The Liberty Times Editorial: Ma’s thinking stuck in feudal times

Sat, Oct 08, 2011 - Page 8

As everyone knows, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) head is full of all things “China” and “Chinese.” It is ironic the elected president of Taiwan should be so preoccupied with Chinese ideology and it would be hard to find such a leader in any other modern democracy. Recently, as part of his campaign for re-election in January, Ma has been making a big issue about “reading the classics,” and the Ministry of Education has acted accordingly by making the “Four Books” — The Analects, Mencius, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean — mandatory reading in the high-school curriculum. Ma’s penchant for delving into these ancient texts once again reveals his deep-rooted feudal mindset, but what is worse is he insists on making students follow his example. This point alone shows how undemocratic his thinking is.

There are plenty of classic works in the world and China itself has many other classic texts apart from the Four Books. However, Ma’s preference is for those books that were favored by Chinese emperors down the centuries — books that served the rulers’ purpose by helping control the minds of their subjects. Although the classics that Ma loves to recite are not without their reference value, they are riddled with the “three cardinal guides and five constant virtues” that formed the basis of Chinese feudal ethics. If readers are not careful, they will get infected with these outmoded ideas, and Ma himself has clearly caught the bug without being aware of it.

Ma’s trademark during the three years since he took office has been his headstrong style of government, which fits in very well with one of the dictums of the classics he keeps promoting, namely the Confucian saying that “the people may be made to follow a path of action, but they may not be made to understand it.” In other words, all a ruler has to do is to make sure his subjects obediently do as they are told and there is no need to make people understand why. Isn’t that just what happened when Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)? Ma has never been interested in letting people know the details of the ECFA, only in trumpeting its benefits. As long as people obediently support the government’s policy, that is okay in Ma’s view. This is just the kind of harm that can come from reading the Confucian classics if one is not careful.

That is not to say there are no good points to be learned from reading the classics. For example, Confucius (孔子) also said the superior man despises those who act as they wish and then make up reasons to justify their actions. It is a warning to the reader not to do one thing and say another, and not to use fancy phrases to cover up one’s misdeeds. Unfortunately, Ma has not learned the lesson in this case. On the contrary, he frequently resorts to verbal evasion.

While everyone knows he is in favor of eventual unification with China, he says there will be “no unification” while he is in charge. He obviously thinks there is only one China, yet he talks about “one China, with each side having its own interpretation.” Notably, he certainly has, or had, a US green card, but when someone found out about it he first denied it and then said his green card had expired. We are still waiting for him to show proof of the supposed expiration.

It is worrying to realize that Ma applies millennia-old feudal thinking when dealing with the global realities of the 21st century.

His anachronistic mindset is particularly perilous for Taiwan’s sovereignty. On Teacher’s Day on Wednesday last week, Ma, as is his habit, quoted from the writings of ancient sages. Choosing this time a quote from Mencius, he said: “He who with a great State serves a small one, delights in Heaven. He who with a small State serves a large one, stands in awe of Heaven. He who delights in Heaven will affect with his love and protection the whole kingdom. He who stands in awe of Heaven will affect with his love and protection his own kingdom.”

Ma presented this as an explanation of relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Someone should remind Ma that we are now in the 21st century and international relations should be conducted in accordance with international law. If Ma’s brain is so tied up with notions of “delighting in heaven” and “standing in awe of heaven,” then it’s no wonder that Taiwan’s sovereignty is going down the drain.

Ma, who seems unconcerned about not having made good on his “6-3-3” campaign pledge to achieve annual economic growth of 6 percent, an unemployment rate of 3 percent and a per capita GDP of US$30,000, is not the only one who has read the classics without any positive effect. Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is another example. Judging by how frequently Wu quotes from the classics, he must have spent quite a lot of time reading them. Yet, back when he was mayor of Kaohsiung, people in southern Taiwan nicknamed him “Liar Yih” (白賊義). Evidently, not everyone who reads the classics becomes virtuous as a result.

A more recent example is Wu’s meeting in July with farmers’ groups. Most of the people attending had probably read less of the classics than Wu has, but in the course of a little more than an hour, Wu muttered a common curse word at least five times — another good example of how reading the classics does not necessarily have any beneficial effect.

During the early years of the Republic of China, philosopher Hu Shi (胡適) said that, in our day, to talk deludingly about reading the classics and to call for students to read the classics is ignorant talk that knowledgeable people would not even consider worth laughing at. Ma is far inferior to Hu in his understanding of Chinese culture. Why does the president feel compelled to prove his inferiority by going on about reading the classics and how school students should read them?

If Ma really has faith in democracy, he should clean out the pernicious influence of one-party-state education. He should promote democratic and pluralistic civic education instead of stubbornly pushing Chinese feudal culture.

If we are going to talk about “soft power” for Taiwan, we should take advantage of Taiwan’s geographical and historical advantages, such as its combination of maritime and continental cultures, its blend of Austronesian, Asian and Western cultures and its transformation from authoritarianism to democracy, emphasizing their positive aspects as they apply to Taiwan. Ma’s advocacy of reading the classics leads in just the opposite direction by locking Taiwan into a backward world of one-party rule and feudalistic social relations.

If Ma insists on following that path, the only thing for the public to do is to throw him out. That is the way to ensure that Taiwan progresses along the right path — a path that is compatible with universal values.

Translated By Julian Clegg