On June 20, I had a discussion about the government’s proposed service trade agreement with Minister Without Portfolio Schive Chi (薛琦), who was explaining it to me. I asked him whether he was worried that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would oppose the proposal, given that the government had failed to keep them in the loop prior to announcing it. He replied that the DPP would oppose anything that has anything to do with China anyway.
After the plans became known, government officials, despite the wide-ranging objections to the agreement among the general public, attempted to reduce the issue to a partisan quarrel between the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) Minister Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔) summed up the government line by saying that any problems were of politicians’ making. The fact that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) wants to debate the pact with DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) derives from this line of thinking.
Ma has said the reason he wants to hold the TV debate is that, to date, the government has only been able to communicate the details of the pact in a “partial, incomplete” manner. The debate is scheduled to last only two hours, so Ma himself will have but a single hour, maybe a little more, to explain the agreement.
If he manages to do so in a way that is more complete and easier to understand, in the brief time he is allotted, than the government machine has been able to do after over two months of trying, then he should probably do away with the entire Cabinet.
There are three actual reasons Ma wants the TV debate to go ahead. They are as follows:
First, the way that the government has conducted itself, holding closed-door meetings and keeping the legislature in the dark, is a violation of the democratic process and a cynical defrauding of the public’s will. The fact that the DPP is now prepared to have this debate gives the government a way out — it gives the impression of transparency.
Second, this debate between the leaders of the government and the opposition allows Ma to characterize the issue as a stand-off between the two parties. This sets the scene for the audience to respond to it as a matter of policy differences, and, to an even greater extent, as a face-off between Ma and Su.
Many members of the blue camp have their reservations about the agreement, but when they see Su opposing it, they will associate the issue with the DPP and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), and this will affect the manner in which they react to it. As a result, they are more likely to support Ma in any polls taken after the debate.
Third, given the level of opposition to the proposed pact, the various government departments all have many questions to account for. Now that Ma alone is going to be defending the agreement during this debate, he will be able to divert the focus away from specific problems and the role of individual ministries and their responsibilities.
Su did not need to get into this quarrel. He has said that the debate will help focus public attention on the issue and to back Ma into a corner, but this is easier said than done. From the way Ma has been talking lately, it is clear that he will not rise to the challenge, and will just give the stock answers he wants to.
On the closed-door meetings with China, he will just try to shift the focus onto technicalities of the negotiation process. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), in the same party as Ma, has pointedly said in a recent talk that the government’s propensity to go it alone is unacceptable. Since Ma did not care about the response from someone like Wang, how can we expect Su to get anything out of a debate with him? Neither will Ma be concerned about Su gaining the initiative on him.
As the debate is to be characterized as mostly partisan in nature, the greater the tension is, the better it is for Ma. All he needs to do is retain his composure and keep coming back to the idea that the DPP will always object to anything that involves China.
For these reasons, the TV debate is sure to be little more than a smokescreen for Ma, a tactical distraction. He wants the debate done and dusted before the next legislative session because he wants to ratchet up the tension between the two parties. This will enable him to muster his support base and bolster his own popularity, which will give him just cause to rally the KMT legislators to vote the pact through.
People concerned with the service trade agreement issue should, by all means, follow the TV debate. However, they should not believe that this distraction of Ma’s is where the real battle is. The real battle is to be fought in the legislature.
If this agreement is signed it will have huge repercussions for Taiwan’s future. We need to find out how it is that the government could pursue this matter while it kept the nation’s legislature — including the legislative speaker, who himself belongs to the ruling party — completely in the dark.
When the legislative session begins, we must demand that the government explain the whole affair right from the beginning, tell us who was behind it, what thinking informed it, how things transpired the way they did, what opportunities it is supposed to bring, and what the risks are to the security of industry, society and the nation.
It will be utterly irresponsible of Ma to attempt to get this agreement reviewed and passed in the legislature without first clarifying exactly what it is about. If he does, he cannot blame people for suspecting his motives.
Rex How is a publisher and a former national policy adviser.
Translated by Paul Cooper