Ma and the peace agreement

Wow.  This election is boring.  Two months before election day, and it is really, really cold.  And now, a lightning fast reaction to a story that is two weeks old.

In stating that he is open to negotiating a peace treaty with China, Ma Ying-jeou made a either a horrible campaign mistake or a responsible policy statement.

Politically, it is clear that Ma’s support took a hit in the polls almost immediately after he introduced this issue into the campaign.  One never knows for sure exactly why these numbers go up and down, but it’s hard to avoid connecting the dots in this case.  Experience tells us that nothing matters in Taiwanese elections as much as the China issue.  Four years ago, Ma managed to diffuse suspicions that he was a unification advocate, or at least he managed to convince people that he wouldn’t actively pursue unification.  The No Unification, No Independence, No War slogan was quite powerful.  In the same way that Chen Shui-bian used the DPP’s Resolution on Taiwan’s Future to neutralize fears that he would pursue a radical course, Ma assuaged fears that he would be the opposite sort of radical.  However, by suggesting that he would negotiate a political settlement with China, Ma has stepped away from his moderate stance.  This is important, because the moderate position is where most of the electorate resides.  The Election Study Center’s most recent data point shows that about 60% of the electorate wants either to maintain the status quo and decide about unification or independence in the future or simply maintain the status quo forever.  One of the big advantages of incumbency is that the challenger is usually seen as the riskier choice, since voters have a hard time imagining what she would be like if she actually were the president.  In a stroke, Ma made himself into the dangerous candidate.

One of the more curious aspects of this case was Ma wondering why everyone reacted so suspiciously.  After all, Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Tsai Ing-wen have all mentioned the possibility of a peace agreement at one point or another.  Why hasn’t anyone accused them of acting dangerously or pursuing unification?  Well, when different people say the same thing, it doesn’t always mean the same thing.  The classic case is Nixon in China.  Richard Nixon spent the 1950s and 1960s building a reputation as the United State’s premier anti-communist.  Even within the Republican Party, no one was more anti-communist than Nixon.  When Nixon suddenly announced that he was visiting China in 1972, no one doubted that he was being soft on communism or naïve about Mao.  If Eugene McCarthy, who demanded that the USA pull out of Vietnam immediately, had won the 1968 presidential election and then announced that he was going to visit China in 1972, the reaction would have been very different.  There would have been uproar about surrender to communism.  Nixon could do it; McCarthy couldn’t have.  To give an example from Taiwan, many people have noted that in the 2000 presidential election, the formal policy positions on China of all three candidates were basically the same.  Did that mean that people understood Chen, Lien, and Soong to have the same stance?  Of course not!  They had each been associated with a particular stance for years, and their supporters had quite different ideas about what the proper relation with China was.  Ignoring the policy statements, voters judged Chen to be on the independence side of the spectrum, Soong to be on the unification side, and Lien to be closer to the middle.  Moreover, the voters were right to ignore the platforms.  Subsequent events showed that Chen actually leaned to the independence side while Soong and Lien clearly located themselves on the unification side of the spectrum.[1]  When voters reacted differently to almost exactly the same statements by the three candidates, they were wise to do so.  It is no wonder if people today think that when Ma is moving toward unification when he proposes a peace agreement.  He has a long history of Chinese identity, pro-unification activities, and he is supported by people who share those values.  Likewise, it is no wonder that people might react differently if Lee, Chen, or Tsai say exactly the same thing.

(I don’t really think Ma doesn’t understand this.  Whining about how unfairly the other side treats you is part of the political game.  It is all fodder for your side to chew on so you can tell yourself that the other side is completely unreasonable.)

Raising the idea of a peace agreement is almost certainly a vote loser.  However, the policy-oriented democrat in me sees a certain value in it.  Assume that Ma is planning to win the election and seek a peace agreement.  He has a certain responsibility to tell voters that before the election.  If Candidate Ma denied he would do any such thing and then President Ma turned around and did it, it would almost certainly be met with outrage and might cripple his presidency.  It certainly would lack legitimacy.  However, re-elected President Ma can tell voters that he told them about his plans, asked for their support, and got their votes, so seeking a peace agreement has a democratic legitimacy.[2]  Think about ECFA.  No matter how much the DPP protested, Ma always had a trump card.  In the 2008 campaign, he had run on the idea that he would pursue closer economic ties with China, and he won the election with 58%.  He could simply reply that he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

As a democrat, I believe that elections should have consequences.  By putting the possibility of a peace agreement out in the open, Ma has made it very clear what those consequences could be.  Responsible.

On the other hand, as a democrat, I believe in winning elections.  Ma’s actions have made that less likely for him.  Stupid.

