Speculation has been rife in the past week that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s slow response to the catastrophic flooding in southern Taiwan following the passage of Typhoon Morakot on Aug. 8 was the result of ingrained indifference among pan-blue politicians for the welfare of predominantly green Taiwanese in the south. Others, meanwhile, have pointed not so much to domestic politics as to racism, whereby the lives of Han Chinese are deemed more important than those of native Taiwanese or Aborigines, who have born the brunt of the devastation.
Although racism and deep-blue resentment for deep-green individuals may be an undercurrent in some individuals, it is hard to imagine that elected officials seeking reelection would willingly allow people to die because of such beliefs. It would be equally difficult to conceive of a top-down directive ordering relief workers and the military not to intervene because of the ethnicity of the victims.
Domestic, external variables
While we cannot rule out these variables to explain the belated response by the central government, two likelier causes for its failure to act in timely fashion are (a) government incompetence and (b) the Ma administration’s fixation with cross-strait relations. Feasibly, the central government’s failure to respond was a combination of both.
Symptoms of incompetence in the context of the Morakot disaster include a failure to understand the magnitude of the catastrophe; an apparent lack of coordination between the central authorities and local governments; a failure to deploy enough troops early enough; focus on money and reconstruction rather than immediate rescue contingencies; a failure to declare a state of emergency; buck-passing; and a lack of presidential involvement. Buck-passing especially supports the incompetence theory, such as when Ma said that the Central Weather Bureau was to blame for failing to predict the amount of rainfall Morakot would bring. When a government accuses an agency of failing to predict an imponderable and then blames that same agency for the slow government response once the facts on the ground are quantifiable, what it is doing is trying to deflect blame. Ma has also blamed local governments, many of which simply do not have the resources to deal with a catastrophe of such magnitude, and kept a safe distance by declaring that the Cabinet, rather than the president, should be in charge, which is another way to ensure that criticism will be directed at subordinates rather than himself.
Ma’s strategy, however, appears to be backfiring, and this is mostly the result of the external variable — that is, his fixation with Beijing, and people’s perception of his willingness to please the Chinese Communist Party. While it would be invidious to blame Ma for the failure of his entire government to react appropriately to the Morakot disaster, he nevertheless serves as the symbol of his administration, and how it acts will for the most part be a reflection of his political preferences — especially when Ma, both as president and soon-to-be Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman, wields such power over the executive and the legislature.
Ma’s tunnel vision, whereby everything becomes predicated on improving ties with Beijing, would readily explain the otherwise nonsensical directive from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to all its missions abroad not to accept assistance. Once that memo was leaked to the media, MOFA officials rushed to claim that the directive was only “temporary,” without explaining why a temporary order — when help is immediately needed — would be any less damaging.
The Ma administration’s initial refusal of aid — especially much-needed materiel such as transport helicopters and humanitarian assistance expertise — could find its roots in Taipei’s fear of “angering” Beijing by opening its sovereignty to foreign countries, especially the US and Japan, which were the first to offer. Memories of the 921 Earthquake 10 years ago, when Beijing virtually hijacked international relief efforts by forcing aid to pass through China before entering Taiwan, must have weighed heavily in the Ma administration’s decision to turn down assistance. Rather than risk causing friction by immediately allowing foreign troops and humanitarian workers to come to Taiwan, the Ma government claimed help was unnecessary and that everything was under control. In other words, not alienating Beijing took precedence over saving lives.
The interplay of incompetence and the external factor of relations with Beijing meant that Taipei may have been willing to underestimate the severity of the disaster. Under different circumstances (paranoid leaderships like those in Myanmar and North Korea aside), a central government would have had no compunction in allowing foreign aid, even if this meant overshooting — i.e., receiving more aid than is required to meet immediate needs. For Taiwan, however, whose sovereign status is unrecognized by Beijing, overshooting was not an option, largely because of the political ramifications of receiving foreign assistance. The Ma administration therefore acted cautiously and underestimated the need, thus ensuring that Beijing would not be aggravated; at minimum, it gave Taipei time to negotiate with Chinese officials for “permission” to allow foreign assistance, which could explain the “temporary” nature of the MOFA directive, or the Ma administration’s volte-face by first turning down aid, only to request it a few days later.
This now raises the very important question: Who are Ma and his administration serving: the people who put them in office, or their masters back in Beijing. When external political considerations undermine what should be the priority of a government — that is, the safety and welfare of the people they represent — one should question the legitimacy of the relationship. If the external agent is so corrupting as to compel an elected government not to do anything in its power to save the lives of its people, the very desirability of that dyad becomes doubtable.
Morakot was an unprecedented disaster, one that no government could have fully prepared for. The disaster forces us to ask whether some places — especially those that are located in mudslide-prone areas — are perhaps unsuited for human settlement, just as are the coastal areas in the US that, year after year, get swallowed by the forces of nature. This notwithstanding, the central government in Taiwan shares a great deal of responsibility for failing to comprehend the severity of the situation, and this was either the result of incompetence, external political considerations, or both. Military personnel, many of whom were eager to help but were told to stay put because the order from above had not been given, should have been deployed earlier, and in larger numbers. Only eight days after the typhoon hit are we seeing deployments that are commensurate with the devastation in southern Taiwan. If, for some reason, troop mobilization early on was infeasible, central authorities should have immediately called for outside assistance, and when it was offered, they should not have turned it down. Lastly, by focusing on reconstruction money rather than immediate rescue efforts, Taipei showed that its priorities were misplaced. In fact, Taiwan has plenty of money, and even if its emergency funds were insufficient, it could easily have tapped into its foreign reserve, which is the third largest in the world.
It was inevitable that lives would be lost. But the expected body count — 123 confirmed dead, with hundreds unaccounted for and unlikely to still be alive after one week — didn’t have to be so high. Some of those lives will have been lost because of the Ma administration’s incompetence and external political calculations.