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Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou

Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou

Jonathan Sullivan06 Mar 2015Leave a comment


Written by Ben Goren.

Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou: Partisan Conflict, Policy Choices, External Constraints and Security Challenges. Jean-Pierre Cabestan & Jacques deLisle (Ed). (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

Cabestan and deLisle’s edited volume sets out to provide the reader with a well-rounded overview of the political changes in Taiwan during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency from 2008 to late 2013. Divided into five sections, the book draws upon the expertise and insight of sixteen contributors to provide a wide range of perspectives on political developments, economic and social issues, relations with China, security concerns, and Taiwan’s international relations and status. In the words of the editors, the purpose of this book is to carry out “an assessment of the situation part way through Ma’s second term and guidance about likely future directions or the factors that will shape them”, a task which it fulfils fairly comprehensively. We learn about the dynamics of the often turbulent and unpredictable relationship between the President and Taiwan’s parliament (the Legislative Yuan), we explore the constitutional basis of the conflicted division of powers between Executive and Legislative branches of Government, and we come to better understand some of the origins and causes of Taiwan’s seemingly rancorous party politics and the duopolistic partisan cleavage which have shaped most of Taiwan’s elections post democratisation. Refreshingly, some space is given to examining the waxing and waning influence of social movements and identity politics, rather than, as is often the case in studies of Taiwan, being drowned out by the discussion of cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s status and security.

The book argues broadly, with some caveats, that the Ma Presidency has been generally positive for international relations between Taiwan and China, Japan, and the US. Likewise it argues that Taiwanese democracy has neither achieved much greater efficiency nor a marked degree of increased harmony, but at the same time neither has it suffered the debilitating regression some predicted at the start of Ma’s first term of office. Taiwan’s international space has been symbolically expanded incrementally but also contingently. Taiwan has a small cache of ‘soft-power’, but it is one which is seemingly only temporarily bolstered when the PRC takes actions which reduce its capacity to maintain the credibility of its claims to ‘peaceful development’. Finally, the book illustrates that Taiwan may need some form of further constitutional reform, or at least a way to come to terms with the conflict built into the semi-Presidential system of Government, if it is to escape the volatile and combative political atmosphere that has been strategically exploited by agencies inside and outside of the country. In short, Taiwan under Ma has seen ‘stability’ and it is predicted that the remainder of Ma’s second term will produce no major surprises except, correctly predicted by Ho Ming-sho, a rise in public protest against the President.

Whilst this collection of essays could be of use to students and scholars as a fairly extensive examination of many of the political changes during the Ma Presidency, the book also suffers from weaknesses in terms of timing, structure, and narrative diversity. The first of these was almost unavoidable. When it comes to the study of political economy, data that can radically change a conclusion can emerge at any time, and this is especially the case for study of Taiwan’s dynamic democracy. Having been written before the tumultuous events of Spring and Autumn 2014 which saw the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by the 318 Student Movement in March (which the media later named ‘Sunflower Protest’), the disastrous (for the ruling KMT) local elections in November, and President Ma’s subsequent resignation as Chairman of the KMT, the reader who has some familiarity with Taiwanese politics may be left feeling like they’ve been given only half the story. Compiled prematurely around half way through Ma’s second term, the book has come too soon to arrive at meaningful conclusions about the Ma Presidency, and as a result much of it already feels somewhat dated and incomplete less than a year later.

Furthermore, in terms of its structure, the book would have been more logically organised if parts three and four had been combined into one as ‘Cross-Strait Relations and Security Issues’. That in turn might have allowed more space to expand the section on Economy and Society with newer voices from Taiwan and abroad who could have added diversity to balance out the more orthodox, and increasingly inaccurate, narratives that have come to drown out alternative perspectives on the performance of Ma and his predecessor President Chen Shui-bian. There is a great contrast between the experienced analyses of Dafydd Fell and Nathan Batto, who provide an excellent grounding in Taiwan’s elections and political parties that will likely remain relevant and useful for years to come, and contributors whose essays seem more a projection of wishful thinking and internalisation of tropes whose origins can be found in think tanks and on the election trail rather than academic enquiry.

For example, former AIT Chairman Richard Bush uses his chapter to provide what at times feels like little more than embedded promotion of US business lobbies’ interests. Tellingly he spends a considerable amount of space discussing what was a marginal and quickly extinguished abandonment debate with the thinly veiled subtext being that twenty three million people exercising national de facto sovereign independence are not so much to be regarded as a country but an ‘island’ of ‘divided opinion’, whose security and future are something the US can trade for better relations with China.  The longitudinally polled trend of over eighty per cent of Taiwanese not wanting to ‘unify’ with China at any time is apparently irrelevant and an inconvenience. Characteristic of orthodox analysis from Washington, Bush argues that the problem for China lies in not offering Taiwan the right formulation for annexation.  He appears unwilling to incorporate into his analysis the possibility that Taiwanese are not awaiting ‘unification’ on the best terms but are rather waiting for the day when the question of whether it might or should happen has become irrelevant.  Since this trajectory seems to be an impossibility to Bush, owing to the current economic and military strength of the PRC, this fact of Taiwanese desire to remain independent then becomes a kind of taboo, mention of which is at best futile and at worst an unprofitable and dangerous provocation of China. Bush’s reiteration that US law allows for ‘peaceful unification’ serves to reinforce the impression that US foreign policy is not guided by principle but by opportunism, and that the US would be happy to see Taiwanese annexed to China as long as it could be done with relatively little bloodshed, thereby releasing the US from a burdensome sense of obligation to defend Taiwan.

