Ninety minutes with Ma Ying-jeou
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) addressed a room packed with foreign correspondents at the Sherwood Hotel in downtown Taipei yesterday, where talks covered such matters as the state of the economy, cross-strait relations and demonstrations last month. The entire meeting was carried out in English. Amid tight security, Ma opened the meeting by jumping straight into economic matters, arguing that his administration came to power just as the global economy was souring and pointing to inflation and a rising consumer price index. After clumsily joggling with economic numbers and figures, Ma briefly touched on his cross-strait “truce” initiative with Beijing before opening the floor to questions.
A little more than half of the questions pertained to economic matters, from whether, given the current economic environment, Ma’s “6-3-3” economic policy (annual GDP growth of 6 percent, annual per capita income of US$30,000 and an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent) remained achievable, to the impact of improved cross-strait relations, Chinese tourism, and agreements signed last month, on the domestic economy.
The “6-3-3” plan, Ma said, was initiated about a year ago, when the economic situation was entirely different. “Nobody could have foreseen that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt,” he said, adding that given’s Taiwan’s strong reliance on exports for economic growth, a slowdown in countries such as the US and China can only but “negatively impact” Taiwan’s economic growth. Ma said various measures, such as encouraging domestic consumption to make up for slouching exports, were being considered, without going into details.
Ma also made it a point to highlight his administration’s accomplishments in allowing more Chinese to visit Taiwan and opening the door to direct flights across the Taiwan Strait, while remaining optimistic that further increases in the number of flights, as well as Beijing’s allowing more provinces and tour operators to participate in cross-strait travel, would help take us closer to the number of Chinese he had promised would visit Taiwan during his election campaign.
Sadly, most of the questions that did not pertain to the economy were on the “soft” side, such as asking Ma's opinion of US president-elect Barack Obama, or whether he would like to meet senior Chinese officials like President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) or Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) — questions that can hardly lead to surprising answers. Asked about a Cabinet reshuffle, Ma said there were no such plans for the moment.
One question, by Kyodo news agency, however, did generate an interesting response. Asked if he would welcome a visit by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama next year, Ma said that while Taiwan “generally welcomes” spiritual leaders, the timing wasn’t right for a visit by the spiritual leader. There were no follow-up questions on that issue.
On defense, Ma regurgitated the usual, claiming that while his peace initiative had led to diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan nevertheless needed to procure weapons from the US to defend itself should China turn to “military adventurism” and so on, adding that a well-defended Taiwan would allow Taipei to negotiate from a position of strength. He also said that Taiwan remained interested in acquiring F-16s, as they were a crucial component to the nation’s ability to defend itself.
He said Taiwan had not changed its strategy of “offshore engagement,” meaning that it would continue to prepare for a military engagement in the Taiwan Strait rather than on Taiwan proper, adding that the defense philosophy remained one of deterrence so that China would not be tempted to launch a “preliminary war” — a quick, final battle by the People’s Liberation Army.
Asked what he thought of the so-called “porcupine” strategy discussed in the article “Revisiting Taiwan’s defense strategy” by US Naval War College associate professor William Murray, who will be in Taiwan on Sunday to discuss such matters with the defense establishment, Ma said that while Murray’ ideas were controversial, they had sparked a needed debate within Taiwanese defense circles.
Ma seemed optimistic on Beijing’s willingness to explore “peace” with Taiwan, but said that a truce in the Taiwan Strait would only be possible if Beijing stopped isolating Taiwan internationally. On that issue, Ma referred to the US arms package, the visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) and Beijing’s okaying former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) as Ma’s envoy to the APEC leaders’ summit in Lima, Peru, added to Beijing’s “goodwill” on Taiwan’s designation during the Olympic Games (“Zhonghua Taipei” as opposed to “Zhongguo Taipei”), as signs of flexibility on Beijing’s part, while mentioning that at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), of which Taiwan is a member, the nation’s title had recently been changed from Republic of China to “Taipei, China,” and that while Taiwanese representatives still attended ADB meetings, they did so “in protest.” He also said he had yet to see any concessions on Beijing’s part regarding the WHO question.
Very little, unfortunately, was said about the demonstrations that surrounded Chen’s visit early last month or the series of arrests of pan-green officials, including former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), although a booklet containing a series of responses to articles and letters by academics on the erosion of human rights in Taiwan was made available (though not publicized). Ma clearly blamed the violent demonstrations on organizers, pointing to the odd 140 police officers who were injured against the few dozen demonstrators who also suffered injuries, numbers that not only come from police authorities but that also fail to answer why things turned violent in the first place. Ma drew a direct line between the “violent” incident involving ARATS Vice Chairman Zhang Mingquing (張銘清) in Tainan City in late October and the clashes in Taipei a week later, while mistakenly attributing a cash offer for anyone who managed to hit Chen Yunlin with eggs during his visit to the DPP rather than the Northern Taiwan Society. No one bothered to ask if the large police presence surrounding the visit, or the fact that police barred demonstrators — sometimes violently — from displaying Taiwanese or Tibetan flags, might not have been the proximate causes for the violence that ensued, or, at minimum, provocation.
Ma said he remained committed to creating a “clean” government and fighting corruption, adding that the political allegiance of suspects did not matter. The president said he was aware of 61 convictions of government officials since 2000, of which slightly more than 50 percent were from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). He did not explain, nor was he asked, why in recent months only pan-green officials have been held, questioned, or indicted for corruption, or why cases involving KMT officials have been put on hold or have dragged indefinitely. He said a pardon, similar to that extended to former US president Richard Nixon, for Chen Shui-bian was not being considered, as it was too soon and the cases were different.
On the unification issue, Ma said that since he became involved in Mainland affairs 20 years ago, opinion polls in Taiwan have shown consistent support for maintaining the “status quo” (about 60 percent), while 30 percent either favored independence or sought unification. He reiterated his pledge of “no independence, no unification and no use of force” during his term, adding that the previous administration’s pro-independence policies had failed and only resulted in further isolation for Taiwan.
Ma said a “peace accord” between Taiwan and China would not be signed anytime soon, as both sides have focused on issues that are relatively easy to achieve results on, such as the agreements signed during Chen Yunlin’s visit last month.
Throughout, Ma consistently referred to China as “the Mainland.” Before leaving, he shook hands with everyone in the ballroom.
Perhaps as a result of infighting or territoriality at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club, only foreign correspondents (such as Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Kyodo) were allowed to ask questions, while representatives from “domestic” publications like the Taipei Times, such as myself, had to remain silent, which could explain the paucity of “harder” questions. (I suspect Xinhua news agency was there, but they did not ask questions.) It is hard to tell whether Ma would have been candid if more incisive questions had been asked, but given how rarely the president addresses foreign media, better efforts should have been made to ensure that full use was made of those precious 90 minutes.
In related matters, I ran into a former colleague at the Taipei Times who now works at the Government Information Office’s Taiwan Review, who informed me that his superiors had asked him to remove all references to the Martial Law era in an entertainment article he was working on.