Sunday, June 29, 2008
Maple Leaf, Summer 2006:
Music and Liner Notes from Mathew Lien
Canadian Voices: North American in Paradise?
Saturday, June 28, 2008
For some, Taiwan is a pit stop in the journey of life, or at least in a journey around Asia. They make some money (often quite good as far as temporary gigs go, especially), check out the nightlife and then move on to other locales.
Others, however, are captivated by the opportunities, lifestyle, culture, energy and ambience that the country abounds with. Even though they may have intended to stay only a few months, or perhaps a year or two at most, they linger longer; in some cases, decades or the rest of their lives.
Maple Leaf Magazine asked four Canadians – including broadcaster/journalist Stephen A. Nelson (born in Scotland and moved to Canada in 1965) why they remain here after years away from Canada. The insights about Taiwan and motivations for staying make for good reading, especially Stephen’s more humorous approach, complete with a mock interview - appropriate for a guy who first arrived in Taiwan on April Fool’s Day seven years ago.
Stephen in Wonderland
By Stephen A. Nelson
Maple Leaf: So, Stephen… What brought you to Taiwan in the first place?
Stephen: Canadian Airlines.
ML: I see. But what I mean is, “Why did you come to Taiwan?”
Stephen: I used to tell people that it was my purpose, my destiny, God’s plan for my life. But a lot of Canadians get real nervous when you tell them that - especially if it’s true. So now I just tell them I came here because I was lured by promises of love, money and future considerations.
ML: So how did you find Taiwan when you came here?
Stephen: I turned left at Japan.
ML: No, I mean did you find your destiny? Did you find love, money and future considerations?
Stephen: I did, but then I lost them.
ML: So what keeps you in Taiwan, then?
Stephen: Gravity… gravity and inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.
ML: So why don’t you do something? Go somewhere?
Stephen: Well, I keep running and running, but never seem to get anywhere.
ML: Why’s that, do you think?
Stephen: Coming to Taiwan is like Alice stepping Through the Looking Glass. Things may look the same, but nothing works the way you expect it to. It's like playing speed chess through a mirror. Sometimes you have to move backwards to move forwards.
And there is always someone yelling, "Faster! Faster!" So you move faster.
But as the Red Queen says to Alice, "You have to run much faster than that if you want to go anywhere!
Friday, June 27, 2008
At a temple in Tainan County, a banner welcomes native son Chen Shui-bian home after his successful bid for re-election in 2004.
March 22, 2004
It's all over but the crying. The presidential election in Taiwan is finished, the votes have been counted, and – unless Taiwan's high court rules otherwise – Chen Shui-bian, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will be sworn in for a second term in May.
In winning a second term, Chen and his vice-president, Annette Lu, have defeated the pro-unification forces of Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) leader Lien Chan and his running mate, James Soong.
Even before the failed assassination attempt on the lives of Chen and Lu, this closely fought battle had grabbed the world's attention because of one key issue: Taiwan's relationship with China. Now both the Taiwanese and the outside world are asking, "How will Chen's re-election affect that relationship?"
But to honestly answer that question, you first have to ask, "What was the relationship like before the election?"
The standard line is that Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war in China, when Chiang Kai-shek's KMT forces lost to Mao Zedong's Communist forces. Mao formed the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, while Taiwan and it's surrounding islands became the last bastion of the KMT's Republic of China (ROC). Today, Beijing insists that the two entities on either side of the Taiwan Strait are part of "one China" that must be reunified – by force if necessary.
The reality is a little more complicated.
But it's enough to say that Taiwan has not always been part of China, and it has never been part of the PRC. For many years the KMT government seemed to have a "mutual understanding" with Beijing that kept the two sides at peace and allowed Taiwan to act as a sovereign state: an agreement in principle that there was one China, of which both Taiwan and the mainland were a part. In the KMT's mythology, this is what has become known as “the 1992 Consensus."
Conventional wisdom has it that the relationship has cooled considerably since Chen the sovereigntist took office in the year 2000. But conventional wisdom can be like an old wives' tale: just because you keep saying it doesn't make it true.