Similarly, Douglas Fuller’s piece is constructed upon the strange hypothesis that ECFA was intended to address economic inequality. It seriously misinterprets the Ma government’s motives in promoting ECFA, fails to take into account the political dimensions of the ECFA agreement, and is littered with neoliberal economic ideology and KMT talking points, as is Liu Fu-kuo’s analysis of cross-strait relations. Fuller’s objective seems be the dismissal of critics of ECFA as irrational. Fuller and Bush both lean heavily on the trope of ‘Chen the Provoker’ and ‘Ma the Pragmatist’, whilst continuing to reproduce Ma’s still unfulfilled claim that ECFA will facilitate FTAs with other countries. Another persistent and widely prevalent practice exhibited by these and other authors is to state how Ma delivered ‘stability’ and ‘progress’ in cross-Strait relations absent the context of the KMT-CCP party forums that officially began shortly after Lien Chan visited China in 2005. Although Bush refers to the ‘united-front’ tactics of the two parties, neither he nor any other author identifies that the ‘progress’ and ’stability’ of Taiwan-China relations is entirely dependent upon Zhongnanhai’s contingent cooperation with a KMT that is in power. Whilst cross-Strait relations may be cordial, even profitable, they are by no means stable in the medium to long term.  By misidentifying the context and nature of cross-strait ‘stability’ under Ma, these authors legitimise and absent China’s agency in producing cross-strait tensions born from it’s fixation with annexing Taiwan as a sacred duty. To misunderstand China’s motivations and place responsibility for cross-strait peace mostly with Taiwan is then little more than a form of victim blaming.

Dai and Wu’s jointly written chapter on the role of the Legislative Yuan in China policy and agreements is informative and inadvertently foreshadows the later eruption of the 318 Movement protests against the lack of legislative scrutiny for ECFA and the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). Similarly, the chapter by Halbeisen on the role of the President provides food for thought and suggests that Ma has sought to revive the Party-State in another form so as to more efficiently carry out his policies whilst his party has a majority in the Legislative Yuan. Halbeisen appears at times to have also internalised the Ma Administration’s rhetoric, an example being referring to Chen’s ‘de-sinicization’, a term created by the KMT, through the reproduction of which Chen is held responsible for ‘creating tensions’ domestically via nation-building decolonisation policies which were actually in line with public opinion.  A good deal of the book seems built upon a narrative in which Ma and his party have no agency before 2008 in creating the polarisation, division, and cynicism that Ma was then supposedly elected to ‘heal’. Chen is solely at fault for both domestic and international tensions, a deeply entrenched myth upon which much institutional analysis of Ma’s Presidency has been built. Ironically, the events of 2014 have now exploded this myth and in the process have exposed academics to charges of naivety and partisanship.

In contrast, Christopher Hughes’s analysis of identity politics under Ma is full of precise and telling observations, leaving the reader wishing that some of the other contributors had read his chapter first before penning their own. Likewise, Winkler’s concise and logical breakdown of Taiwan’s interaction in the international community casts light on how Ma and the US have allowed China to have a greater say over Taiwan’s participation than was necessary, with possibly irreversible implications. Gudrun Wacker’s analysis of Taiwan’s security environment is more pedestrian and formulaic but it does provide clues as to the unpopularity of Ma’s China policies in so far as they have been based upon the Lien-Hu meeting that engendered a party to party, not state to state, ‘agreement’. Are the unpopularity of Ma’s China policies a function of their extra-state origins and rubber stamp implementation?  Finally, there is a sense that for a book about political changes in Taiwan, too much space is given to discussion of China’s positions and policies, especially the case in deLisle’s examination of Taiwan’s soft power. Again this has reduced the space available for other voices or different narratives on the content and dynamics of other political changes in Taiwan.

These criticisms aside, careful readers of the book will still find much to think about and comment on, and there are numerous insights throughout that help contextualise the political changes still on the horizon at the time of publication.  I am left with the impression that this is a book which the editors should recompile and exhaustively edit for a second edition after the Presidential elections in 2016, when a fuller, more accurate, and perhaps more impartial, assessment of Ma’s Presidency can be formulated.

Ben Goren lives in Taipei and owns Letters from Taiwan. He Tweets @bangaoren.

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