The Taiwanese public has been generally supportive of presidents in the past, even when times were tough. Thanks to their anti-Chinese communist stance, former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) had the full confidence of the general public, despite the martial law government and White Terror atrocities they oversaw. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was re-elected with a large majority, despite triggering the 1996 Taiwan Missile Crisis after he angered the administration of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) with comments made during an interview in the US. And former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was strongly reprimanded internationally when he offended the US and provoked China. The legacy of these past presidents will be judged in the fullness of time, and different people will have their own views on the matter depending on their biases and prejudices. However, all these past leaders have one thing in common — nobody could accuse them of colluding with foreign states or outside powers to harm their own people or country. Everybody would agree that, in this regard at least, all these leaders basically fulfilled their constitutional duties.
How should constitutional duties be defined? Presidents represent their country to others. In terms of foreign relations, presidents have the constitutional power to conclude treaties and agreements, to declare war and to make peace. Where is the red line drawn, specifically when it comes to signing agreements and bringing about peace? The Council of Grand Justices’ Interpretation No. 627 is very clear on what is called state secrets privilege — that the president has the right to decide not to make public any information regarding national security, national defense or diplomatic relations that the president believes might influence national security or the national interest if made public, and to ensure that it remains confidential. Put another way, if a president’s actions in themselves do not involve concerns that would impact national security or the national interest, then the president has no right to keep them from being made public. Further, according to Article 52 of the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, the president is liable to criminal prosecution if charged with having committed an act of rebellion or treason. Clearly, it is imperative to uphold the principle of an adequate degree of transparency to comply with the tenets of democracy, even in the most sensitive of international dealings.
The question is whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has given the public the same sense of security that the aforementioned presidents were able to do. We shall set this aside for the moment, as it perhaps involves a political value judgement.
However, on a purely legal level, all the recent talk of whether “Mr Ma” can attend the APEC annual leaders’ meeting in person, in his capacity as the leader of an APEC member economy, is already skirting a little close to the bottom line allowable in the law. The general public should warn the authorities to immediately amend their ways, refrain from sailing too close to the wind in this way and to return to what mainstream public opinion wants them to do.
The Presidential Office has said much that has been met with widespread suspicion. It has intimated, for example, that the government is committed to working toward the goal of Ma personally attending the APEC meeting in his capacity as the leader of an APEC member economy, that the conditions have to be ripe for the national leaders of Taiwan and China to meet, that at present the conditions for him to do so are not yet ripe and that more needs to be done to create the necessary conditions.