Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou
weathers typhoon fallout

By Stephen A. Nelson
Asia Times Online

TAIPEI - In what looked like a game of political lifeboat, Taiwan's premier Liu Chao-shiuan resigned late last week - after the government was heavily criticized for what media reports called a "slow, incompetent and uncaring response" to last month's Typhoon Morakot.

And in this game of lifeboat, there are those who say Liu jumped - and those who say he was pushed.

"Of course President Ma Ying-jeou wanted him to quit," said Li Wai, a television producer who supported Ma in the last election but who now has her doubts about the man many people have labelled "the Teflon president".

"Ma will not tell you what he wants - still he will expect you to do it," said Li.

Such criticisms are becoming more common in Taiwan, even in pro-Kuomintang (KMT) - the island's ruling party - media, in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot.

Typhoons are a regular occurrence in Taiwan. And each year the country gets hit by several such tropical storms. People are usually prepared for the worst. But in the wake of last month's Typhoon Morakot, parts of southern Taiwan received more than three meters of rain - three times the average annual rainfall - in just three days. This was in areas of Taiwan already made landslide-prone by earthquakes, harmful irrigation practices and devastation of natural forests cut down to make way for cash crops such as betel nut trees.

The number of dead and missing is now put at more than 700, after landslides buried villages, destroyed bridges and wiped out roads - mainly in southern Taiwan, and largely in aboriginal communities.

When Liu announced his resignation on September 7, he told reporters that someone had to take political responsibility for the death and destruction. As the country's top administrator, he said, that someone had to be him.

Less than an hour after Liu's announcement of resignation, Ma announced he would be replaced with Wu Den-yih - secretary general of Kuomintang. Another KMT stalwart, Eric Chu, was named as the new vice premier.

When Liu resigned, he was expected to take his entire 42-member cabinet with him. And indeed, the cabinet did resign en masse. But by the time the new premier Wu Den-yih named his new cabinet on September 10, only a handful of ministers had been tossed out of the lifeboat. Most of the ministers who had resigned with Liu were back in the cabinet with Wu. Critical changes include:

  • Shi Yen-shiang, chairman of China Petroleum Corp, Taiwan's biggest oil company, was named the new economics minister.

  • Tsai Hsung-hsiung, a minister without portfolio, took over from Chen Tain-jy as head of Taiwan's economic-planning council.

  • Former Veteran's Affairs Commission director Kao Hua-chu, an experienced and highly regarded military leader, was named the new minister of national defense.

  • Taiwan's representative to Indonesia and a former de facto ambassador to Australia, Timothy Yang, is the new foreign minister.

  • Former minister of the interior, Liao Liou-yi, is the new secretary general of the Presidential Office. Former chairman of the Research, Development and valuation Commission, Jiang Yi-huah, is the new interior minister.

    Critical areas where there is no change included Finance Minister Lee Sush-der and Mainland Affairs Council chairwoman Lai Shin-yuan - both of whom were reappointed to their posts.

    In responding to the cabinet shuffle, most international media reports focused on what effect the moves would have on Taiwan's relations with China, rather than what difference they would make to the people in Taiwan and how they would affect them.

    Ma's game of lifeboat was seen as "a move that is unlikely to alter the administration's pro-China policy". And it was reported that "most analysts see no significant changes in President Ma Ying-jeou's foreign, economic or China policies emerging from the new cabinet".

    Western media reports noted, "Taiwan's leaders typically replace top officials in response to criticism of the government." They said that Ma's predecessor, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian, "changed premiers six times in eight years, seldom causing alarm".

    Western media reports noted the reasons for the moves as Ma exercising damage control after what was seen as "his inability to take responsibility for a poor response to the emergency".

    Over the past few weeks, there has been considerable, pointed criticism in the press, especially over the typhoon's unusually high casualty rate. The critics argued that:

  • The government had failed to order evacuations before the storm hit.

  • People were not given enough warning to get out of the way of the mudslides.

  • The government was not prepared, even though typhoons and mudslides are a regular occurrence in Taiwan.

  • The government refused offers of aid from foreign countries because it didn't want to look like it was acting like a real country that was separate from China.

  • When the aid did come, it was too little and too late - especially when compared to how quickly and easily Ma's government got aid to their "Chinese brothers" after the earthquakes in Sichuan province last year.

