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Sun, Feb 11, 2001 - Page 2 News List

Taipei's Ma Ying-jeou: the city statesman

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

Ostensibly, the purpose of Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) five-day visit to Hong Kong is to attend the Taipei-Hong Kong City-to-City Forum, but some observers say that trip may be far more significant in other terms.

It is a unique occasion in that it marks the first meeting between Taipei's mayor and his Hong Kong counterpart, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), the chief executive of the special administration region. During his first visit in March 1999, Ma failed to meet with Tung because of a "tight schedule."

Although official interaction between Taipei and other major cities in China has been going on for years, it was not until last September when Taipei Deputy Mayor Bai Hsiu-hsiung (白秀雄) visited China did the momentum begin for city-to-city exchanges across the Taiwan Strait.

Bai's visit, however, was stalled four times before the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 陸委會) finally gave its approval.

Last July the MAC also rejected Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh's (謝長廷) planned trip to Xiamen, in Fujian Province, over what it said were "legal problems."

A clear message

Ma's meeting with Tung is seen by some analysts as significant because it represents diplomatic headway made despite a deadlock in Taiwan-China talks at the national level.

"It sends out a strong and clear message to the international community that the dialogue across the Taiwan Strait is taking a step forward, especially among local governments," said Tung Chih-sen (董智森), a veteran journalist at the United Daily News (聯合報).

Tung added that China wants to show the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration that it prefers to talk with Taiwan's local governments on the issue of cross-strait relations because it thinks that the central government has been handling the matter poorly.

"The obvious candidates [for China] to talk to are Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh and Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou," Tung said. "Hsieh's planned visit to China was rejected because the DPP did not want him to overshadow Chen. That left Ma to make the breakthrough."

But Ma is not Taiwan's first high-profile local government heavyweight to visit China. Last November, Hsinchu County Commissioner Lin Kuang-hua (林光華) attended an international Hakka association forum held in Xiamen.

Lin's visit was preceded by Hsinchu Mayor Tsai Jen-chien's (蔡仁堅) trip to Nanking last October for an international technology forum -- as the first elected local government official from Taiwan to visit China.

In view of the Hong Kong chief executive's flagging popularity, Tung said that Hong Kong will benefit far more than Taipei from the city-to-city exchange.

"Tung Chee-hwa needs Ma's visit to boost his personal image in the eyes of the Chinese regime because Tung is not one of the central government's favorites. Besides, Hong Kong people love Ma," Tung said.

Philip Yu (游鴻程), a veteran journalist-turned-politician, agreed.

"I believe they won't reach any earth-shattering conclusion at the meeting, but Tung would definitely benefit from the meeting because he needs something to strengthen his relationship with Beijing, and Ma is a good tool," he said. "Tung seems to me a Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) of the 21st century, who tries to mediate between Beijing and Taipei."

Plenty of political charisma

Deemed as one of the best-looking local government officials, Ma has long been a darling of the media and is highly respected by the public. In addition to his good looks, observers say Ma has other qualities that contribute to his popularity.

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