Monday, May 30, 2011

Two Views of Ma: Nan Fang Shuo and Lin Cho-shui

Nan Fang Shuo, a Taiwanese pro-Blue intellectual, was interviewed in the Taipei Times about the performance and personality of President Ma Ying-jeou. You get a view of how exaggerated and intemperate Nan Fang Shuo can be from this piece from a few years ago. Remember that this is a man widely viewed as a public intellectual. With that in mind, it is fun to look at how he appears in this interview from the Liberty Times via the kind translators at the Taipei Times. The LT opens:
LT: Everyone always gets curious as to why you, who should be close to Ma in political inclinations and such, would be such a severe critic of him after he became the president.

Nan Fang Shuo: Basically, I am holding Taiwan’s politicians and the government to a new standard, especially in this age of democracy and mass media. This new standard is harsher, and in truth I was already quite harsh with the Chen administration.

The Taiwanese public seems to perceive harsh critics as being in the opposition, and is not very open-minded to academics who take the middle ground. Before, when I criticized the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), I was perceived as pan-blue, and now that I criticize the Ma administration, I am viewed as pan-green. I don’t think that I am the problem, but rather that Taiwanese society itself has a problem.
If only Nan Fang Shuo would take a middle ground! Notice how his criticisms of Ma are far more muted than his attack on Chen Shui-bian, even though he is speaking to a pan-Green paper that detests Ma. Most of the interview has him describing Ma in terms familiar terms to anyone who follows politics in Taiwan: a poor leader, a liar, and weak.
....Without core values, the Ma administration is in fact forever deceiving people on every side; deceiving Taiwanese, deceiving Beijing, deceiving every side. In the end, the lies will be seen through, and he won’t be able to smooth things over on both sides. I think that the recent World Health Assembly (WHA) incident is Beijing’s warning to Ma.


.....I think Beijing is tired of the Ma-style populism, and the comments made by [China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson] Fan Liqing (范麗青) weren’t very friendly. Some media even seemed content with Fan’s mention of the “Department of Health of Chinese Taipei,” which is outrageous. I originally thought that Beijing would go along with the Ma-style populism and let Ma win a little, but it seems this time that Beijing doesn’t plan to.

I visited Beijing in the past, and I feel that Beijing has for a long time only listened to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on issues concerning Taiwan. The Taiwan that Beijing knows is the Taiwan painted for them by KMT government figures both high and low. When Chen assumed the role of president, it was with great determination that Chen reiterated the “four noes and one not” (四不一沒有) policy. If I had been Beijing, I would have met Chen’s initiative with a kinder response, and perhaps Chen’s second term would not have been as hard. From watching Chen’s actions and hearing his speech, Beijing cooperated with the KMT to pick on Chen; Chen was forced into madness.
It is interesting to see Nan Fang Shuo's reconstruction of his own reaction to the Chen Administration, which I linked to above. In addition to accusing the Ma Administration of lying to each audience in turn, he also points out that ECFA has been a failure, and ends on a sort of pathetic note, claiming that journalists used to be friendly to him when he criticized the Chen Administration but now cold shoulder him for criticizing the Ma Administration.

In a similar vein is Lin Cho-shui's commentary that same day. Taking off from Nan Fang Shuo's characterization of Ma as a "scared leader," Lin asks why Ma has become that way. Ma believes all the myths, he concludes, including the myth that the KMT managed the nation to economic glory in the good old days. Lin writes:
Unexpectedly, Ma’s first economic promise — the “6-3-3” policy — became a joke almost as soon as he took office and afterward, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement caused more of Taiwan’s industries to move their operations to China. This was followed by large tax cuts to induce capital to return to Taiwan, but not having established a beneficial investment environment, this capital was instead used to speculate in real estate, pushing housing prices up. High housing costs have now become one of the greatest public complaints. In a hurried response to the problem, the government came up with the luxury tax, which will not really have much effect. This chaotic financial policy and a growing wealth gap is causing public hardship.


Ma also says that his “diplomatic truce” with China, based on the imaginary “1992 consensus” and placing cross relations above relations with other nations — has been a great success. However, on the eve of the World Health Assembly, classified documents surfaced showing that the WHO Secretariat had listed Taiwan as a “province of China.” This turned Ma’s much-touted “flexible diplomacy” into something more like “surrender diplomacy” and resulted in a public uproar.

