When it comes to prearranged meetings between the media and government officials, one can almost always expect that there will be no surprises. I’ve seen this happen with a series of Taiwanese officials since I began attending those events, from President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) to Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義). I am beginning to understand why, except for special circumstances, reporters like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Richard Bernstein rarely attended official press conferences at the White House. This holds true today — truer, in fact, given that the statistics and promises that are made at such meetings can all be found on government Web sites.
Premier Wu addressed the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Taipei yesterday. The full content of his presentation, which does not make for exciting reading, can be found elsewhere. What is noteworthy about the meeting, however, is that it highlighted Wu’s tremendous public speaking abilities. He can croon when necessary, be forceful when the occasion calls for it, and will even stand up and lean toward his audience to make a point. He sounds convincing and will easily win over people with challenged critical abilities. As a government head in a party whose image and credibility has seen better days, someone with Wu’s oratory skills will undeniably score points for the KMT (possible ties with criminal organizations notwithstanding).
During the question period, a great deal of time was spent on the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that Taipei intends to sign with Beijing sometime next year. His comments, as well as those of other government officials made in recent days, are showing signs of consolidation. Everybody’s speaking from the same page and there is no room for doubt. An ECFA is inevitable; it will be beneficial; not signing an ECFA would “marginalize” Taiwan; Taiwan will be able to sign free-trade agreements with other countries only after it has signed an ECFA with China; fears of the repercussions (political, economic) of an ECFA are the result of poor communication; the contents of an ECFA are considerably complex, but in coming months the government will work harder to communicate with the public; etc. Note that we’re never told who, or what, the public is. Does it include the opposition, academics, those who so far have been excluded from the talks?
Wu came up with a figure of 60 percent approval for an ECFA, while other opinion polls have shown 60 percent disapproval. Asked where he obtained his figures, Wu admitted he’d made them up, based on a number of convoluted equations. So much for a scientific approach. If things can be summoned out of thin air like this, then the government can say whatever it pleases and its communication campaign on an ECFA will be en exercise in futility.
When I asked Premier Wu to comment on the fact that top officials in the Chinese Communist Party have openly stated that they see an ECFA as stepping stones toward unification, underscoring my point with a reference to the aloofness of and threats by Chinese academics who visited Taipei last month, Wu was impeccably deflective, claiming that his government is aware of what Beijing thinks but that Taiwanese negotiators would stick to the principle of Taiwan first and that ECFA talks would only be economic in nature anyway. Fair enough, but this did not answer the question. Economic integration is part of Beijing’s strategy for unification; it doesn’t matter whether negotiators, when they sit down sometime next month to discuss an ECFA, talk about politics, economics, baseball or Tiger Woods’ little escapades. He had nothing to say about what Taipei might do to ensure that economic integration does not have the political impact that worries many of us. Nothing, either, on the legislature playing a more active, and useful, role in approving the pact.
Trust us — trust me — Wu was saying. You need not stay awake at night worrying about the fears you expressed in your question. Better communication will solve everything and assuage your fears. If we communicate often enough, if we tell you that everything will be OK over and over again, then eventually we will convince you and get the approval that we seek. By dint of repetition, Taiwanese will be hypnotized. All is well ... All is well .. An ECFA is indispensable.
After working for government for a few years, and after re-reading Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, I have every reason to be skeptical when government officials ask me to trust them and to put my fate in their hands. Especially those government officials who are good with words and always manage to package non-answers in an eloquent, convoluted and forceful way.