All aboard Ma’s rudderless ship

By Jerome Keating  / 

Fri, Mar 30, 2012 - Page 8

The recent US beef controversy, with its intimations of a quid pro quo backroom deal, adds to the mounting realization that the nation, under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), has been a rudderless ship.

It is not that the ship of state does not move; rather it finds itself continually blown this way and that, forward and backward, by the conflicting directions of the hot air currents and excuses that emanate from the presidential office. Ma took office in May 2008, yet never has so little been done by a president who entered with so many advantages. Instead of the hoped-for progress, Taiwan’s ship of state has tossed to and fro as it has tried to respond to multiple changing winds.

Those winds include misinterpreted and misapplied mandates, leadership by platitudes, inept plans from inexperienced staff, the belief that the essence of responsibility is finding someone to blame, word games, and finally insulting hoodwink strategies dictating that the best way to escape unfulfilled promises is to make newer, more grandiose ones. This has been Taiwan’s past four years under the winds of Ma-speak.

Start with Ma’s infamous “6-3-3” campaign pledge, the cornerstone of which was an elusive 6 percent annual GDP growth; that “6-3-3” pledge won Ma the election in the hope that the economy would subsequently improve. To the public’s chagrin, Ma misinterpreted his win with 58 percent of the vote as agreement with what was in his heart — that he should move to realize his father’s dream of unifying Taiwan with China.

So stuck has Ma been in this dream, that even now, with GDP this year set to drop below 4 percent, Ma still only talks of his desired Zhongua Minzu (中華民族). Although Ma peppers his speeches with Taiwan-centric words during election campaigns, people are beginning to realize that Ma would choke if he had to speak of a Taiwan Minzu.

The winds of Typhoon Morakot in 2009 exposed another problem — the lack of planning and unreadiness of the Ma administration. Platitudes could not solve or blow away the problems of that disaster and though the weather was the chosen scapegoat, it made a poor choice.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) brought the next changing winds. Ma’s administration boasted that the ECFA (pushed through without the help and/or scrutiny of the Legislative Yuan) was their baby, the longed-for economy-solving breakthrough that would rescue Taiwan. However, when GDP continued to drop and the rescue did not materialize, the public raised concerns that Taiwan’s sovereignty was being sold out instead.

So, the wind and sales pitch changed.

The ECFA was there, but it was only a shell; nothing had really been decided on. There was no sell-out, and after ignoring the Legislative Yuan and the people, Ma-speak dodged responsibility and passed the responsibility back to them.

However, it is the US beef controversy that has more clearly exposed the duplicity of Ma-speak; the problem was not only with beef, but at the same time avian flu came home to roost. Despite protestations that public health was Ma’s main concern, the dangers to public health were put on hold until after Ma was assured of re-election. With the delay of the scandal, that mysterious phrase “wait till the boss steps down” directed the wind of blame. In addition, Ma’s team tried to further pass the buck, this time to the previous administration.

Beef restrictions had been put in place under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Then, in 2007, a memo was sent that Chen was considering changing the restrictions; that consideration was never carried out.

Now, five years later, the public has been asked to believe that the current flip-flop of the Ma administration is the result of Chen’s consideration that was never carried out.

What has happened in the past four years? Was the Ma administration asleep at the wheel? Did it feel duty-bound to do what Chen considered?

Finally, Ma declared that there was no backroom deal for US support of his re-election, but immediately after the election American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Raymond Burghardt showed up on Taiwan’s doorstep like a debt collector, seeking a long overdue bill.

New conflicting winds of direction appeared with the word games that Taiwan must deal with and that Ma asks the people to believe.

The so-called “1992 consensus” should be accepted because though it is fake, Ma does not know how to talk to the People’s Republic of China without it. An obvious question is: Why doesn’t the Ma administration create a new consensus and put it to China and Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan for approval?

However, that would mean the Ma administration would have to take action and accept some form of responsibility. That cannot happen.

The word games continued; Ma said that public health was most important and that there was no timeline for accepting US beef, but his minions know that he wants the sell-out to be completed before he officially takes office for his second term in May.

The latest game is former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) defining China and Taiwan as “one country, two areas.”

In the eight years of his presidency, Chen never had the advantages that Ma has had. The Legislative Yuan, which has always been controlled by the KMT and its allies, did not act as a loyal opposition party. Progress was difficult, but Taiwanese could nonetheless be assured that they knew where their country stood and that its flag would be respected — the flag was never hidden when foreign visitors came, even if they came from China. The opposite has been true under Ma.

Now, the China International Contractors Association seeks to join the International Federation of Asia and West Pacific Contractors Associations, but they have made a list of requirements for their participation. These include that Taiwan, a founding member, cannot use the names Republic of China or Taiwan, and that the national flag not be flown or any other national emblems shown. Taiwanese officials cannot attend in any capacity, etc, etc.

Is this what Ma means when he says that things will be completely different by 2016 when his time in office is over? Should Taiwanese fear the expunging of anything Taiwan-related in Ma’s new world?

Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) is the one who has to take the blame for and explain Ma-speak. He has no power to influence it, but that is standard for Ma’s minions and the reason why there will never be significant progress under Ma.

The main responsibility of Ma’s staff is to take the blame when danger threatens. Ma’s secretary took the fall for illegally putting about US$500,000 in Ma’s account because Ma would never do such a thing. Because Sean Chen must explain all, it is unlikely that he will survive the first year of Ma’s second term.

Taiwan’s ship of state is in trouble. Even if by any chance favorable winds appear on the horizon, they will not benefit a rudderless ship. Expect gusts of platitudes and promises, but progress — now that is a totally different matter.

Jerome Keating is a commentator based in Taipei.