Grading President Ma Ying-Jeou

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Taiwan is a responsible stakeholder and a peacemaker in East Asia. Taiwan’s democratic experience is a model for China, and we have long been a friend and ally of the United States…”

President Ma Ying-jeou had just concluded his remarks over videoconference amidst applause from the audience at Stanford University. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the moderator of the evening’s proceedings, thanked the president and the participants.

Behind the lectern where Ma spoke earlier—most likely a room in the Presidential Office—the seal of that office hung above the words “Republic of China (Taiwan).”

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People unfamiliar with Taiwan probably have good reason to hold President Ma Ying-jeou in high esteem. As Ma mentioned in his speech, which he delivered in his usual, mellow Confucian-scholarly style: “There were two flashpoints in East Asia, and while the world is focused on one of them right now, the other one has disappeared.” He is referring to, of course, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Looking at the Taiwan Strait, over the very same waters into which ballistic missiles were fired as recently as 1996, more than 600 direct commercial flights now fly weekly, shuttling investors, tourists and exchange students. China has gone from Taiwan’s largest military threat to Taiwan’s largest trading partner, surpassing the United States and Japan in 2005 as well as becoming the only country to conclude a bilateral trade liberalization framework agreement with Taiwan. The people on both sides never dreamed of possibly exchanging postcards one day; today, pro-independence leaders in Taiwan have their own social media accounts in China (which were rather swiftly banned, but no victory is too small). Not a few magazine articles in the U.S. painted Ma Ying-jeou and his administration as one of the most important and creative peacemakers in the 21st century.

If this were true, I for one certainly welcome this brand image for Taiwan. Shut out of most major international organizations, including those under the United Nations, the Taiwanese people have long thought of ways to make themselves visible and recognized by the world. Imagine down the road—a Taiwanese leader receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully defusing tensions between Japan, the United States, and China over oil rights in the Western Pacific by engaging the leaders in a series of four-way dialogues. Maybe Taiwan and China could come to a permanent peace accord that secures the independence of Taiwan’s way of life and China’s sense of national unity. Or Taiwan acting as the unofficial ombudsperson of East Asia, mediating conflicts stretching from Russia in the north, to New Zealand in the south. At Taiwan’s suggestion, Asian economies cooperate to build new standards in finance, capitalism and social order, based on ancient Asian principles of mutual respect. On that day, people will be proud to be called Taiwanese.

But let’s come back down to earth for a bit. This fantasy would no doubt be great for Taiwan. Is it, however, just a fantasy? Is Ma Ying-jeou a real visionary, or is he living in his own naïve la-la-land?

For one thing, when Prof. Rice asked Ma whether growing closer to Taiwan is a positive move for the U.S., Ma stressed that Taiwan-U.S. relations improve whenever he reduces tensions between Taiwan and China. This understanding of the US-China-Taiwan balancing act is rather juvenile. Indeed, in the years prior to 2008, tensions between Taiwan and China were at a high point, causing alarm for the United States. The U.S. did not want war to break out, as it would likely need to jump into the conflict to retain its position and allies in the area.  Chen Shui-bian, president at the time and member of the pro-independence party in Taiwan, was chastised by the Americans for acting like a kid who kept poking the tiger just to see what’ll happen. Therefore, it is understandable that the U.S. would like tensions to subside—which Ma pretty much accomplished simply by getting elected, since his pro-China party would by no means be any more provocative.

Any further warming of relations between Taiwan and China, I believe, should be evaluated case by case where American interests are concerned. Favored trade treatment, or high level joint military meetings, is certainly tying the two sides closer; but as the U.S. is ramping up competition with China over trade and security concerns, Ma’s policies may very well bring sparks of uncertainty to American objectives in East Asia. Furthermore, after five years of the détente of “easy topics first,” China is running out of patience for Ma to get talking on the harder topics of political and regulatory integration. The pace of Taiwan-China honeymooning has already alarmed some in the States to the point of advocating for simply dropping support for Taiwan. The more politically and militarily integrated Taiwan is with China, the harder it is to keep asking America to see Taiwan as simply a friend and an ally.

Likewise, portraying Ma to be the peacemaker across the Taiwan Strait might just be giving him too much credit. The series of changes in China policy by Ma’s administration, such as opening up direct flights, allowing for exchange students and tourists, etc., could at best be described as a reversion to the mean—any two non-hostile states would have all of those things as well. They are not exactly “improving” relations, so much as “repairing” relations, which in reality had already begun under the previous DPP administration. In other words, they have picked the low-hanging diplomatic fruit. As I mentioned above, Ma’s real test is just coming around the corner, when he has to balance dealing with deeper integration with China on the one hand, and being on the American side of the Western Pacific power partition on the other.

