Soong, Ma and the passing of power

By Jerome Keating  / 

Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 8

The battle between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) shows little sign of letting up. On the contrary, it is escalating; and Ma, not Wang, is the one driving that escalation.

In addition to pressing the courts for Wang’s dismissal as legislative speaker, by consistently canceling and changing the status and venue of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) meetings, Ma is not only deliberately shutting Wang out of party affairs, he is also putting party members who may be sympathetic to Wang on notice. Any show of loyalty or support for Wang or even calls for courtroom justice will be damaging to their careers.

Damaging, that is, as long as Ma is president and party chairman. It is this limited timeframe that Ma seems to forget. He should pay more attention to the mercurial rise and fall of People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) because the muse of politics plays no long-term favorites and can be merciless.

Soong “almost was Taiwan’s king.” He is a man who won followers on both sides of the aisle. His full and accurate biography, complete with all its ups and downs, shouts to be written.

It would be more than the biography of a man who just missed having eight years of the presidency to cap his career; it would be the biography of a man who with Machiavellian tenacity had struggled and risen through tumultuous times where backroom deals and power manipulations were much more formidable.

Included would have to be the changing political interplay of waishengren (外省人, recent arrivals from China) and benshengren (本省人), those who arrived in Taiwan before 1945) and the need to do an about-face in relations between Taiwan and China. It could be a biography much more engrossing than that of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) because it would contain the gripping semi-tragic interplay of fate, timing and character.

Thus far in Taiwan, however, Lee is the only man who consistently played cards with Dame Politic and came out ahead in both survival and notable, tangible contributions to Taiwan.

As Ma would later emulate, in his early days, Soong gained prominence by being secretary to then-premier Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). His career grew in stature in the pivotal days of the Kaohsiung Incident, where Soong as director of the Government Information Office defended the administration’s position against world opinion on human rights.

Soong’s star continued to rise with his impassioned, patriotic speech in the dark moments of the Republic of China (ROC) when then-US president James Carter moved the US embassy to Beijing.

With another impassioned speech, Soong would guarantee that Lee would succeed Chiang Ching-kuo in the power struggles following Chiang’s death. Unfortunately, Lee would later cut Soong’s power base by eliminating the position of provincial governor, a position that Soong had won by a landslide vote. Lee would also deny Soong the right to be premier.

When further denied the opportunity to represent the KMT in the 2000 presidential election, Soong ran as an independent. He far outshone the KMT candidate, then-vice president Lien Chan (連戰) and would have won if not for political intrigue and accusations over the Chung Hsin Bills Finance Corp scandal involving KMT money. Soong then formed the PFP, which proved formidable for a while. So, while Soong came so far and survived financially, he had not yet made a lasting, recognizable contribution to Taiwan’s future.

Ma should learn from this as he apparently digs the grave for his own legacy. He is no Soong, nor is he a Lee.

Though Ma can claim that he was president for eight years and Soong was denied that career finale, Ma does not measure up to Soong as a man who had to play with tougher opponents and had been dealt fewer good cards than Ma.

When one plays cards with and courts “Dame Politic,” it quickly becomes a high-stakes game and is never a one-hand deal. Past presidents have seen their reputations reverse as time went on and they ran out of cards. Former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) may have thought he died as “resident emperor,” but his name is now vilified more frequently than it is praised. Similarly, his son Chiang Ching-kuo has at best had mixed reviews regarding his checkered life and rule.

At a time when politicians, including Ma, are learning to duck flying shoes, many are wondering why Ma is pushing all of his chips into the pot over this one hand regarding Wang. Could it be that Ma senses that he does not have the cards and stature to follow up after his lame duck term is finished?

By drawing such lines of division, Ma is certainly risking all when there are more players in the game than Wang. Ma must be conscious that he is also playing for a legacy, though his legacy is already one tainted by his lack of transparency in the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and trade agreements as well as his questionable use of the courts. His odds of winning are decreasing because of his actions.

A victory over Wang will be a Pyrrhic one. Surrounded by sycophants, yes-men and incompetents, Ma could be oblivious that his day of reckoning threatens to approach if it is not already here.

In contrast, Soong had a clear vision and, whether people agreed with it or not, they listened to him because he was forthright in his opinions. With Ma, people only sense deception.

Surprisingly, there may still be cards for Soong to play. He could rise to a different role and different status with a different contribution. He could, if he had the nerve, disregard attempts to build a self-aggrandizing reputation and give advice and commentary from all that he has seen and been involved in.

It is ironic that now, when almost everyone — even long-gone actors like former Democratic Progressive Party chairmen Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) and Shih Ming-te (施明德) — is being asked to assess Ma’s gambit, Soong, the one man best capable of judging and telling it like it is, has not been asked.

Soong once called Ma a Persian cat; famed for looking pretty, but ineffectual in catching mice. Soong is the one who could also offer the most perceptive insights and judgments on what is going on with Ma’s decisions. Would he do it and would he be honest?

Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.