Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Typhoon Morakot raises ghost of Lien [UPDATED]

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.


Thomas said...

Typhoons, by nature are unpredicatable. If weather forecasters could predict exactly how the rain would fall, where the rain would fall, and where the winds would blow, disasters could almost always be averted or attenuated. Ma may not be "responsible" on paper, but his blaming of the weatherman for not being totally accurate comes across as buck passing simply because it is so silly. Instead of looking responsible, he just looks like a jerk.

Michael Turton said...

Damn, beat me to this one.

Of course, it goes without saying that our international media will not report a word of "able" and 'squeaky clean' Ma's outbursts, of which there are numerous examples.


E.M.E. said...

Also bear in mind that the many hundreds trapped without food in the remote mountainous areas in southern Taiwan are the native Taiwanese peoples, whom Ma has so snobbishly proclaimed that he "sees them as human beings." No wonder rescue and relief efforts are of such a low priority on Ma's agenda.


p.s. suggestion: ever consider adding an RSS button?

E.M.E. said...

Here's the infamous footage:


Carlos said...

I was looking at the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” feature and on the plus side it looks like the military was involved from early on, even if it wasn’t to a great extent. But there are a some comments there claiming that the central government has refused American and Japanese aid. Some of them sound like they might be from the same commenter, but not all of them. Any word on that? Either way, Ma’s taking a beating in that comments thread.


Ma appears to have refused to declare a state of emergency on practical grounds (claiming it isn’t necessary for the relief efforts to work). That may be true, but it does show his aloofness. Declaring a state of emergency is more about public morale and personal motivation than need.

But I have to ask… if Lien Chan was so unpopular, how did he come so close to winning the 2004 election? I know Chen Shui-Bian is unpopular now, but that seemed to start in his second term, didn’t it?

MikeinTaipei said...

Thanks to all for the comments.

Carlos: There are many factors that could explain why Lien did well in the 2004 election, or why Chen did so bad. One incontestable factor is Chen’s shift around 2002 from the more centralist position he’d adopted in 2000 to one that catered more to the deep green constituency (part of that was Beijing’s rejection of his overtures, as he refused to hold talks under the precondition of “one China”). His centralist policies appealed both to light green Taiwanese as well as light blue — in fact, from 2000-2002, Chen was less of an “extremist” on the issue of independence than his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, had become after 1996. Add fears of Lee as a troublemaker to Lien’s lack of charisma, and the door was open for Chen to get a good turnout at the election. By 2004, however, Chen was also being increasingly seen as an “extremist,” which Lien was able to capitalize on, his poor image notwithstanding (remember, aside from being uncharismatic, he’s also believed to have amassed quite a bit of money through “black gold”). In 2004, therefore, we can assume that the great majority of light blue voters rallied behind Lien, while a number of light green voters also voted blue for fear of Chen creating further trouble with his increasingly deep-green platform. Hope this helps!

Japan offered financial help and it was accepted by Taipei yesterday (Ma thanked Tokyo during a meeting of parliamentarians in Taipei). There are rumors, yes, that the US also offered assistance and that Taipei turned it down — that remains to be confirmed and I intend to look into this today.

Michael: I like to think that our work is complementary rather than a race! See the comments on the link kindly provided by Carlos. I don’t know if Ma will get the trouncing he deserves abroad, but at home, his image is being further — and perhaps irreparably — sullied by this whole affair. If, in coming days, more people die needlessly because of poorly handled, or belated, emergency operations, he’ll get heat. One thing is certain: This man is becoming increasingly unelectable in 2012.

EME: We have to be careful here. Technically, it’s the Cabinet that is responsible for overseeing rescue efforts, with tactical coordination at lower levels. So we can’t blame Ma personally for rescuers’ failure to reach those areas. This said, that failure is certainly reflective of his administration (which may have a similar disregard for individuals in those areas), and whether it’s fair or not, ultimately people will blame the president if things go bad. Ma is making matters worse by remaining aloof and not involving himself, which attracts criticism. I believe that a true president would have dropped everything and involved himself personally. He would also have declared a state of emergency.

Stefan said...

Is there a relief effort going on which I could donate to? I haven't seen anything on the blogs so far.

MikeinTaipei said...

Stefan: One trusted relief organization is the Tzu Chi Foundation, which has a branch in the US (see link below). You can make online donations by clicking on DONATION (in red, right-hand side).


MikeinTaipei said...


Non-profit organizations that are accepting donations:

The Red Cross Society of the Republic of China
postal account No. 14341596

World Vision Taiwan
postal account No. 15752467

Sean Su said...

Donating to Tzu-Chi is a bad idea. From the organization that is famous for spending most of its money on China, and not Taiwan; is the same organization that also said "Taiwan can handle itself" during some past disasters while throwing most of its millions to China.

Finally unlike the Red Cross or other organizations, Tzu-chi's books are closed. No one knows how much are administrative costs and so forth.

On the other-hand the Red Cross has an administrative cost of 1%, the rest of the 99% goes to people in need; one of the best rates of all humanitarian organizations on the planet.

Meanwhile Tzu Chi builds some of the largest religious facilities in the world with some of that money.

I know where my money is going to.

Stefan said...

Sean Su: I thought of donating to the red cross (even before asking here) but the website is hard to navigate if you are not fluent in Mandarin. I can just about locate the "donate" button, but that goes to a series(!) of forms all in Chinese characters.

Maybe you can contact them and point out to them that having an English language donate page would help them getting international donations?