Saturday, April 03, 2010

Why is Ma so Unpopular: Take II

Asia Sentinel, which often has wonderful stuff, became the latest news organization to grapple with the uncomfortable fact of Ma's lack of popularity with a piece that says that Ma has hit a rough patch -- yeah, basically since he entered office. AS begins:
Over the nearly two years since Ma Ying-jeou was sworn in as Taiwan's president, his popularity has seesawed from a high of 58 percent when he was elected to a low of around 20 percent when his government was perceived as arrogant and incompetent in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, then recovered strongly on the government's performance after the global financial crisis. Now it has plummeted again, with just 23.8 percent of the electorate approving of his performance.
I got curious to see what "strong recovery" occurred after the government's poor performance on Morakot due to the response to the financial crisis (which was as lame as the response to Morakot, it just unfolded over a longer period of time), so I looked up the Global Views poll, which helpfully has the numbers on Ma since June of 2008. Here's their track:

The dark blue line at the top is the dissatisfaction/disapproval rate, the aqua line at the bottom is the satisfaction/approval rate. Once they elected Ma, the public seemed to wake up rapidly and his approval rates, as the global views poll notes, peaked at around 40 just prior to Morakot in August of 2009. Since then Ma has been unable to break 30. I wonder what poll Asia Sentinel was looking at, because there was no recovery after Morakot in this one.

The Asia Sentinel piece does a much better job than Shelly Rigger's latest piece at identifying the root of the current problem: ECFA.
Ma's popularity now is at risk over the ECFA – the Economic Cooperation and Framework Agreement with China, a preferential trade agreement being discussed in Taipei and one that voters widely believe will sacrifice the island's autonomy to Beijing.
Voters also widely believe it will trash the economy. The AS report doesn't dig deeply enough...
His American education and approach to governing appeared to present a clean break from the country's previous deeply scandal-tainted politics, especially those of his own predecessors in the Kuomintang.
Folks, nobody disputed that Ma had downloaded government funds into his own accounts for personal use. Anyone remember the court's verdict? An excerpt:
According to the indictment, Ma collected NT$4,129,073 from the special funds between December 1998 and July 2006, but the judges upheld Ma's innocence as they said that during his two-terms as Taipei mayor between 1999 and 2006 he had also donated NT$63,078,949 to charity, which is over five times the amount of money from the special fund.
At least one other individual had been convicted and imprisoned for doing what Ma did. But you can be sure that this reality will never see the light of day in the international media. Another fun instance:
And, when in 2008 the world financial crisis hit, Ma Ying-jeou's cabinet reacted quickly and positively. The government issued consumer shopping vouchers, with each eligible Taiwanese receiving NT$3,600 (US$113) to attempt to revive the domestic economy. This went well with the public.
The voucher program (my post) went well with the public? My perception was that the public found it an amusing but pathetic substitute for real economic action, as Jon Adams basically reported. But others may remember differently.

Few in Taiwan would argue that the Ma cabinet reacted quickly and positively to the economic crisis; quite the opposite. That is one reason for Ma's long-term popularity drop-off. As with the Rigger piece, the fact that Ma is widely perceived to be incompetent, and the reasons for it -- with the exception of Morakot -- never truly surfaces in the AS piece.

There's an interesting thesis on the beef issue. AS argues that Ma sacrificed his popularity to show China a thing or two:
Since Ma's government must have been aware of what happened in Korea, the decision to risk his standing with the Taiwanese public could have been a political maneuver: in times of ongoing ECFA negotiations the demonstrations gave Beijing the signal that the Taiwanese are still likely to hit the streets if there are developments they don't approve of. Beijing has good reason to fear TV-footage of demonstrations going on in ‘Greater China,' regardless whether they happen on the mainland, in Hong Kong or in Taipei. Ma Ying-jeou's approval ratings dropped, yet through this sacrifice he kept an overly pushy China at bay.
I think this argument that Ma used the beef demonstrations to send a signal to China fails for two reasons. First, the decision on beef appears to have been former NSC head Su Chi's, for which his head rolled. Second, massive and violent demonstrations occurred during the first two visits of Chinese negotiators to Taiwan. It is hard to imagine how China could be affected by demonstrations aimed at Washington and Taipei, when it had already been the target of much larger and more violent demonstrations.

The last paragraph contains words worth remembering:
Taiwan's next presidential elections are to be held in 2012. That's a long way ahead. Since Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, things can change overnight, and it's far from certain that Ma's approval ratings won't bounce back. Given that the stakes are so high, it's in the interest of both the Taiwanese business community and China that they go up again. To make things go smoothly for Ma, the Chinese government could easily resort to economic aid in a form as subtle as in 2009, when it awarded orders to Taiwanese companies to supply a large scale program that brought cheap household electronics to China's provinces. Money makes the world go around and the Chinese government, which least wants to see a failing Ma, holds US$2.4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.
2012 is a long way off, and recovery is possible -- indeed, I suspect many of those complaining about him now will fall into line and vote Ma when the election comes around. The AS piece assumes the default posture that ECFA will be good for Taiwan and its businesses.... "it's in the interest of both the Taiwanese business community and China that they go up again" ... although that is a problematic assumption, especially on the Taiwanese side. Will China actually come and spend the big bucks for Ma to keep him in office for another four years? 2012 will definitely be an interesting election campaign....
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

I think a lot of foreign reporters mistakenly believe that since Ma stayed a few years at Harvard, somehow he is superior in some way...That's just nonsense. Not to say that Harvard sucks, but come on, you cannot use shit to make dinner.

