A little less than 10 years ago, then-vice president Lien Chan (連戰) was visiting areas devastated by the Sept. 21, 1999, earthquake in central Taiwan (commonly known as the 921 Earthquake), in which 2,416 people were killed and 11,000 seriously injured. During his visit, Lien’s behavior was aloof and in-line with his reputation as someone who was disconnected from ordinary people. This, added to public dissatisfaction with the central government’s handling of the emergency, led to a scene in which Lien was chased off and fled in a helicopter. Many attribute his dwindling popularity, and subsequent loss in the 2000 presidential election, to his abysmal performance at the scene.
Fast-forward to Aug. 10, 2009. This time around, a cadaverous-looking President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is visiting Taimali Township (太麻里), Taitung County, one of the areas hit by flooding in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, which so far has left 23 dead, with hundreds still unaccounted for (at this writing, 56 are confirmed missing).
No one would ever have mistaken Lien for a man of the people, so his behavior after 921 was unsurprising. But for Ma, the allegedly charismatic Ma, to be visibly impatient as local people approached him to share their apprehensions, is something else altogether. Not only that, but he also blamed both the local authorities for reacting “too slowly” and the Central Weather Bureau for “inaccurate” forecasts.
Such remarks are not only uncalled for — who could have predicted that Morakot would bring rain unlike anything the country has seen in 50 years? — they also needlessly alienate individuals who are struggling to cope with the emergency (and, in the CWB’s case, they risk angering Cabinet-level officials).
Had Ma not had a track record of doing this (see, for example, his eerily similar reaction to floods in June last year), we could perhaps have explained his comments by arguing that he, too, is overwhelmed, that he is tired. But he’s done that time and again, deflecting responsibility, blaming others and claiming that dealing with natural catastrophes is not the remit of the president.
Perhaps. There might very well be a governmental org chart somewhere that supports what he said, that shows that relief efforts are the responsibility of the Cabinet and not that of the president. This notwithstanding, this does not give him permission to act callously, to insult the CWB (which did a fine job tracking the typhoon), ignore ordinary people and lay the blame on “poor” local (read southern Taiwan, green southern Taiwan) reaction.
President Ma is fixed on his cross-strait policy, so much so that catastrophes at home fail to light the fire in his belly the way they should if he were a true leader of and for the people. We can almost hear him think: “Not my responsibility, but look how great my China policy is! Oh, you’re suffering? Poor thing. An ECFA’s gonna be great, believe me!”
Now let’s see. Lien “Black Gold” Chan donated 1 million yuan (US$143,000) worth of down coats and 2.5 million yuan in cash to earthquake-affected areas in Sichuan in May last year — a generous act, truly. While the magnitude of the disaster in Taiwan is far, far less than that in Sichuan, there nevertheless is a serious need for help. The question is, will Lien donate?
Lastly, I can see this looming on the horizon, the specter of Beijing offering relief aid to Taiwan. The opportunity to demonstrate “goodwill” might just be too good for Beijing to ignore, which, if it happens, Ma would seize to once again show that his cross-strait policy is working. If that were to happen, we can be certain that his gratitude to China would be far more heartfelt than that for local officials, including some Cabinet-level officials.
The confirmed number of dead in southern Taiwan is now 41. Judging from images in TV and various news reports I have read, we have yet to see the kind of mobilization from rescue teams and the military that the situation warrants. Where are the soldiers? I have been informed that the military has cancelled the air show portion of the Taipei Aerospace & Defence Technology Exhibition because of the typhoon, and yet military personnel helping with rescue operations has been few and far between — especially for a military of Taiwan’s size, with about 200,000 active duty forces and 1.5 million in the reserve.
Perhaps this has something to do with the government refusing to declare a state of emergency. No one seems to be in charge and coordination seems to be deficient, leading to villages asking why other villages are being rescued first. While Ma criticized the CWB for its inability to predict the future and assess imponderables, his administration now has all the variables to assess the scale of relief efforts that need to be launched. The facts are there, on the ground, and the severity of the situation is quantifiable. This is where the slow reaction is occurring — in the central government, not in the regions.
The longer this is allowed to continue, the more lives will be lost needlessly.