Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ma's inadvertent gift to Taiwan

To mark the sixth anniversary of President Ma’s inauguration, Taiwan News invited me to share my views on his legacy in 300 words 

Six years into his presidency, it is difficult to foresee how history will judge Ma Ying-jeou’s two terms in office. Will he be regarded as the president who, to some extent, succeeded in normalizing relations with China and fostered a “new era of stability in the Taiwan Strait” during his first term, or will he be remembered as a highly unpopular leader who descended into soft authoritarianism during what could only be qualified as a disastrous second term? 

Unless we experience dramatic change during Ma’s last two years in office, it is highly likely that whatever good President Ma has achieved will be overshadowed by the ill that befell his presidency following his re-election in 2012. To be fair, his government has indeed made progress with China, for which he has been more than ready to take full credit. However, had Beijing been willing to interact with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after it came to power in 2000 (it was not), there is every reason to believe that most of what was achieved under Ma could have been within the reach of the DPP. 

Sadly for President Ma, rapprochement with China has failed to yield dividends for the majority of the public, and none of his electoral promises were met. Cross-strait liberalization may have enriched a select and politically connected few, but it has also widened the wealth gap within society. 

While lack of success could be blamed on the vagaries of global economics or lack of time, Ma’s shift toward unaccountability during his second term, which is inseparably related to the emergence of the Sunflower Movement, was of his own making and will probably be his undoing. By failing to take public fears into account and forging ahead with China policies that were seen to be compromising Taiwan’s way of life, Ma precipitated a crisis that will forever tarnish his image as a leader who claims to have upheld democratic values. With Beijing running out of patience on unification, such a reckoning was probably inevitable; Ma only succeeded in making it happen sooner than expected. 

Ironically, future generations will perhaps remember President Ma as the leader who, because of his disdain for public sentiment and unyielding ruling style, inadvertently sparked a nationalistic awakening among Taiwanese. By accident rather than by design, President Ma released the genie of a new civic identity, a spirit that is rooted in the idiosyncratic experiences of Taiwan and which, unless brute force is applied, will refuse to be bottled up again. 

My op-ed, published on May 20 in Taiwan News, can be read here (select May 20 issue, then go to page 3).

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