The Buck Stops Elsewhere: Ma Ying-joke, Taiwan's Inveterate Poseur

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Sunday August 03, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Western media pundits in search of quick dramatic story lines have always glossed and glamorized Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou; few have observed him long and close enough to see the reality beneath the surface. For example, they always tout him as the brilliant Harvard lawyer though in reality while he did attend Harvard he never passed the bar in the United States or in Taiwan. He is spoken of as being a glamorous mayor of Taipei, but few can list any real concrete accomplishments of his eight year period in that office. True, gloss is easier than doing one's homework, but this is why such reporters feel surprise when more and more people express a different conception of Ma and have started to refer to him as Ma Ying-joke. What to make of it and why? Let me count the ways.

First there is the reality that despite all the hype of his bold new leadership and projected dramatic economic growth, the promises quickly fizzed out and spent their course. What is left is the realization that Ma Ying-joke is all palaver and not performance. Being president of a nation with diverse global demands is different than being mayor of a city albeit the largest city in the nation. One needs more than showmanship. In the past, when all he had to do was talk, Ma could talk out of both sides of his mouth and take every opportunity to strike the pose while city structures kept the city functioning. In a nation with international responsibilities more is needed. Now when it is time to go beyond image and deliver Ma is lost and longs for the structured city days when the need for a cult image among many Chinese could carry him on.

It is barely two months into Ma's presidency and already a pathetic pall is seen settling over the country; some are beginning to wonder if Taiwan even has a president. To be sure, these are troubled times for Taiwan. Taiwan stands between two hegemonies, China and the United States, and each has its own script for the island nation to carry out. In such times Taiwan needs leadership that can navigate between the conflicting demands of these hegemonies while preserving the nation's dignity and sovereignty. Ma unfortunately seems to think that such navigation simply means trying to placate both and mouthing the words that all is well. Then ostrich-like he sticks his head in the sand hoping that the troubles will go away.

Ma has never been one for responsibility or action; in the past most of what he had attained or achieved is what had been given him on a platter by his family or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). To take a personal stand is new and that means running the risk of error and/or alienating someone and that would harm his image. His image must be preserved at all costs, so Ma reverts to the role of the placating ostrich.

Instead of responsibility; what Ma really wants is to be a ceremonial president. There he can bask in adulation and photo opportunities. With no clear strategy, no thought out plans, he only knows that he must preserve image. He was hoping that the professed China panacea would do his delivering for him but that already is not panning out. The great China tourist boom has gone bust in less than a month. Even before it started, good analysts predicted that it would be a drop in the economic bucket. Mediocre analysts and news reports that followed the Ma hype are now left scrambling for excuses.

In dealings with China, instead of taking responsibility for creating a new national strategy, Ma resorts to the fictitious 1992 consensus, a dated piece of fabrication from the KMT's one-party state days. At least with this if it fails, or if it ends up surrendering Taiwan to China, Ma calculates he will not personally be held to blame. In current issues of international scope, Ma passes the buck and says, "That's the Premier's job." He is most comfortable in ceremony; ceremony remains his forte.

In the upcoming Olympics, Ma remains true to not wanting to confront; he first tries to dodge the issue and accept China's designation of Taiwan's place in line and say it is no big deal. Then there is the matter of using Zhonghua Taibei or Zhongguo Taibei, both of which denigrate Taiwan. Further, China's pundits claim that there is little difference between Zhonghua Taibei and Zhongguo Taibei, but Ma claims that after two months of negotiations he has accomplished a great diplomatic coup. He has gotten China to accept what it had agreed to ages ago. Is that an accomplishment? And now that this is done; Ma states he has achieved a "diplomatic truce," a truce that is until the next time that China decides to violate its agreements. Ma is not worried, for him this is all part of his not being a trouble maker. Supposedly it was the previous administration that was the trouble maker because it would not be the pony boy to China and the US.

Richard Nixon, a man with a different image problem, also sought the approval of the people and wished to portray himself as a strategic leader. Who can forget the way Nixon tried to convince the people with his statement, "I am not a crook." Picture Ma with the same tone saying "I am not a trouble-maker" and you will see the resemblance. Nixon despite his failings was not afraid to act; Ma instead of facing the powers confronting Taiwan prefers to leave the action to others.

As more and more see through his phoniness, even the pan-blue media has referred to Ma as a little white rabbit who does not want to get his paws dirty. If one had to get a placard for Ma's desk it would read, "The Buck Stops Elsewhere."

This is not something that can be cured by a change of heart; it is too deeply ingrained. Image could carry Ma when all he had to do was pose and throw out promises and platitudes, and make no mistake, Ma is a calculator. Unfortunately in his calculation, he has surrounded himself with adoring cub scouts and manipulators. With little substance; and no true care for or identity with Taiwan; he lacks a vision that is Taiwan centric. He speaks of and dreams of returning to the China centeredness of the KMT and tries to emphasize Taiwan's identity as part of Zhonghua minzu. If this were a Greek drama it would end in Ma's betraying Taiwan and all the while claiming it is for Taiwan's own good. Let us hope there are stronger voices in the nation.