There is a very moving passage in Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s book Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants, in which elderly peasants who, after months of seeking justice in their village, decide to go to the township and county level to beg officials to intervene, only to be turned down. At one point, in a blatant reversal of cultural ethics, the elderly are described as kneeling in front of young government officials, who remain standing and ignore their pleas. Little did I know that a few days after reading this passage, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) would practically behave like those young, callous officials after Taiwanese asked for help amid the devastation brought by Typhoon Morakot. In scene after scene, Ma has looked annoyed, impatient, and would often hide behind a wall of security officials as Taiwanese sought to approach him. On some occasions, elderly Taiwanese fell on their knees, and Ma remained standing, displaying a level of cultural insensitivity that will not be forgotten anytime soon. In that regard, Ma’s wife, first lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青), has fared much better, going down on her knees to bring comfort to grieving individuals and seeming far more at ease among ordinary people than her husband has.
Ma once again apologized publicly on Sunday for his government’s slow response to Typhoon Morakot. With thousands still stranded and without food for more than a week — something that was avoidable, had rescue efforts commenced when they should have — international media are beginning to criticize a leader who had hitherto managed to deflect all criticism, even when police overreacted to demonstrations during Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taipei in November, when the government attacked freedom of expression, when the judiciary less than impartially handled the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) trial and that of other DPP officials, or when his administration chose to ignore widespread public fears created by his cross-strait policies. So pointed has the criticism become that at some point Beijing could start proposing that Taipei simply isn’t competent enough to govern itself and therefore Beijing has a mission civilisatrice to help its “compatriots” in Taiwan “modernize” themselves, a view that would certainly find echoes in China’s invasion of “barbaric” Tibet. That specter becomes less implausible when media outlets begin comparing Ma’s behavior with that of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) after the Sichuan Earthquake.
Ma ‘shoulders all responsibility’
At last, it would appear that Ma is finally being presidential, as he told media that he would “shoulder all the responsibility” for his government’s slow response to the emergency. But here’s the fine print: Asked by CNN on Sunday to explain what he meant by “shouldering all responsibility,” Ma replied that he would determine what was wrong with the rescue system, correct problems and discipline officials in charge. Now that’s taking responsibility! Not my fault…
Between ‘great powers’
Meanwhile, the great power game over Taiwan is on. Agence France-Presse reported on Sunday that both the US and China have offered helicopters to help with rescue operations in southern Taiwan. The US has offered CH-53Es Super Stallions, the US military’s largest and heaviest helicopter, while Beijing has offered what is being touted as the world’s largest helicopters (btb Russian-made Mi-26 helicopters). If the US military is allowed to come to Taiwan — officers say they could be here as early as late on Sunday (with transport aircraft already here) — this would be the first time since 1979, when Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei, that US troops stepped on Taiwanese soil to deliver humanitarian assistance. Given, as I have discussed, the Ma administration’s fixation on cross-strait rapprochement with Beijing and Ma’s reluctance to harm that relationship no matter what, the symbolism of a US presence on Taiwanese soil would be tremendous. Even more controversial, but probably inevitable, would be the deployment of Chinese military helicopters and troops in Taiwan. Aside from the obvious PR value of Chinese soldiers bringing humanitarian assistance to Taiwanese, it would be the first time in history that the People’s Liberation Army puts boots on the ground in Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. The propaganda coup that this would serve both the Ma administration and the CCP would be immense and far-reaching.
As the Ma administration has given the go-ahead for a US presence in Taiwan, however, it will feel immense pressure to balance matters by also inviting/allowing the Chinese to do so. In fact, it is not impossible that during the so-called “temporary” refusal of foreign aid, Beijing and Taipei negotiated an arrangement behind the scenes by which Taipei could only request US assistance if it also requested it from China. Is should also be noted that refusing one or the other in this situation would have serious ramifications for future bilateral relations between Taiwan, China and the US, as well as between China and the US over “right of involvement” in the region.
Rarely has humanitarian aid had such complex political variables; what should be purely relief considerations has become politicized and may have created delays that, sadly, will cost lives. One could advance the argument that before Taiwan under Ma made Beijing its center of gravity, Taipei would have had far more flexibility in requesting foreign humanitarian assistance, or that before turning Beijing into a virtual decision-maker for Taipei, offers of assistance by Tokyo and Washington could have been accepted with far greater ease — and much earlier — regardless of whether Beijing liked it or not. The price of this shift may now have to be calculated in Taiwanese lives. Conversely, if Ma had not come to be seen, because of his pro-China policies, as a puppet of Beijing, he would have had more latitude in accepting aid from China, and the presence of Chinese soldiers on Taiwanese soil would not as readily been interpreted as capitulation on sovereignty.