From a public relations perspective, this was a masterful coup for Ma. Tsai did a cameo appearance but had little control on the script or how it would be spun to the audience. She was given the impression that she was in control, when in fact she had very little. When the product turned out to be propaganda more than constructive debate, she was powerless to change it. As a result, an image of consensus has emerged that is altogether unrepresentative of the fissures that continue to widen among the Taiwanese polity on the issue of an ECFA. On the global stage, Ma was able to prove that he was democratic and open to rational discussion, when in fact nothing has changed.
Sadly for Tsai, she was used like many of China’s ethnic minorities are exploited when Tibetan and Uighur “representatives” show up on stage at major celebrations organized by Beijing. She legitimized something that, to this day, remains illegitimate. Maybe she was cornered, but many in the green camp will not forgive her for allowing future electoral imperatives to constrain her efforts to counter a pact with China whose repercussions on the nation’s sovereignty will likely be far-reaching.
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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