It's true that Taiwan and China have not had any of the unofficial talks that took place during the KMT's reign – the kind of "family meetings" that allowed China and Taiwan to live in peace even if they couldn't agree on living together. And it's also true that Chen has alarmed, frustrated and angered Beijing by declaring that Taiwan already is a sovereign nation and therefore has no need for a "declaration of independence."
But it must be noted that the cooling trend began long before Chen and the DPP took office in 2000. The relationship reached a nadir in 1999 – almost a year before Chen took office – when former KMT president Lee Tung-hui stated that Taiwan and China enjoyed a "special state-to-state relationship."
Beijing leaders responded to that pronouncement with bile and venom. They condemned Lee as a "separatist," suspended all discussions with Taipei, and again raised the spectre of a war to “reunify” Taiwan with the motherland. And they have done the same again with Chen Shui-bian.
Shortly after becoming president, Chen did offer olive branches to Beijing; but all his overtures were either flatly refused or ignored. Beijing and the pro-unification forces in Taiwan blame Chen for not recognizing the "one China" principle. Chen and the pro-sovereignty forces blame Beijing for refusing to treat Taiwan as an equal partner in any discussions.
In the past four years, there has been a lot of finger-wagging and showing of teeth from Beijing, but not as much sabre-rattling as in the past. And despite his provocative talk of sovereignty, Chen has shown himself to be a skilled political realist who knows how to push China's buttons without going too far.
So, while things have not improved under Chen's tenure, they're not really any worse.
Both sides hoped this election would be a watershed. Chen wanted a mandate for changes that would solidify Taiwan's identity as a separate and sovereign nation. Beijing on other hand, wanted rid of Chen and supported KMT Leader Lien Chan so that both sides could get back to talking about one China.
In this election, neither side got what it really wanted. Chen got re-elected by pushing the sovereignty issue, but with no real mandate for the kind of radical changes that independence would imply. And China must face the fact that the Taiwanese people have again chosen Chen and wish to be "maitres chez nous."
So the question now becomes, "What will the two sides do differently – what must they do differently – this time?"
The answer to the first part of that question is that nobody really knows.
The optimistic view, the hopeful view, is that Chen's election to a second term changes everything. Another man, backed by powerful business interests, might have made a deal with China that would have traded Taiwan's sovereignty for peace and prosperity. But this one will not, so China will realize it must now get over its distaste for separatists and deal with Chen.
Chen, having barely won an election he was supposed to lose, will reach out confidently and peacefully to China. He will make new overtures that Beijing – acting in enlightened self-interest – will respond to, so that growing economic ties between the two countries can proceed and both sides can continue to prosper in peace.
The skeptical view, some would say the realistic view, is that the election in Taiwan changes nothing. Beijing's policy toward Taiwan comes from decisions made inside the world of Chinese politics. There are both hawks and doves in Beijing, but the wind beneath their wings is the same: unification with Taiwan. There is not that much a president of Taiwan – especially an independence-minded president like Chen – can do about that.
Proponents of both views agree on the answer to the second part of the question: Chen now has the responsibility of making it easier for the "doves" in China to succeed. In other words, maybe he can't make Beijing change its mind and he can't make the leaders talk – but he can and must make them willing and able to talk.
That means toning down the independence rhetoric that makes the hawks want to pounce. It also means giving the doves some face, so that it doesn't look like they're giving up on the "one China" principle if they meet with Chen. Then and only then can any progress be made on key issues such as trade between the two countries.
Can any president do this and still make the Taiwanese feel that they are "maitres chez nous"?
If anybody can, Chen can. In the last four years, and again in this election campaign, he has proven himself to be a skilled political realist as well as a charismatic leader. But more importantly Chen – as the assassination attempt showed – is a survivor. He can take a bullet for the team and still come out alive.
Stephen A. Nelson is a Canadian freelance writer and broadcaster now living in Toronto.
In 2000, two bitter rivals from the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang or KMT) — Lien Chan and James Soong – had fought each other to become the KMT's presidential candidate. When Soong failed to get what he considered to be his by right, he split from the KMT – taking his supporters with him. The KMT, in turn, kicked him out of the party and said the same would happen for any of his supporters.
The very public and nasty split in the party resulted in the vote being split.
