Last week, for the fifth time in less than three years, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was “misquoted” by foreign media over matters pertaining to his cross-strait policy. Whether he gives his interviews in English or in Mandarin, the response from Ma’s office is always the same: Either the world doesn’t get it, or it is out to get Ma as part of some obscure multinational plot to discredit him.
Considering how much time he and his speechwriters have had to flesh out a comprehensive and intelligible cross-strait policy, it is hard to believe that Ma does not by now have clear formulations with which to explain his plan for dealing with Beijing. One would also assume, with a presidential election just around the corner, that Ma’s office would make every effort to ensure that reporters are able to reproduce their interviews with the president with clarity and accuracy. Besides, Japanese reporters, the latest victims in the streak of misquote accusations, have a reputation for being cautious about checking facts.
It could well be that our Janus-faced president has not one China policy, but two ever-shifting and occasionally overlapping policies. Anyone who has paid even passing attention to his comments over the years knows that Ma will choose his words to please his audience, saying one thing one day and the next opining, with seemingly equal conviction, on something downright contradictory. Ma is not exactly alone in this: A lot of politicians engage in such practices.
However, this causes problems when foreign media — perhaps not fully aware of all the minutiae, nuances and complexities of cross-strait policy — attempt to make sense of it all. Even for those Taiwan-based columnists who make it their profession to study the Taiwan Strait, Ma’s China policy remains a puzzle, an entity with no definite boundaries.
The real turnaround occurred a few years ago, when Ma re-emphasized all aspects of the Republic of China (ROC) and later referred to Taiwan as China with Taiwanese characteristics — or was it the other way around?
He is Taiwanese, Ma the presidential contender asserted recently, but a descendant of the Yellow Emperor. He is a defender of the ROC’s — and sometimes Taiwan’s — sovereignty, and yet as vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council Ma had a policy on the South China Sea whereby Taipei and Beijing were to work together, as one, to counter external claimants to disputed islets. There is only “one China” and it is the ROC, Ma the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman says, leaving us scratching our heads over what that makes the People’s Republic of China, whose existence he does not deny, but also does not recognize.
Coming out of the interview room with heads spinning, the interviewers must then piece the puzzle together in a way that makes sense to readers. However, as some pieces of the puzzle are missing, reporters have no choice but to approximate and fill in the blanks. It is no fault of theirs: There simply isn’t one clear picture of Ma’s policy, and the only alternative — technologically unfeasible for the moment — would be to provide readers with holographic--like accounts whose contents shift as you tilt them.
Ma gets into trouble and will continue to get into trouble with interviews, not because of his language skills and not because the reporters he deals with are unprofessional or have ignoble motives, but because he is asked to explain complex policies of which he does not have a clear understanding, forced as he is to please both the Taiwanese polity and Beijing.
By seeking to ingratiate himself with everybody, our president has painted himself into a corner. It was easier for him to do so when he was not the elected head of the country, when the focus was directed elsewhere. However, since that position is now his, the walls of contradiction he has erected around his China policy are closing in.
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