More importantly, standing in the city alleyways or the edges of rice fields in Taiwan, Ma and the KMT’s policies of economic liberalization feel more like the product of short-sighted, profit-driven capitalists in fear of being left out of the China gold rush. Yes, many Taiwanese small businesses are better off today thanks to Ma’s policies. But the vast majority of the value created by cross-straits liberalization has been gobbled up by a small group of large corporate interests and their investors. Many large, profitable Taiwanese companies like Foxconn are built on exploiting the draconian labor conditions in China. Taiwanese real estate prices have skyrocketed in a bubble caused by Chinese speculators with the government abusing eminent domain powers to steamroll over old neighborhoods at the request of developers. The administration has been dumbfounded about whether pro-China interests can freely buy up news media. To the Taiwanese, opening up with China has not brought the economic paradise that Ma’s administration promised. Instead, it gave birth to a vicious profit-mongering snake, exacerbating the wealth inequality in both societies. President Ma is either too naïve to see that these are the results of his well-intentioned neoliberal economic policies, or he is knowingly working as a faithful servant to this predatory monster.

On screen, President Ma Ying-jeou looked so proud of his accomplishments, like a third grade student of the month taking photos with the principal. But does he know that the principal has already started to have doubts about him, that he might have gone overboard with his assignment to calm the paranoia in the Taiwan Strait? Maybe he does know. Forging an accord for fishing rights near the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands with Japan might be a subtle shift towards the U.S.-Japan sphere of power; at least Beijing for sure is not going to congratulate Ma anytime soon for “settling sacred Chinese territory” with the enemy. The so-called “agreement” signed by a rebellious provincial leader is not enforceable, obviously.

Going forward, I support wholeheartedly the principle of finding common pragmatic values, and I support the vision where the world looks to Taiwan as a wise, mature advocate of peace, not just between states but within our interconnected societies as well. President Ma Ying-jeou has helped to reduce the probability of imminent war between Taiwan and China. But in that process, he has set Taiwan on a course towards uncharted waters—continued integration with China that will pull Taiwan out of American interests and unleash unforeseen catastrophes onTaiwanese society. Can President Ma or his successor leaders steer Taiwan through these torpedo-laced channels? Best of luck to them.

Taiwan Should Abolish the DPP and the KMT

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Committee meetings in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan are usually held in small conference rooms at the parliamentary courtyard, a cluster of old buildings that used to house a girl’s high school when the Japanese ran the show. On a hot afternoon in 2006, approving a big purchase of weapons from the United States was on the agenda.

Out of the blue, the right honorable member of parliament Li Ao walked to the lectern and began spraying tear gas into the air, disrupting the proceedings. Pandemonium broke out as the room filled with noxious fumes, and the highest representatives of the people scrambled for fresh air. This incident stands along the many other fistfights, shouting matches, and other such closing acts of Taiwan’s biggest circus, its legislature.

People who are not from Taiwan often marvel at its so-called “democratic miracle”—that is, how can such a friendly, hospitable people elect the goofiest and most immature political leaders? Similarly, the people of Taiwan ask themselves, where did things go wrong?

To correctly diagnose the problem, one must understand that Taiwan’s democratization story is part of a much larger one. It can only be completely understood along with Taiwan’s story of “independence versus unification,” or more precisely, the question of Taiwan’s national identity. As a result of Taiwan’s turbulent history, two competing national identities coexist in Taiwan. Democratization was a strategy that allowed both sides of the national identity conflict to wage war in a more civilized, air-conditioned setting, inside the halls of politicians and off the streets of protestors. Therefore, to induce Taiwan’s democratic governance to be more efficient (both in representing the myriad of societal wishes and in delivering on administrative promises), we must look at the problems brought on by the national identity conflict side of the equation.

A quick overview of the conflicting national identities in Taiwan can never give enough justice to the centuries of history they represent, but it is roughly as follows. On the one hand, some identify with a Taiwanese ethnic nation. It can be traced back as early as Taiwanese elites’ calls for higher degrees of self-rule within the Japanese colonial empire in the 1920s, which stemmed from their identifying themselves as a different entity from both the people on the Chinese and Japanese homelands. Later, a bloody and tragic clash of Taiwanese locals and the new rulers from China in 1947, and the social pressure of having to absorb an entire refugee society after 1949, added to the urgency of a strong Taiwanese state. The transplanted Chiang Kai-shek military one-party government did themselves no favors by crushing any bud of dissent. All these experiences produced a defensive identity for a nation that, at its purest form, is a people deserving of its own state under the 20th century classic notion of self-determination.