The “outcast” James Soong placed a close second in the election and nearly won.
The “chosen one” Lien Chan placed a very distant third.
The winner of the election was the dark horse: Chen Shui-bian, a former democracy-rights lawyer from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Vowing never to let the separatist Chen win again, Lien Chan and James Soong buried the hatchet long enough to run a joint campaign against Chen in 2004. After an extremely acrimonious election campaign, Chen won again – this time by a razor thin margin in the popular vote.
The victory came just one day after an apparent assassination attempt on the lives of Chen and his running mate, Vice President Annette Lu. Chen and Lu were both wounded by bullets fired at them while they were travelling in an open motorcade.
On election night, Lien, Soong and their supporters rallied in streets of Taipei. They charged that the election had been stolen, the voting had been rigged, and that Chen had faked his own assassination attempt.
Lien and Soong vowed never to accept the results. They led a month-long series of protests designed to produce a "people power" coup. At the same time, they challenged the election results in the courts.
When this story was written – just days after the election, their case was still before the courts. Of course, the courts threw out the challenges, saying there was no evidence to support their accusations.
That didn't stop Lien, Soong and their supporters from orchestrating a campaign to depose Chien Shui-bian, calling on him to "step down." It's a campaign that lasted until the 2008 presidential election campaign won by the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou. It's a campaign Ma won with the help and support of Lien and Soong.
But now that Chen has actually "stepped down" at the end of his term, the accusation that he staged an assassination attempt on his own life continues to be an albatross that the KMT hangs around his neck.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
April 11, 2008
Taiwan's president-elect Ma Ying-jeou spent last weekend honouring his political ancestors: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his son, the late president Chiang Ching-kuo. It's the latest move by Ma and his Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) to polish the tarnished image of the Chiang dynasty and reinstall its name to public places and monuments. And it's meant to influence Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.
By Stephen A. Nelson
TAIPEI - A new wind is blowing across Taiwan. And what many had hoped would be a breath of fresh air from president-elect Ma Ying-jeou may turn out to be a monsoon that brings the perfect storm of change.
To find out what direction the wind is blowing, one needs to look no further than Ma himself. Although he is praised as a pragmatist with a flexible attitude, critics have called Ma "a chameleon on a weather vane." And that weather vane now indicates that the "new wind" is a really blast from the past - a past when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) enjoyed one-party rule.
That's why Taiwan's current battle over the naming and renaming of public places and monuments dedicated to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is really a battle to determine Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.
Kowtowing to Chiang
This past weekend, Taiwan celebrated the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day, a national holiday during which families visit their ancestral graves to pay respects to their forebears.
Coincidentally, it also happened to be the 33rd anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek's death. Not coincidentally, Ma - as the head of the KMT "family" - chose this day to visit two mausoleums in honour of his political ancestors: Chiang Kai-shek and his son and successor, the late president Chiang Ching-kuo.
Together the Chiangs ruled Taiwan for four decades - most of the time under brutal martial law. Chiang the elder ruled after the KMT's Republic of China got control of Taiwan's islands at the end of World War II. In 1949, after the KMT lost to Mao Zedong's communists in a civil war on the mainland, Chiang fled to Taiwan and held it as the last bastion of his regime.
When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, he was succeeded by Chiang Ching-kuo.
Chiang the younger has been presented in recent years as a "reformer" who benefited Taiwan by setting the groundwork for Taiwan's "economic miracle" and putting Taiwan on the road to democracy.
Critics, however, say that he was merely a pragmatist who acted to save the KMT and preserve its regime - the Republic of China on Taiwan.
So although those in the KMT have viewed his regime with great nostalgia, critics say that Chiang Ching-kuo was actually a more efficient and more brutal leader, having learned government at the knee of Joseph Stalin.
Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988. Thirty years later, Ma Ying-jeou is set to become the first president since Chiang who was not born in Taiwan.
President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, not coincidentally, began his political career as Chiang Ching-kuo's English translator and secretary. He was promoted by Chiang Ching-kuo to become the youngest cabinet member in the history of Taiwan.