  • Responding with "shock and awe" tactics, the KMT's solution has been to set up a commission - composed of central government officials and representatives of powerful corporations, without a single aboriginal member - to oversee the move of aboriginals off their ancestral lands and "voluntarily relocate" them to other, safer locations that are less prone to landslides.

  • Most of all, Ma and the KMT have been unfeeling, uncaring and petulant toward southern Taiwan and the people - mostly ethnic Taiwanese and aboriginals - who lived there.

    Jerome Keating, author of Taiwan, the Struggles of a Democracy, said this came as no surprise from a president whom Keating claims had constantly passed the buck.

    "A week after the destruction of the typhoon with the yet to be realized response of Ma's government, Ma had resorted to the blame game. First it was the Central Weather Bureau's fault for not giving a strong enough warning to prepare for the typhoon. Then it was the local magistrate's fault for not solving the problem, despite the fact that they had had no budget from the central government. Then it was the people's fault for not getting out of the way of the floods," Keating said.

    "The people - in Ma's words - were not as 'fully prepared' as they should have been. In the end, it was just about everyone's fault except Ma's. After all, he is only the president," Keating said.

    Ma did visit the affected areas - although only after a delay; he did publicly apologize, and he has ordered a public investigation into what went wrong in preparing for the typhoon and in dealing with the disaster.

    Still, foreign media reports have certainly pointed out that in the cabinet reshuffle - and in letting Liu take the fall - there is both damage control and buck-passing.

    And while the cabinet change was expected, indeed demanded - does it really address the criticisms directed at the government - especially those directed at Ma?

    The consensus in the media and with political analysts seems to be "no" - and that it was never really meant to. It's really meant as medicine to ease upset Taiwanese stomachs and make them feel better, so that the government can get on with business.

    "Reshuffling won't deal with the problem," said Keating. "Wu is a good old boy, more of the same."

    Liu Bih-rong, a professor of political science at Soochow University, seemed to agree: "The people had a lot of pent-up anger over the response [to the typhoon]," he said. "Ma panicked and for a while he lost direction as he tried to do damage control. Now with the reshuffle and as people have calmed down, he can put it behind him and refocus on China and economic issues."

    Indeed, media reports noted "the change from Liu to Wu is unlikely to cause many major waves, as power in this country largely rests with the president rather than the premier".

    What the reshuffle will do, analysts said, is consolidate power with Ma. Wu and Chu are ranking KMT members, while Ma is ready to reclaim his crown as chairman of the KMT.

    The Taiwan News, for example, noted that both Wu and Chu "will surely be more decisive in crisis management or disaster response than their technocratic predecessors". But, the paper added, Wu and Chu are "also deeply linked with local KMT and financial factions".

    So while Ma is not all alone in the lifeboat, he is definitely more in command. But will the reshuffle help the KMT in local elections later this year?


    Certainly the disastrous response to the typhoon seriously damaged the reputation of the good ship KMT, so throwing unpopular members overboard and taking on some new crew members can't hurt.

    Keating is among those who thinks that much will depend on the ability of the opposition DPP to exploit this weak link in the KMT's chain.

    But, observers note, elections in Taiwan tend to be won in two places: in the media and on the ground with local community organizations. And, the KMT has many friends in the media. Also, in many cities and towns, the KMT has more ground troops and is better organized than the DPP. Even where it does not have more local troops (in southern Taiwan, for example) the KMT - as one of the richest political parties in the world - has a much bigger war chest.

    But will the reshuffle, as some experts have already suggested, help Ma in his bid for re-election in 2012?

    Maybe not. As noted earlier, even some KMT-owned media have been openly critical of Ma. And foreign media seem far less enchanted with someone they practically fawned over just 18 months ago.

    In an article on the East Asia Forum web site, J Bruce Jacobs, director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, summed up the reaction this way, "In many ways, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the presidency of George W Bush. Quite possibly, Typhoon Morakot will destroy the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou."

    Li Wai put it another way, "Before he became president, we expected - we hoped - that Ma Ying-jeou would be a good president," she said. "Now we know he is not."

    Li Fong-yi, a Taipei office worker who voted for Ma last time, was less gracious: "Actually, we knew Ma Ying-jeou would not be a good president, but we had no choice," she said. "Frank Hsieh [Ma Ying-jeou's DPP opponent] came with too much baggage from the DPP."

    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 at the Taipei Times newspaper and at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk - a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.

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