After coming into office, Ma has continued to make grand promises regarding economics, finance, diplomacy and cross-strait relations, but because he has kowtowed to China to the point of being almost delusional, the last three years have revealed his beliefs for what they truly are — myths. The first myth to be dispelled was the financial myth and then on the eve of his anniversary, the cross-strait diplomacy myth was also dispelled. The poised manner in which Ma took power in 2008 has now given way to anxiety, and he has turned into a scared and panicked leader. Apart from fear and panic, he has nothing and has had no choice but to start abusing his opponent in next year’s presidential election, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), although the vast majority of what he says is a distortion of the facts. This has sullied his “nice guy” image.
Lin does a better job of analyzing the economic issues and makes the connection between the Administration's Bush-style tax cuts and the housing bubble now ongoing in Taiwan. The electorate is angry at Ma not only because of his perceived weakness and drift, but because the promised economic benefits remain distant.

Neither commentator really points to other issues that plagued both Chen and Ma -- Taiwan's unwieldy pushme-pullyou governmental framework with its multiple centers of power which was never intended to be more than the candy coating over an authoritarian state, its weak presidency, and its self-centered and feckless legislature. Nor did they mention his problems with elites in his own party.

Nan Fang Shuo does have one trenchant criticism of Ma that many commentators have echoed:
Everyone knows that there are only a few trusted aides, and if you put it on a larger scale, it’s ruling the Republic of China (ROC) through Taipei. They don’t care about a lot of people, and there are many people in Taiwan that they don’t know about.
This is a version of a deeper critique of Ma I've heard, that his model for national leadership is the Confucian scholar-emperor, aloof, ruling through academic and bureaucratic talent. Early on he was criticized for appointing out-of-touch academics. Each new problem produces speaking by Ma, the way he recently called for more babies or better food inspection, but it does not produce doing. It may not be that Ma is weak so much as he acts as though leadership means putting forth abstractions that others below him must make into reality, rather than articulating a vision of the future which he then gets others to help him carry out.
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! Delenda est, baby.


Okami said...

Interesting, I'm wondering if it's really going to change people's positions on Ma and the KMT. Ma had seriously sweet media coverage and now people are starting to realize that he's really out of touch. I wonder if this means anything will or could change though. How many dead people is it going to take to realize the system doesn't work all that well? How much more can they give away to buy peace and stability? Could Taiwan devolve down to a level equal to Argentina?

Poke: I believe they are the Obama tax cuts now since he extended them. Sorry, I couldn't resist that one.

Michael Turton said...

Yes, on the key issues Obama is Bush's third term.

M said...

Neither commentator really points to other issues that plagued both Chen and Ma -- Taiwan's unwieldy pushme-pullyou governmental framework with its multiple centers of power which was never intended to be more than the candy coating over an authoritarian state, its weak presidency, and its self-centered and feckless legislature. Nor did they mention his problems with elites in his own party.

Why do you think Taiwan has a weak presidency? Most scholars take the opposite position. The Lee Teng-hui era constitutional reforms actually created a very strong presidency.

D said...

C'mon, give Obama a break: he got dealt a bad hand and he's playing it as well as he can. With any luck he'll break ahead of the pack (oops, mixing my metaphors) in a second term.

I guess you guys have already forgotten Ralph Nader's "Al Gore and George Bush are basically the same thing" argument -- how'd that work out for you?

BTW I'd be interested in reading discussion about the pros and cons of Taiwan's "governmental framework" -- any good links?

Anonymous said...


I think there is the illusion of a strong presidency. This carries over from the Chiang regimes where the executive was the Supremo.

Lee was able to use a lot of his momentum to cajole the Taiwanese and middle of the roaders into supporting reforms... mainly by convincing them that reform would rob the opposition of its talking points so the KMT could retain power, which is really at the heart of the party anyway.

Although Lee convinced his party to neuter the National Assembly and turn the provincial government into an administrative appendage of the central government, the Legislative Yuan has remained the most powerful and corrupt body in the government. As we saw with Chen, he could make as much noise as he wanted, but all bills had to be passed by the LY. As we are seeing with Ma, the LY can choose not to act or act as a rubber stamp and allow the executive to head policy. The politics that underlie the mechanics of the executive and the LY are entirely different, but the executive needs the LY to help wrangle support during election years. This is why we see the Yen Ching-biaos appointed to posts and awarded favorable districts.