Wednesday, December 03, 2008

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.


David said...

Thanks for that interesting report. I also assume that those who were allowed questions were limited to just one or two questions. That would also contribute to a lack of specific questions.

As for the Taiwan Review I expect its content will become so insipid soon that nobody will bother reading it.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

David: Thanks for the comments. As far as I know, there were no limits on the number of questions individual reporters could ask. It seems, rather, that foreign correspondents were reluctant to field "controversial" questions and chose instead to stick with the easy formula; sufficient for copy but not challenging the powers that be.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Michael,

Excellent round-up of the briefing with Pres. Ma. As to your criticism regarding attendance and Q&A, I found that to be reasonable and thematic among the Taipei Times members in attendance; however, I feel it's necessary to clarify a few points.

Firstly, as the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC), our emphasis should be, and has always been placed, on foreign correspondents. That said, I broke precendent by deciding to allow associate members, including those from local media, to attend -- a controversial decision that triggered some discussion among the club committee. In the past, briefings featuring speakers of even lower stature than the president were open to merely correspondent members. I remember as a TFCC assoc. member working then as a reporter at Taipei Times, I was sometimes excluded from some TFCC events, or had to beg with the gatekeepers to let me in. Such has been the nature of the club, and I seek to change that by allowing all members to at least attend all events. This has been part of my theme as club president -- trying to make us more inclusive and welcoming to all members.

However, to go so far as to open the Q&A of a briefing with the president of Taiwan to non-correspondent members would involve a nightmarish re-hashing of the rules and reframing of club precedent with the committee to which I'm responsible. Opening Q&A to all participants would also, I suspect, call into question the very identity of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club, with a perceived shift of emphasis away from foreign correspondents. And granted, I recognize that Taipei Times is a media organization comprising many foreign journalists; however, if I were to open Q&A to you as assoc. members, I would be obligated to do the same for those assoc. and corporate members who are not media representatives, and whose interests do not necessarily coincide with our foreign correspondent members -- members whose professional interests are mostly or purely commercial, political or ideological. At the end of the day, Taipei Times is a local media organization (one that is close to my heart as a former employer and a source of news and editorials to which I constantly turn, I should add), but I have no choice but to address your membership as assoc. members.

However, despite that, I found club membership for me in 2006 as a Taipei Times reporter -- and thus a TFCC assoc. member -- still well worth my trouble, and I suspect club membership still greatly benefits your newspaper now. I present as evidence your daily's stories and editorials on the TFCC briefing with Pres. Ma -- material that was far more in-depth and interesting than any of the local news outlets on Dec. 4 (because you were there). I also wish to point out that Taipei Times assoc. members have been free to attend past club events (and freely ask questions of the speakers) featuring other top-notch guests, including the DPP Chairwoman, Vice Premier and former top US State and defense department officials. When the president of Taiwan comes to speak to us, however, I'm obligated to give something of a nod to club precedent because of his stature. This is not a simple issue, and certainly we value your membership. On the other hand, I'm beholden to other rules, traditions, and the wishes and opinions of my committee. And there are good reasons for them -- otherwise, we'd be the ''Taiwan Foreign...ers Club.'' (At least there's no false advertising!)

As to your other point (that the foreign correspondents were soft on Pres. Ma), I respectfully disagree. Beyond the question regarding the Dalai Lama, posed by my boss, Reuters and AP, I felt, did a great job of holding the president's feet to the fire on the issue of the peace agreement with Beijing -- with Pres. Ma finally relenting and admitting (on a scale that went beyond previous comments on the matter) that the agreement is basically a backburner issue. That was a newsworthy development -- something that Reuters reported and which got into the International Herald Tribune. Pres. Ma's remarks show how much of a non-issue a political peace agreement with China is for his administration, and where the focus truly lies in his China-engagement policies: economics. For its part, AP made sure the Dalai Lama remark made it out of the local media scene and into the international arena. The Wall Street Journal's question exposed just how at a loss Pres. Ma is to stimulate the economy. That paper's reporter asked Pres. Ma, What besides tourism from China and economic pacts with Beijing will you rely on to save the economy? Pres. Ma's answer: i-Taiwan projects. Basically, what he's saying is he's out of ideas --great question. IDG News Service nudged Pres. Ma to give the clearest answer yet as to whether he will grant former president Chen a pardon. And you'll notice when Pres. Ma didn't answer Dow Jones' question on whether a Cabinet reshuffling is in the cards, I jumped in as the host and asked it again on behalf of Dow Jones. At that point, for whatever reason, Pres. Ma neglected to answer the question, again. So what did I do? I asked it again. We wanted, and were determined to get, an answer. We asked tough, specific questions. Pres. Ma was also obligated to explain himself in light of all the criticism regarding his alleged backsliding on human rights. You'll notice his answer was in-depth and the GIO distributed its published, specific responses to high-profile letters to the Ma Admin. expressing concern and criticism. Bottom line: we held Pres. Ma's feet to the fire and we got the answers we needed to write good copy. And I agree with
''MikeinTaipei'' -- our job is not necessarily to challenge the powers that be, but to produce sufficient copy. We are journalists not activists. Sometimes, producing sufficient copy means challenging The Man; in other cases, merely securing his attendance in an exclusive event for foreign correspondents and asking him tough questions -- sometimes repeating them until we get the answers we need -- does the trick.

TFCC president

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Xinhua News Agency was not in attendance.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

M: Thank you for the very eloquent comments on my coverage of the Ma presser.

Points all taken as to why the Taipei Times should/could not be considered “foreign media,” despite how frustrating it was to be barred from asking questions.

Whether foreign correspondents put Ma on the spot or not, or, as you put it, “held his feet to the fire,” remains, in my view, debatable. However, where I think foreign correspondents could have done a better job is with follow-up questions so that he could not get away with the usual stock phrases we have come to expect from Ma, responses that, sadly, the local media usually seems satisfied with. I had great expectations (perhaps misguided) that Nov. 4 would be a good opportunity to clearly tell Ma and his administration that the world is watching. This must be the activist in me, or perhaps I’ve become too emotionally attached to my subject; I don’t know.