Taiwan’s pro-China policies under Ma have benefitted neither its economy nor its people

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Parris Chang

On July 20, Taiwan’s ruling party (Kuomintang or KMT) elected its chairman, and tens of thousands of its members were mobilized to vote for the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou. Pundits likened the election to a mid-summer festival political farce, as Ma was the only candidate on the ballot, while another possible rival was disqualified on “technical” grounds to ensure Ma would be the winner.

Nonetheless, Ma took a month-long leave of absence from his presidential duties to campaign all around Taiwan to solicit votes from the KMT’s ranks and files.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.

For Ma to get re-elected is a foregone conclusion, but he wanted to win big lest he would lose his face. Reportedly, a secret “words of the mouth” campaign has been organized by Ma’s detractors inside the KMT to turn the election into a vote of non-confidence on Ma and instigate the disgruntled members to abstain from voting.

Why does President Ma feel compelled to seek the party chairmanship again?

Reporters once reminded him of a pledge he made while campaigning for president in 2007 that he would never serve as KMT chairman if elected, because “the president should be devoted full-time to government’s affairs.” Despite the pledge, he did seize the party chairmanship from Wu Poh-hsiung in 2009. A deceitful and hypocrytical Ma would assert that his decision was not a power grab, but was “prompted by his sense of responsibility for the nation’s competitiveness and government performance.”

Whereas President Ma has controlled so much power from the party and state, and the KMT has also possessed a majority of seats in the legislative Yuan (LY), pathetically he has been unable to get things done or done properly.

Indeed, Ma does not know how to govern and his leadership performance is so bad that many observers, including the senior officials he appointed and veteran party leaders have branded him incompetent.

Last year, a very unpopular President Ma was re-elected for another 4-year term, thanks to the unceremonious intervention on his behalf by China and the United States.

Although he received fewer popular votes and a smaller margin of victory (51.6 percent) than in the 2008 election (58 percent), he proudly claimed that he won the popular mandate to implement a grandiose program for a golden decade a policy platform he announced during the election.

A survey made public by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research before Ma began his second term in office showed 57.4 percent of respondents regarded the president not trustworthy and 67.5 percent disapproved of his performance.

Since then, he has been faced with a record-low approval rating and various polls show his support in a range of 15 percent to 25 percent, and growing criticism within the KMT, including its law-makers.

Numerous reasons caused the growing popular discontent and resentment. Chief among them is Ma’s failure to deliver on several major campaign promises in his first 4-year term: so-called “633,” namely to increase annual economic growth to 6 percent (it is still below 3 percent), to lower the jobless rate to 3 percent (the latest data show a rate of 4.06 percent), and to increase annual per capita income to US $30,000 (but most people’s real incomes are either stagnant or in decline).

Adding to these grievances are a string of the Ma government’s unwise and rash policies implemented without approval by the LY, including fuel and electricity price hikes, which anger the general public strongly. Likewise, a not well-thought through plan to re-impose capital-gains tax on stock transactions badly alienated the middle class and business community.

In addition, Ma’s personality and his leadership style also contribute to his predicament. Even though the LY has been controlled by the KMT with a working majority, Ma as the president and chairman wields little influence on the law-making body. This is due to the lack of regular contacts and consultations between Ma and the KMT legislators.

Some of them are seasoned and knowledgeable, but they complain that Ma does not respect them and often treat the KMT legislators as simply rubble stamps, hence they have grown leery of Ma. As a matter of fact, Ma has been widely criticized for his arrogance of power he trusts and deals with only some of his cohorts; consequently, he has isolated himself and is out of touch with reality, and has no knowledge of what the people need and want.

Foreign journalists who write about Taiwan are apt to dwell on Ma’s accomplishments in cross-strait ties. Thus far, Taiwan has signed a landmark trade pact (ECFA) with Beijing, including 17 agreements to lift the cross-strait tariffs on goods and investment barriers. A service trade agreement has been initialed, but not yet reviewed and ratified by the LY; both the opposition and KMT legislators have serious reservations about the agreement, which would allow China’s capital and huge service industry to enter Taiwan’s market, and could adversely affect thousands of Taiwan’s small and medium enterprises.

If President Ma believes that close economic ties with China can invigorate Taiwan’s struggling economy, then he has been proven wrong, as Taiwan’s economy has hardly improved.

The ECFA and the liberalization of cross-strait trade and investment have undoubtedly benefited a small number of fat cats and owners of Taiwan’s China-based companies, but overall the ordinary people have suffered from the rapid, huge flight of Taiwan’s capital to China, as their real wages have decreased and more than 1 million blue-collar and white-collar workers have lost jobs.

Moreover, Taiwan is paying a heavy political price for China’s imagined economic concessions. The ECFA is modeled on the economic agreement (CEPA) between China and Hong Kong and is based on the one-China principle. The principle will erode and weaken Taiwan’s sovereign status, and would eventually transform Taiwan into a special economic zone of China.

Since President Ma came into office in 2008, Taiwan has progressively tilted toward China, as he has been conscientiously pursuing a policy of unification with China in close and active collaboration with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. His recent acceptance of “one China” framework is the latest indication of the KMT policy to move toward unification. This would further explain the rationale behind his efforts to retain KMT chairmanship — that is, as the KMT chairman until 2017.

Ma is in a position to set and direct the cross-strait agenda after he steps down from the Presidential office in 2016. Regardless of which party is in power after 2016, Chairman Ma would be able to visit China and hold formal meetings with Xi Jinping to forge a new cross-strait relationship.

Does Ma Ying-jeou aspire to become Taiwan’s Qisling? The Taiwan people who cherish freedoms, democracy, independence and do not wish to live under the Communist rule must do what they can to deter the would-be Quislings from selling out Taiwan to China.

Parris Chang, professor emeritus of political science of the Pennsylvania State University, is CEO of Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies. Previously, he was a DPP legislator and deputy secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council.

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