My point is, Ma spend far more time in the oil tank of KMT culture. He was brought up in the KMT way, and after Harvard, re-enter the KMT system. Comparing to the KMT experience, Harvard education is insignificant. Not to mentioned he works for KMT basically when he was in the US. Just how much he actually learned is anyone's guess.

Comparing this to ex-President Lee, for example. Lee was brought up under Japanese education system, and later entered Cornell University. Although he is also in KMT, he is never part of the KMT "core." Seems to me that is much more diverse experience and a lot less KMT than Ma.

Sometimes I think reporters and analysts need a bit more brain and attention to detail. Same goes with those who voted or support Ma because of the Harvard brand.

Michael Turton said...

It's the fawning admiration I don't get. Here is a man whose major projects as mayor were all failures, and who did little for the city during his tenure. Here is a man who got his high position because he has old connections to the mainlander gang that runs the KMT, who got his scholarship to Harvard not on merit but as a result of agreements between Harvard and the KMT security state and US foreign policy. Here's a man who has never deserved anything he has gotten. How can anyone respect such a person, let alone fawn over him?

Anonymous said...

Ma is given media admiration as it reflects on his government's adherence to towing the line of the superpowers. Notice how Karzai, once a darling of the US, is now started to be portrayed as unreliable. Any small or developing nation leader who acts in the true interests of the people, who appears to negatively impact US or EU or NATO interests is suddenly disfavored in the media. A-bian never had a chance!

Anonymous said...

Check the news, some of the news coming out of ECFA negotiations make it sound like ECFA isn't going to be signed after all, even with the Chinese nationalist government in power. If even the KMT finds the terms unpalatable, this makes for a very interesting situation--

The KMT may make a stand that is pro-Taiwan after all. If ECFA is a sure bust, Ma will stop being distracted and be forced to actually try to run the government and take care of domestic priorities, like, oh I don't know, FLOOD CLEANUP that still hasn't been completed from last year.

Simultaneously, the DPP will no longer be simply anti-ECFA--the two parties will begin to compete on alternative plans for Taiwan's economic and cultural future that aren't simply centered around China.

Here's hoping UDN isn't just trying to lower people's expectations and ECFA negotiations really are going to shit. It would be a much needed miracle rain for national politics in Taiwan.

Ben Goren said...

"A-bian never had a chance" - this is so true. Even if he had not been 'caught' with his fingers in the cookie jar he nevertheless was Enemy Number 1 for just standing up in defence of Taiwanese interests. If the DPP win 2012 they will need a very savvy President to avoid being instantly denigrated by the PRC and US as 'troublemakers' etc (yawn). Mike, if there is one thing you have argued that I repeat ad nauseum it is that Chinese anger is a policy position not a visceral response. This is highly unlikely to change. The PRC don't want to have to administer the Taiwanese - they just want a permanent single party pro-china hegemony like Singapore that will essentially mean Beijings direct control of Taiwan without getting their hands dirty. If the KMt don't want to play the role of client, Beijing will find another placeman (President Song anyone?)

vin said...


I've been going through transcribed material from interviews I conducted and recorded with Westerners who lived/have lived here awhile; this segment from one of those interviews partly addresses your question, I think:

"Here, if you have a lot of money, you're respected no matter how you got it. Nobody here is willing to openly tell you how they got it in the first place, but even if that were totally exposed and it was done dishonestly, others would just say, ‘Hey you've got it. That's the point!’ Whereas in America we would say how you got it is part of the point, too. We might envy someone who is born rich, but we're not going to admire or respect that person. Because what's there to respect? Zero. But in Taiwan, people might admire or respect this kind of person. They're likely to think someone driving an expensive car is cool; but if I see a doctor in America driving a Porsche, I'll guess he's a dork, because I'll guess he can't drive it at anywhere near its limit; if you can't drive a real racing car, then why'd you buy one? It's obvious: To impress people, especially women. But enough women in America would have more respect for a doctor who's into mountaineering -- who actually has some balls instead of pretends to by buying a race car.”

Arty said...

Really? Vin, how about Bush Jr., Kennedy, Rockefeller...British Royalties. We are all humans, Western and Eastern culture although have differences, good and bad, don't stealth common in how Western culture is superior.

The amazing thing about US education system, and people with high terminal degrees from it could also be well accomplished in other fields. I know a person who is a tenured professor, very active outdoor person, drove an Audi Z8 to work, and under age of 50 (one of his inventions has gross sells of over 1 billion dollars in 2009). Note: It is the education system, not the culture behind it.

vin said...

"Really? Vin, how about Bush Jr., Kennedy, Rockefeller...British Royalties."

And your point is what? The only common denominators between these four are wealth and their being public figures. Focus, Arty, focus. And think objectively for a change. Go back to Michael's comment and read again exactly what he asked about. Then you might see that a case can be made (though it requires subtlety) out of your inept expression (Bush, Jr? Rockefeller?!!) here for a second explanation in addition to the one I supplied.

"We are all humans, Western and Eastern culture although have differences, good and bad, don't stealth common in how Western culture is superior."

You're the one who's staying stuck on "Western is superior," not me; one aspect (here, one value) does not a culture make. Anyway, in the end, why worry about questions of "better" and "worse" with regard to culture? If you ask me, the proper labels are "bad" and "worse," and the more every culture gets a hard spanking, the better. But you didn't ask me, and I didn't give my opinion in the comment; you just assumed you knew my opinion from my choice of someone else's words. Why did you assume that?

"Note: It is the education system, not the culture behind it."

Why not just quit while you're behind?