That would explain, in part, Ma's kowtowing to the Chiangs on Tomb Sweeping Day. And this just one week after his appearance at another Chiang landmark - the Taipei shrine formerly known as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
What's in a Name?
Although Chiang Kai-shek's mausoleum (where Ma spent Tomb Sweeping Day) is actually outside of Taipei, it is the towering temple-like memorial hall in downtown Taipei that is truly Taiwan's answer to Vladimir Lenin's tomb in Moscow or Mao Zedong's mausoleum in Beijing.
The memorial hall is set like a glistening jewel in a palatial public plaza that is Taiwan's version of Red Square in Moscow or Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
In the main hall of the shrine sits a giant, bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek, looking for all the world like a Ming Dynasty god-emperor. It is one of the largest bronze statues in the world, on a scale with the giant statues of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.
In an effort to demythologize the Chiang legend, the current government of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) recently renamed the shrine National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. The name of the surrounding gardens was changed from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park to Taiwan Democracy Park. And the great public plaza was renamed Liberty Square.
The renaming was one of many controversial moves the DPP has made in the past year to distance Taiwan from its dictatorial past. Other moves include the renaming of Taipei's international airport that was for decades known as Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. It is now know as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
Critics in the the KMT decried such changes as blatant political ploys by the DPP to drum up election support among its core voters by stirring up hatred of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT.
But according to the pro-Taiwan Taipei Times (Taiwan's largest English-language newspaper), the anti-Chiang campaign was about something much deeper than an election victory.
In an editorial last December titled Let's feed Chiang to the historians, the paper said that the "destruction of Chiang's godlike status and the redefinition of his place in history are necessary parts of Taiwan's democratic transition, much like Spain's ongoing re-evaluation of late dictator Francisco Franco."
The paper went on to say that "Election concerns were of course one component in the government's decision to change the name Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall ... but these actions are also a part of the re-evaluation of Chiang's contributions and faults. These actions are an essential step in the process of lessening psychological trauma in this society."
The changes at the memorial hall have especially angered the KMT's old guard and their supporters, many of whom are "49ers" who arrived in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek's troops in 1949. Led by Chiang Kai-shek's grandson, John Chiang, they have publicly protested the changes to the Chiang landmarks.
They have complained that Chen - a democracy-rights lawyer who fought against martial law - is a dictator. And they say that Chiang Kai-shek - a dictator who imposed martial law - is a hero who laid the groundwork for Taiwan's democracy.
For his part, Ma Ying-jeou has called the renaming of the memorial hall "illegal" and promised to revisit the issue when he becomes president in May. He has said that the name of the memorial could be changed back - and Chiang Kai-shek's great status restored - "if that's what people want."
Ma hasn't said which "people" he means to ask.
But by visiting the tombs of the Chiangs, Ma has certainly indicated which way he is leaning. And as usual with Ma, it's an indication of which way Taiwan's political winds are blowing.
Rewriting History - Again
To most historians, the Chiangs were ruthless dictators who ruled China - and then Taiwan - with an iron fist. In Taiwan alone, they were responsible for the deaths and "disappearances" of tens of thousands during the KMT's reign of terror (known as The White Terror) during the 38 years of martial law in Taiwan.
Some historians have put Chiang Kai-shek in the same category as Adolf Hitler, Stalin and Mao; noting that Chiang admired and imitated Hitler, learned and borrowed from Stalin, and differed little from Mao.
Certainly this is the view of the outgoing Chen and his DPP - a politician and a party born from the democracy movement that opposed the KMT's one-party rule in the 1970s and 1980s.
But during Ma Ying-jeou's visit to the Chiangs' mausoleums, Ma said that the Chiangs' actions are "open to discussion" and that their legacy is "open to different interpretations." And, he said, people are entitled to their own different views about the Chiangs.
"Their merits and faults can be discussed by historians but they left behind many important historical and cultural heritages which should be preserved," Ma said.
Ma may think that this is a matter for future historians to decide, but John Chiang and the KMT's ancien regime have been emboldened by the party's one-two victories in the legislative and presidential elections. They are flexing their muscles by pressing for changes now.
