What’s Going On with President Ma?With a year left before he must step down, Ma Ying-jeou is starting to sound a bit erratic, which could cause headaches for the KMT
It’s been a constant over the years that as presidential elections approach, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) tone has tended to become more “Taiwan-centric” and, if only to secure the necessary votes, more attuned to the views held by the majority of Taiwanese. While we still don’t know who the KMT candidate for 2016 will be, there is every reason to believe that the party will once again use that strategy in the lead-up to January 16. Strangely, this time around there’s an outlier, someone who has been doing the exact opposite — President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Why the president, who normally emphasizes his “no unification, no independence” stance on cross-strait relations, has decided to do this now remains a mystery. It could very well be that as he is unable to run for a third consecutive term, and since he is no longer KMT chairman, Ma no longer feels constrained by the electoral forces that compel politicians to adopt a centrist line in public.
On May 14, Ma told a delegation of Overseas Chinese from San Francisco that the relationship between Taiwan and China was akin to the situation during the Three Kingdoms: “after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, to divide.”
Needless to say, such remarks sparked outrage among many Taiwanese.
Now, Ma is entitled to his views, but this is problematic for a few reasons. Chief among them is the fact that this contradicts his policies over the past seven years and plays into the notion of inevitability that serves as the foundation of Chinese political warfare against Taiwan. It also implies that Taiwan is, or was, and again will be, part of China, something that flies in the face of historical evidence, not to mention the desires of the people who put him in power.
Again, all of this might be the result of Ma feeling that he can now speak freely. It could also stem from the realization that the clock is ticking and that his legacy is on the line; after all, he’s been pretty much neutralized in his second term (thanks in part to the Sunflower Movement) and unable to deliver anything of substance in terms of progress in cross-strait relations, something that I had already forecast in early 2013. Without engaging in psychoanalysis, another possibility is that Ma has been embittered by the party turning its back on him and Beijing no longer entertaining the notion that it can get anything from him. Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect that he does not), Mr. Ma is a lame duck, and has been so for a while. Creating a bit of controversy could give the illusion that he still matters. (We should also note that Ma is also under a lot of pressure and faces investigation over the role he may have played in questionable construction deals, chief among them the Taipei Dome, when he was Taipei mayor.)
Whatever the reason, Ma is acting a bit out of character. Ironically, the likeliest casualty of this frank speaking is the KMT itself — or rather, the candidate who will seek to step into his shoes in 2016. As several polls have shown over the years, support for unification with China is very low and dwindling; the majority of people in Taiwan either support the “status quo” or independence. Among KMT voters, the ambiguity of the “status quo” may be the preferred choice, but in reality this translates into support for independence, albeit using a “safer” designation (that the “status quo” is dynamic and must be fought over is a different question altogether). Very few are those in the KMT who support union with China, especially if this entails the risk that their way of life would be compromised. That is why I no longer agree with the designation of the KMT as a “pro-unification” party. Just like their counterparts in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), pan-blue voters enjoy the freedoms and liberties that exist under Taiwan’s liberal democratic system, and most of them understand the need for and value of democratic accountability, and the costs associated with failing to play by those rules.
For reasons that are probably known only to him, Ma has begun saying things openly that will be detrimental to the future KMT candidate and the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Taiwanese. This might yet be evidence of a nascent second round of fragmentation of the party following the ideological split that occurred in the 1990s under president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), forcing members to choose sides between the more Taiwanese camp and the conservatives who associate more closely with China.
Maybe Ma thinks that by adopting a firmer stance on the “Taiwan question” he can bring members to his side. Should that be his motivation, he could soon find himself a very lonely man. If there’s one thing about the KMT that hasn’t changed over the years it is its ruthless abandonment of fallen stars.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.