On the other hand is a national identity, identifying with a republican, unified China encompassing all that could possibly said to be Chinese, realizing the dream of 19th century reformers and revolutionaries led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The dream went into full force as democratic revolution became the solution to imperial China’s corruption, backwardness and powerlessness against modern Western colonialists. After a long series of crushing blows to the project by ambitious strongmen, warlords, carpetbaggers and incompetent officials, the republic endured almost a decade of desecration by the Japanese but finally surrendered power to the Communist Party. The years of war scorched much of the land, and those who fled the mainland to Taiwan were separated from their families and roots, in many cases permanently. The democratic China project lies at the bottom of this well of history, tarnished and unfinished.

In Taiwan, the responsibilities of achieving these two conflicting national identities have fallen on the two major political parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (the KMT) for “Republican Greater China” and the Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP) for “Self-Determined Ethnic Taiwan.” Of course, the two nation-building projects have long predated the formation of either political party. But as the nation-builders organized, they realized that for them, nation-building necessarily meant state-building as well—taking over the power of sanctioned authority. This was the case for the KMT in the 1920s when the first Chinese republican experiment failed at the hands of Yuan Shikai; it was also the case for the DPP in the 1980s when they were formed to oust the authoritarian KMT government. In other words, both the KMT and the DPP are less governing political parties and more revolutionary nation-building organizations at heart.

And herein lies the problem with Taiwan’s democracy: two nation-building projects are vying for control over the same state apparatus. Between 1945 to 1987, the Republic of China government in Taiwan was a one-party martial law state controlled by the KMT. It continued its nation-building project in Taiwan, forcing on the populace an identity that did not match that of the majority of its citizens. This further consolidated the nativist Taiwanese self-determination cause, which contributed greatly to the anti-government and pro-democracy sentiment. In the 1980s and 90s, mass anti-government protests led the KMT to allow the opposition to enter national elections—the two sides chose democratic competition and compromise as the dueling ground, rather than violent revolution. The result for the previously seditious independent Taiwan project is that while now legitimatized, it had conceded the opportunity to eradicate and outlaw the republican Greater China project. The two camps therefore agreed to continue the fight in the parliament and through election campaigns.

This arrangement certainly produced an immense benefit for Taiwan’s society; that is, the costs of all-out military revolution had been avoided. But throughout the next few decades, this arrangement created structural strains, both on the actual need for Taiwan’s society to consolidate a workable identity inclusive for all its members, and for the daily functioning of Taiwan’s governing institutions. On the front of consolidating a workable identity, the current situation allows top-down nation-building along outdated and contradictory models to persist and encumbers transitional justice for the victims of martial law under Chiang Kai-shek. As for improved functioning of Taiwan’s governing institutions, the current situation burdens pragmatic considerations in Taiwan-China relations and immobilizes the political process’s ability to deal with pressing domestic issues such as development, distributive justice, and social welfare.

So here is a modest proposal to Taiwan’s civil society: abolish the KMT and the DPP, and rebuild a spread of political parties along ideological and issue boundaries. Let there be labor parties, environmental parties, parties representing free market capitalism and parties representing social democracy. Let the people who agree on how governance and the governed should interact from the KMT and the DPP get together and work towards their goal. Let the spectrum of political parties reflect the spectrum of issues and wishes of the voters.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. The KMT and the DPP are probably here to stay. It would be hard to imagine a social force great enough to pressure both parties into committing political suicide and giving up its infrastructure and core supporters. The national identity question will still remain and seep back into politics. Fortunately, both the KMT and the DPP understand that the political tectonic plates are indeed shifting. Student movements of recent years have sprung up in response to the mistreatment of old factory workers, violent removal of residents for urban renewal projects, monopolization of news media, and nuclear energy policy. Beijing has been pushing for more complex, intertwined regulatory, trade and legal modes of interaction beneficial to its side. All of these issues demand both parties commit to a clear stance, and more importantly, to a clear ideology so people will know what to expect in the future. The two parties will not have to merely adjust their policies, but think hard about their legacies and organizational power structure as well.

There is a lot of soul searching in the horizon for Taiwan’s two major parties. A lot of work still needs to be done if the people of Taiwan want to replace politicians weaned on nationalistic fervor with those that are pragmatic in their approach and empathetic in their service to the people. Perhaps then we will see Taiwan’s parliament as less of a circus and more of a proper, respected arena where a small committee meeting might just produce a small glimmer of optimism. 

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