Taking their cue from John Chiang, pro-KMT news media - which means nearly all of them in Taiwan - are polishing the tarnished image of Chiang Kai-shek and seeking to restore the damaged legacy of the Chiang dynasty. They continue to deify Chiang Kai-shek and portray him as a national hero, one who preserved Taiwan's freedom and laid the groundwork for economic miracle.
This version of the story has been eagerly picked up by foreign news agencies and repeated around the world.
An old proverb says, "Journalism is the first draft of history." If that's true, then the revised history of Taiwan is being written now. And it's a version of history we've seen before, when the KMT was writing the history books.
Dictator or deliverer?
So what are future history students to believe about Chiang Kai-shek? Was he a dictator or deliverer? A strongman or saviour?
"A lot depends on who you ask," said Taiwan expert Dean Karalekas, a Canadian journalist who lived and worked in Taiwan. "Was Chiang a strongman? Yes. But he was our strongman and it is important that we avoid the temptation to apply 21st century moral judgements to his actions," added Karalekas.
"The world was a different place then, and it operated under different rules," he said. "I'm not apologizing for him, but he has passed into history; and as a former student of history, I am hesitant to start judging its principal actors, of which Chiang certainly was one."
Another old Taiwan hand was less hesitant to judge: "[Chiang] was a dictator. If he delivered anything, it was a reign of terror to Taiwan," said Jeff Limburger, a Canadian who worked in Taiwan's news media for more than a decade and now works in Singapore. "Though to be fair, some of the people who were persecuted in the White Terror were also delivered by Chiang."
But even if Chiang was a strongman, was he also - as his supporters claim - the one who saved Taiwan by protecting it from the "communist bandits on the mainland"?
"Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan," said Jerome Keating, author of several books including Island in the Stream: A Quick Case Study of Taiwan's Complex History .
"Taiwan, on the other hand, actually saved Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT. On the run from Mao Zedong's forces, they had no place to hide but Taiwan."
What saved Taiwan from Mao, Keating said, was that - in the beginning - Mao lacked the naval forces to cross the Taiwan Strait. The arrival of the US Seventh Fleet, coinciding with America's involvement in the Korean War, sealed this fate: Mao and the communists on one side of the strait, Chiang and the KMT on the other side.
"Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT were lucky," said Keating. "Taiwan was not."
But given the military conflict and the "Red Threat" from Mao's China, was martial law needed to maintain order? And was the White Terror (the KMT's reign of spies, disappearances, imprisonments and executions) a "necessary evil" to keep Taiwan "safe"?
"Martial law probably helped the government maintain control in what would have been pretty tense and troubling times," said Limburger. "I can see how an alien power would have felt it was necessary to impose martial law in order to reduce the likelihood of domestic chaos as it contemplated how to retake its homeland."
"I guess from that point of view, you would call martial law a necessary evil," continued Limburger. "The White Terror, however - that was just evil."
Profits or Plunder?
But what about the claims that Chiang not only kept Taiwan "free" but rebuilt the economy after the losses of World War II? Did Chiang prosper Taiwan or plunder it?
Keating believes that the whole idea that "Chiang Kai-shek rebuilt Taiwan" is a fabrication, a myth.
"Chiang Kai-shek did not rebuild Taiwan;" he said. "In reality, he is the one who brought it to its lowest degradation."
The KMT and its historians have said that the "rape of Taiwan" took place during the Japanese colonial period, especially in the dying days of World War II.
But according to Keating, he real denuding, pillaging and destruction of Taiwan was at the hands of the KMT in the final phases of China's civil war.
"Taiwan suffered tremendous destruction physically and morally. Taiwan was stripped of machinery, factory parts, materials, metals, foods, rice ... anything and everything that could be used to bolster Chiang's losing effort in China," Keating said.
And when the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and began rebuilding what they had destroyed?
"It was not because they loved Taiwan," he said, "but because they had no place left to go" and decided to "make a heaven of their hell" that they had created.
So three decades after Chiang's death, what are we to make of the recent changes that "smote the name of Chiang" from public places like Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall?
Were these just election ploys by the governing DPP?
"I don't think they were renamed in order to consolidate pro-independence support," said Limburger. "Deep green [pro-Taiwan, pro-independence] voters would have voted for the DPP candidate whether they got Chiang's head on a plate or not. I think it was actually a matter of principle. And the DPP were probably hoping that reversing the changes wouldn't be high on Ma Ying-jeou's priority list once he was elected."
