New government, new neutrality

By Lo Chih-cheng 羅致政  / 

Fri, Jul 08, 2011 - Page 8

With less than seven months to go until January’s presidential election, the government and opposition campaign teams are taking shape, but the civil service should not allow itself to get involved in electoral affairs and civil servants should uphold the values of neutrality and professionalism.

However, this is not what is happening. Managers at government agencies, hungry for power and prestige, are making their political preferences known. The result is that Taiwan’s democratization process is being severely compromised.

The absurd measures that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken in connection to several recent diplomatic issues is enough to make one shake one’s head in disbelief: The lack of professionalism is something one cannot help but marvel over.

It is quite apparent that the individuals involved are solely concerned with the effects of their actions on the domestic political situation.

Liberal International president Hans van Baalen’s admission that he supported Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been handled by the officials at the foreign ministry as if it were a major diplomatic crisis.

Top officials are falling over one other to deal with the situation, and the public has even heard such strongly worded statements as: “Foreigners should not interfere in the politics of other countries. Any kind of interference is a serious violation of international practice.”

However, when Japanese writer Kenichi Ohmae visited Taiwan last month, he heaped praise on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Among the things he said was: “I would really like to import Ma to Japan and have him replace the Japanese prime minister.”

So, why did we not hear the foreign ministry complain when Ohmae “interfere[d] in the politics of other countries”?

The foreign ministry seems to be excellent at flattering Ma, while it does not seem to be very good at handling foreign affairs. However, it does appear to be extremely conscientious when it comes to electioneering.

Even worse, foreign ministry officials, who should be representing Taiwan and focusing on external matters, maintain silence in the face of China’s diplomatic suppression of Taiwan.

However, when dealing with criticism from citizens of the Republic of China and even opposition politicians, officials often resort to raising their voices.

When opposition legislators tried to warn the government that its self-satisfied attitude about the countries that now offer Taiwanese visa-exempt entry might lead Taiwan to fall into the same trap as Hong Kong or Macau, the foreign minister chose not to review his policies. Instead he implied that certain people seemed to be obsessed with the sovereignty issue, demonstrating a kind of “masochistic bent” on the subject.

Had he looked into the matter, he would have noticed that Canada has transferred its visa services from Taiwan to its visa office in Hong Kong and Croatia and Slovenia allow Taiwanese visa-exempt entry, but list Taiwan as a part of China.

Surely these are exactly the kind of issues to which the foreign ministry should be paying attention?

China’s pressure on Taiwan in the international arena has never relented. The biggest difference between the situation at the moment and the situation in the past is that the Ma administration actually allows itself to be pushed around by a bunch of bullies.

It shows a complete lack of backbone and Ma himself just sits back and takes it, allowing the spittle to dry on his cheek.

When the DPP was in power, the foreign ministry updated its official Web site on a quarterly basis with the latest news and statistics about how China had frustrated Taiwan’s efforts on the international scene.

The intention behind this was to remind the public that at no point in time does Beijing relent on obstructing Taiwan’s participation in international events.

However, this all stopped in 2008 when the foreign ministry ceased to update the figures or publish any more examples. By doing this, it may have thrown away one of its most important weapons in the struggle against the authorities in Beijing and their attempts to suppress Taiwan.

The Ma administration not only relaxed its stance toward China, but also allowed any alertness Taiwan had in the face of an outside threat to wither away into nothing.

Ministry officials are becoming progressively more reluctant to stand up to others’ attempts to suppress Taiwan on the international scene, to the extent that these officials sometimes seem content to just batten down the hatches and weather the storm.

This is essentially because they are obliged to comply with the Ma administration’s directive that China policy is to take precedence over foreign relations policy.

They are worried that taking a high-profile stance on foreign relations and sovereignty, or on relations with the Chinese Communist Party, they might interfere with — or even wreck — the atmosphere conducive to cross-strait peace that the government has been so keen to foster.

Those officials are afraid that if they set a foot wrong, the government will lay the blame at their feet.

One of the working principles behind the “diplomatic truce” policy is to keep things simple. Of course, this works on the implicit understanding that the fewer complications there are, the better.

After all, if diplomatic incidents are kept to a minimum, there is less need for political intervention on foreign matters, and officials’ diplomatic skills can be focused on domestic politics. If they excel at this, it might just do their careers a world of good.

Diplomats are trained to be eloquent, judicious, discrete and tactful, but the past three years have thrown up quite a few uncomfortable moments, whether it be senior ministry officials locking horns with members of the opposition in the legislature or ministry spokespeople acerbically criticizing the opposition party. Would that these same diplomats applied such heights of eloquence and diplomatic tact in dealing with China’s suppression of Taiwan on the international stage.

This internal political pressure is indeed by no means limited to the foreign ministry, and in fact originates among senior officials in the Presidential Office.

Government departments lower down the hierarchy are simply following orders or trying to second guess what their political masters expect of them.

Spokespeople for the Presidential Office under Ma over the past three years have tended to be rather uncouth and vitriolic, in a way most unbecoming to matters pertaining to the governance of a nation.

A rotting fish, as they say, starts to stink at the head, so it hardly comes as a surprise that even the Mainland Affairs Council and the foreign ministry, both of which are concerned with national security, have followed suit, learning from those directly above them in the hierarchy.

Ma has damaged Taiwan in numerous ways over the past three years, but his reckless defilement of the necessarily neutral civil service system, obliging countless public servants to open themselves to accusations of administrative injustice, is truly an ugly blot on the history of Taiwanese democracy. I have absolutely no doubt that he shall be judged accordingly.

While it is true that a dead fish rots first at the head, it is also true that people need to be accountable for their own actions.

If these civil servants expect everyone else to give them the respect they feel their profession deserves, and if they wish to enhance their own reputations and status within society, they have to always observe official and administrative neutrality.

Regrettably, we have seen too many examples of the government willfully smothering neutrality and professionalism within the system.

There is also a number of senior civil servants who have compromised the standards of professionalism, falling over one another to pander to the government’s wishes — behavior that I doubt the majority of Taiwan’s public servants would condone.

Government officials may well try to persuade themselves that they are absolved of any responsibility, telling themselves that one is obliged to stoop in low-ceilinged rooms, but this is just more of the foreign minister’s “masochistic bent.”

If they are to divest themselves of this culture of subordination, they need to throw their weight behind facilitating a change of government, in order to punish a ruling party more interested in civil servants’ loyalty than in their professionalism.

In any case, a regular change in government actually helps the civil service system maintain its independence — something which is necessary for it to increase its reputation and social standing.

The upshot of all of this is that public servants need to change their approach.

Civil servants must no longer assume that blindly following the interests of the ruling party is the natural or moral thing to do, or accept that neutrality is nothing but an ideal that is out of their hands and beyond their reach.

If they want to win back some respect and a degree of professionalism, there is no better tool to achieve this than their vote.

Another change of government will be testament to the deepening and consolidation of Taiwanese democracy — and it may just bring back neutrality and professionalism in the civil service.

Lo Chih-cheng is an associate professor of political science at Soochow University.

Translated by Perry Svensson and Paul Cooper