Ma must consult public on ECFA

By Wu Hui-lin 吳惠林  / 

Thu, Apr 01, 2010 - Page 8

A year has passed since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) began extolling the virtues of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) his government intends to sign with China. What has this publicity campaign achieved? A cartoon strip by CoCo on March 17 answers that question quite well.

Perhaps the best approach to promote ECFA would have been for the president to travel around the country explaining the benefits in person, but the dialogue in CoCo’s cartoon reflects public distrust.

“I don’t believe a word Ma says,” one character says.

“But [Chinese Premier] Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) says the same things as Ma,” another says.

“That’s precisely why I don’t believe Ma,” the first person replies.

What better illustration could we have of just how badly the Ma administration’s publicity campaign has failed?

Just a few days ago, Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強), perhaps the most popular figure in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), was invited by National Chung Hsing University to give a lecture on the merits of an ECFA. Hu was confronted by heckling students and one individual who apparently flashed a knife. This shows that debate on the issue has become emotionally charged and irrational.

Around the same time, someone posted threats to assassinate Ma’s daughters on the Internet, prompting people to ask, “What is going on?”

People are getting increasingly anxious and this arises from the fact that the KMT appears to be on the same side as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while the opposition is allied with Taiwan-centric civic groups. The confrontation between these two sides grows fiercer by the day, causing non-aligned voters and the middle class to feel ill at ease.

It is no longer just an ideological confrontation between the pan-blue and pan-green camps, or a matter of which one will come out ahead in elections, but a matter of whether Taiwan can survive as a free and democratic country.

Faced with this subtle but serious change, the media has failed to get to the root of the problem and in some cases could even be considered to be fanning the flames.

In the case of Hu being heckled, reports chose to focus on whether the students were being rude, whether it was acceptable to flash a knife and how broadminded Hu was not to pursue the case and to forgive the student.

Regarding the online threats to assassinate Ma’s daughters, the media’s main interest has been in seeing the culprit arrested or on how cynical and alienated these people appear. The media has shown little interest in asking the more important question as to why college students are going crazy and a middle-class person with no criminal record should be so dissatisfied with the way things are as to blame it all on the president.

The unifying point is the ECFA, which has been completely politicized and a highly effective weapon deployed by the opposition in recent by-­elections. Ma and his government continue to insist that the ECFA is a purely economic issue, despite suggesting Taiwan’s future is bleak without the agreement. Ma and his ministers are completely deaf to dissenting voices, still less are they willing to empathize with how people feel.

The public understands very well that the CCP’s totalitarian rule makes China different from countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea. They know that cross-strait affairs are indivisible from politics and that, contrary to government statements, everything is political. The public is also aware that China is the dominant partner in cross-strait negotiations, while Taiwan’s only hope of keeping China in check is international support. A typical economic matter is Taiwan’s participation in the WTO, where we elicited support from other countries before tackling China.

The important thing is for Taiwan to first deploy its own strengths and that means we have to demonstrate self-­confidence in order to win the support of other countries. When it comes to an ECFA, the approach being taken runs counter to such experience.

First, the Ma administration has deliberately downplayed Taiwan’s strengths, instead whining that Taiwan can only survive by relying on China, and begging the Chinese side to help us out by deigning to sign the ECFA.

Apparently Taiwan will only be able to negotiate free-trade agreements with other countries after an ECFA is signed. If we start out by looking down on ourselves, how can we expect others to respect us?

It is time for this government to face the facts and change the paternalistic attitude it always adopts when addressing the public. It should not keep promising that an ECFA will be signed by such-and-such a date. Instead, it should be expending more energy on finding out how people really feel.

Our leaders should have the courage to play to Taiwan’s strong points. However impossible things may sometimes seem, it is our responsibility to mobilize and fight for what we believe to be right. Let us not forget that Taiwanese have shown time and again that they can be as vigorous and tenacious as anyone else.

Wu Hui-lin is a researcher at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.