But now, the pressure is on to restore the old name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. Since Ma has promised to revisit the issue, will he wait until he is president and then change the name? Or push now for changes the old guard wants?
"I would be very disappointed to hear the hall and airport were renamed," said Limburger.
"Firstly, I don't think Chiang Kai-shek and his family deserve a public legacy. Secondly, I'd be disappointed in Ma. I really want to believe that he's actually a man of substance who will choose the sensible course over the politically expedient one every once in a while. If he caves on this one, it doesn't bode well for his presidency as a multitude of supporters and cronies push him to rush into China with open arms."
The Future of Democracy
But if Ma does give in - as many expect he will do as soon as he's sworn in - and the old names and Chiang's monuments are restored, what does all this say about Taiwan's democracy?
One person worth asking is Linda Gail Arrigo. Today she is a sociology professor at Taipei Medical University and spokesperson for Taiwan's Green Party. But three decades ago, known by her Chinese name Ai Lin-Da, she was one of the most recognizable foreigners in Taiwan.
During the martial-law era, Arrigo was intimately involved in Taiwan's forbidden democracy movement and took part in the demonstrations that led to one of the country's most infamous military crackdowns: the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, also known outside Taiwan as the Formosa Incident.
Arrigo's husband, future DPP chairman Shih Ming-de, was singled out as one of the ringleaders and sent to prison. For her part in challenging the KMT, Arrigo avoided prison but was deported to the United States.
At the time, Chiang Ching-kou was president.
For people like Arrigo, the sight of Ma Ying-jeou kowtowing to the Chiangs is an ill omen. "Even if the names [of the memorial and the airport] aren't changed back, a chill 'Blue' wind is blowing, just because Taiwanese automatically buckle down to please the new authorities," said Arrigo.
In Taiwan's colour-coded politics, blue is the colour of the KMT and its old-guard, pro-unification allies. Arrigo clearly thinks that the whole country is bending with the KMT wind - and that will mean a setback for those who have fought so hard for democracy in Taiwan.
"I think it is quite possible that there will be actual backpedaling on police issues and freedom of speech, but it will probably be subtle," Arrigo said.
And what about Ma Ying-jeou himself?
"Let's see how Ma faces the frying pan," Arrigo said. "But I expect the matter now is not really Ma as an individual, but the old evil style of the KMT."
Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk – a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.
What readers said about this story:
As an overseas Taiwanese I praise Stephen A Nelson's article Devils and angels in Taiwan. Ma Ying-jeou's KMT [Kuomintang party] with big help [from] the People's Republic of China, and perhaps many short-sighted Taiwanese and America's George W Bush administration as well, have defeated [the Democratic Progressive Party] overwhelmingly in Taiwan.
Taiwan's political troubles are comparable with those of Ukraine and Estonia, which have to deal with a big "race" problem. While in Taiwan last March during the presidential election, I encountered a China-born "Taiwanese" citizen who proclaimed, "China has so many people, what's wrong [with] killing some Tibetans?"
Canada (Apr 14, '08)
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Asia Times Online
March 27, 2008
For years, the Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou has been considered an heir to the presidency of Taiwan. Now that it has come true, and with a trail of contradictory campaign promises in his wake, the nation is left to decipher what kind of leader Ma will become. He already has some telling nicknames, among them "Mr Clean", "Mr Teflon" and "Mr Promises, Platitudes and Pablum."
In 2006, then-KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (right) was front and centre at a rally in Taipei calling on the Democratic Progressive Party's President Chen Shui-bian to step down. To the left of Ma is James Soong, a former governor of Taiwan. Soong split from the KMT in the year 2000 in order to run his own presidential campaign against KMT rival Lien Chan. But for the 2008 presidential election, Soong had rejoined the KMT's old guard to support Ma's presidential bid.
TAIPEI - Since the day when Ma Ying-jeou was chosen as the chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) he was hailed as "a shoo-in" to win the presidential election. Even before he had declared any intention to do so, it seemed like the press had already decided that Ma had received the Mandate of Heaven and that he was pre-ordained to be the new emperor of the "Republic of China on Taiwan."
