Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou: When approval ratings are down to 23.8%, it’s time for assessments

For Asia Sentinel

Chinese products will flood Taiwan’s markets. Mainland workers will come or perhaps don’t even have to since Taiwan’s manufacturers will set up their factories on the mainland in the first place. The brain drain: highly educated youth will leave for Shanghai. The youth that stays will not find jobs because the mainlanders straight out of Beijing’s elite graduate schools will not only be shifty but also more diligent. Consumers will die in numbers because of tainted ‘everything’. Farmers, workers, fishermen all are bound to face a harsh future due to unfair competitors from the other side of the Taiwan Straits. The part of the population that still lives in a rented house will never be able to afford to buy one because the influx of mainland investors will render property prices astronomically high. And anyway, no turning back on the demographical one way street: more and more Taiwanese men marry mainland women, and children are born who won’t cherish a Taiwanese identity.

It is the Taiwanese opposition’s strategy to paint Taiwan’s future in big black clouds to avert Taipei and Beijing signing the ‘ECFA’, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. It is widely believed that the ECFA will be the first step to the establishment of relations between Taiwan and China that are similar to those between China, Hong Kong and Macao. Since Taiwan’s opposition party, the DPP, longs for eventual independence, they don’t want the signing of ECFA to happen. They believe the pact will set Taiwan firmly on the path to unification. The DPP’s strategy seems to work: Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings are down to 23.8%.

In the Taiwan of the early 2010, voices like these are rarely been heard of:

“If someday the mainland and Taiwan would be united like Germany, Ma Ying-jeou will be the best candidate to become the first President of the united China”, reads the opening sentence of a web site set up by Ma’s supporters,www.mayingjeou.com. “This is because of his rectitude and respectability.”

Ma Ying-jeou was Taiwan’s rising star. He became president in May 2008, and at that time to many Taiwanese from across the political spectrum, he was not only the most promising choice but also the world’s best looking leader. The disgraceful end of Ma’s predecessor’s career also helped Ma to be regarded as Mr. Clean by the public. By the day Ma came into power, Ma’s long time opponent, former president Chen Shui-bian has been for many months accused of corruption, and in September 2009 Chen received a life sentence on charges of embezzlement, money laundering and taking bribes.

Since October 2009 Ma Ying-jeou also holds the chairmanship of his party, the KMT.

When in 2009 the world financial crisis hit, Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet didn’t do too bad. The government issued consumer shopping vouchers, each eligible Taiwanese received NT$3,600 (US$113) to revive the domestic economy. This went well with the public.

China’s economy got through the global crisis almost undamaged, a factor that has not only been noticed in the west but also in Taiwan. Suddenly many Taiwanese’s perception of China changed, since the US, EU and the rich Asian democracies looked for rescue from China and not like in the old days the other way around.

Ma Ying-jeou stopped being everybody’s darling in the days after August 8, 2009. Typhoon Morakot devastated southern Taiwan, the area where the traditional strongholds of the DPP are. The cabinet reacted too slow and in the eyes of many inappropriate. President Ma traveled to destroyed villages, but instead of having comforted the survivors, he blamed them for not having evacuated. This was hard to swallow for people whose relatives were killed a mere 48 hours earlier. Taiwanese and international media was on the spot, Ma’s behavior was perceived as arrogant, and his approval ratings fell from 52% to 29% in a matter of days.

Beijing and Taipei to started negotiations on the ECFA, and the first round of talks were held in Beijing in January 2010. As expected, the Taiwanese opposition fiercely opposed what many have seen as a historic approach between the CCP and the KMT-ruled Taiwan, the old foes from the Chinese civil war.

In the end of the same month, Ma Ying-jeou has again lost a good portion of his political capital earned during the financial crisis. Unexpectedly to the Taiwanese public, the government announced it was about to lose restrictions on the import of certain types of US beef. Like in other Asian countries the imported had been halted over fears of mad cow disease.

When South Korea reopened to US beef in 2008, it came to weeks of massive protests that almost overthrew the government. Ma Ying-jeou was heavily criticized for having failed to consult the legislature and the public before lifting the ban. It came to demonstrations in Taipei, the topic was reported on by the media for weeks yet it didn’t reach the South Korean scale.

Since Ma Ying-jeou’s government must have been aware of what happened in Korea, the decision to risk his standing with the Taiwanese public could have been a political maneuver: in times of ongoing ECFA negotiations, the demonstrations gave Beijing the signal that the Taiwanese are still likely to hit the streets if there are developments they don’t approve of. Beijing has good reason to fear TV-footage of demonstrations going on in ‘Greater China’, regardless whether they happen on the mainland, in Hong Kong or in Taipei.  Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings dropped, yet through this sacrifice he kept an overly pushy China at bay.

At present, Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings are with 23.8% almost as low as in the weeks after the typhoon Morakot. Recent events that took place on the domestic political stage didn’t help to keep Ma Ying-jeou in a favorable light. Earlier this month Department of Health (DOH) Minister Yaung Chih-liang announced his surprise resignation over a disagreement with Premier Wu Den-yih concerning the national health insurance. Yaung publicly accused the government of short term policy making only for the sake of winning the next elections.

This was not the only cabinet member that left since shortly after Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng resigned after failing to win support for her opposition to the death penalty.

On March 31 the second round of ECFA talks will open in Taipei. Beijing is likely to watch Ma’s public standing closely, and so are Taiwanese businessmen who operate on the mainland. A domestically weak Ma Ying-jeou is the last thing they need, since the signing of agreements will become much more difficult. Many also worry that as soon as Beijing senses that with a Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou developments don’t go the way as it has been anticipated, the Chinese side will leave the path of reconciliation. The thought of what might come then sends chills down the spine of people not only to both sides of the Taiwan Straits but also in Tokyo and Washington.

Taiwan’s next presidential elections are going to be held in 2012. That’s a long way ahead. Since Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, things can change overnight, and it’s far from certain that Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings won’t bounce back. Given the fact that the stakes are so high, it’s in the interest of both the Taiwanese business world and Beijing that they will go up again. Money, and in this case economic aid, can make things go smoothly, and China which wants to see a failing Ma Ying-jeou the least, holds a US$2,4 trillion stockpile of foreign exchange reserve.



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