Now that that prophecy has been fulfilled at the weekend's presidential elections, the people of Taiwan - whether they call themselves Taiwanese, Chinese or aboriginal - will have two months to think about what kind of president they will get when former chairman Ma ascends to the throne.
That's because, despite the KMT's efforts (with the help of local and foreign news media) to paint Ma as a reliable, professional politician, in the last two years we have been given glimpses of the very different faces of Ma Ying-jeou. It seems that on almost every issue, every concern, Ma has at least two faces.
The foreign news media, following the lead of Taiwan's clearly pro-KMT press, have called Ma "Mr Clean" because of his efforts - while as Justice Minister in 1980s - to clean up corruption in the KMT. And even his fans have called him "Mr Teflon" because none of the accusations and charges against him ever seems to stick.
On the other hand, critics like historian Jerome Keating (author of several books on Taiwan, including Taiwan, the Struggles of a Democracy) call Ma "Mr Promises, Platitudes and Pablum" who "basks in his pseudo Mr Clean image and does his best to weasel out of any responsibility for his failings. For him, promises and platitudes are the answer for all, and the general public unfortunately is too naive to see through it."
The light in which the many faces of Ma seem most obvious is on the one issue that colors all of Taiwan's politics - the one issue that those outside Taiwan always focus on: the issue of unification with China.
Certainly this is the one thing China cares about. And ever since the democracy movement began in Taiwan, it has been the defining issue that separates "pan-green" parties like the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (pro-independence, pro-Taiwan) from "pan-blue" parties like the KMT (pro-unification, pro-China.)
Shortly after becoming KMT chairman in mid-2005, Ma told the Associated Press that - if he became president - he would do "everything in his power" to "re-unify" Taiwan with China.
He was strongly critical of efforts by President Chen Shui-bian to "suspend" the already dormant National Unification Council and the National Unification Guidelines - drawn up by the KMT - that laid out exactly how the Taiwan should go about "re-unifying" with China.
But even as outgoing KMT chairman Lien Chan was cozying up to Beijing, and promising "One China", Ma sensed that the ground in Taiwan was shifting.
Coups - even "soft" coups and "people power" coups - were not going to win the day any more. Assassination attempts could backfire. The KMT had to accept that democracy was the battleground for getting and keeping power. And it had to accept that - on that battleground - elections were the rules of engagement. To win those elections, you needed the support of the people, including those people who increasingly were for the "status quo" of de facto independence or even those that were for formal, de jure independence.
So Ma and the KMT took out newspaper ads spelling out what they saw as the three options for Taiwan: unification, independence, status quo - suggesting that they were open to any or all of those options. When the KMT old guard gave him flak for that, Ma explained that what he meant was "independence is an option for Taiwan, but not for the KMT."
During this election, Ma changed again.
Ma was clearly the favorite in Beijing, who expected that a victorious Ma would make good on KMT promises to move forward on the unification issue.
But in a Taiwan where the people increasingly see themselves as being Taiwanese, not Chinese, being Beijing's first choice is not a good way to win the hearts and minds of the people. And certainly the protests and violent crackdowns in Tibet were seen as a cautionary tale for anyone who thought unification with China was a good idea.
So Ma went to great pains to distance himself both from Beijing, Lien Chan's promises to China, and his own promises to "do everything in [his] power" to unify Taiwan with China.
In the last days of the campaign he repeated his "Three Nos" - "no unification, no independence, no war."
Keating says that "Ma has promised everything and anything", hoping that he will hit something.
So if Ma keeps changing on this most fundamental issue, which Ma will the country get when he is sworn in as president on May 20?
Ma the Chinese nationalist dedicated to unification? Or Ma the Taiwanese democrat who will listen to the will of the people? What are we to think of Ma Ying-jeou?
On this, Keating is clear: "On my better days I call him a pretentious weasel ... At other times I have called him a chameleon on a weather vane, or a windsock; his position keeps changing depending on who he is talking to," Keating says.
"I can't keep up with him."
Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk - a weekly program about Taiwan and it's place in the world.