[1] Actually, there probably was a mistake in those popular judgments in 2000.  Soong is probably more moderate than Lien.  However, in 2000 Soong was commonly evaluated as pro-unification, probably because he is a mainlander, while Lien was judged as more moderate because of his position as Lee Teng-hui’s protégé.  Lien subsequently made a complete break with Lee and took a much more pro-unification stance.

[2] There is a third way.  In addition to (1) telling the voters and then doing it and (2) not telling the voters and then doing it, Ma could opt for (3) not telling the voters and not doing it.  The third way would simply be continuing his present policy.  Apparently Ma wants to change his present policy so much that he is willing to risk losing the presidency.  Either that or he simply miscalculated the potential impact of announcing a major change in China policy.  Or maybe I am overreacting.


4 Responses to “Ma and the peace agreement”

  1. Echo Says:

    “re-elected President Ma can tell voters that he told them about his plans, asked for their support, and got their votes, so seeking a peace agreement has a democratic legitimacy.”

    FYI, after Ma puts out his peace agreement plan, he said in an interview that he will not consider his re-election as a support for the peace agreement.

    But I believe that the western media will jump to the conclusion anyway that Taiwanese people want the peace agreement by electing Ma. This was what happened in 2008 — while Ma got elected for all sort of different reasons — the disappointment in Chen Shui-bian being the most critical factor — the western world just sliced out all those important factors, leaving the pro-china issue to the election, as though that Taiwanese people voted for Ma for that purpose alone.

    “As a democrat, I believe that elections should have consequences. By putting the possibility of a peace agreement out in the open, Ma has made it very clear what those consequences could be. Responsible.”

    You seem to forget that the reason behind Ma’s throwing out an election-damaging statement might have been his desperate move to seek support from China. Or, as many would believe, he might do so following a request from the Communist party. After all, not very many people nowadays believe that Ma acts in a responsible way after he didn’t act responsibly in so many promises he made 4 years ago.

    “Wow. This election is boring. Two months before election day, and it is really, really cold.

    Almost no post from you about this historical election, yet I already see “boring” twice.

    Ma Ying-jeou’s campaign is indeed boring. He copied almost every moves Tsai made.

    But what about the progress on the green side? Do you know about Tsai’s idea for the future Taiwan ? Tsai’s tide of positive future has excited so many people, waves after waves, days after days. People are reacting to Tsai’s call with passions. The exchanges of moves between Tsai and Ma are also very exciting. And the “3 piggie banks” from the green camp has created an unprecedented social movement, one that not only has the potential to change Taiwan history in a fundamental way, but also could set a unique example for how a democratic society moves forward with people’s involvement. Comparing to most of the westerners, you have the unique chance to witness this important process, yet you are here saying that it’s boring ?

    Much as I like your blog more than I like many others, I have to say that commenting this election in this way is misleading and very irresponsible, ‘cos it seems that you describe Taiwan elections with eyes blind-folded, as though that you don’t know what’s happening in Taiwan at all.

    Is it true that what happens in Taiwan — however big it is — as long as it’s not related to Ma Ying-jiou or the KMT, then it doesn’t exist ?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Outsiders, such as the Western media, will certainly interpret this election as indicating a greater desire for unification or independence, depending on the outcome. Outsiders always see less nuance than insiders. Moreover, they aren’t necessarily wrong. The peace agreement is now part of Ma’s platform, no matter how he clarifies or qualifies. Trying to figure out what the voters meant is impossible. A Ma victory might be lingering disgust with Chen, it might be support for ECFA, it might be a desire for more roads, it might be satisfaction with the Flora Expo, it might be gender chauvinism, or a lot of other things. In the end, people just cast a vote for the candidate and not for a specific reason. As a result, a Ma victory would be a triumph for all of those things to some extent or another. The degree to which they are weighted is entirely subjective and depends on the media and the skills of the various politicians. Given that most outsiders care a whole lot more about relations with China than how many roads are built or whether Chen was corrupt, it is reasonable for them to focus on that aspect of the election.

      On the enthusiasm of the campaign: This is a comment primarily about the DPP. KMT campaigns are generally not exciting. I think that comes from the fact that they rely so heavily on clientilism and financial incentives to motivate their campaigns. Who is passionate about building a bigger road? The passion always comes from the DPP, and, to a lesser extent, from the smaller parties. My feeling is that at this point in previous election cycles, we had already moved into the final public campaign, with big events at least three or four times a week. This year, we still seem stuck in the middle stages, where candidates are still talking mostly to their bases. Moreover, the public legislative campaign seems non-existent. (I’m a legislative guy; my comment was really more about the legislative campaign than the presidential campaign.)

      I would not characterize the three piggies as a social movement, and I don’t see the waves of passion that you apparently do. To me, this is a nice little campaign item, somewhat like the A-bian hats. You need to have these things. They’re fun and sometimes they engage (a small number of) voters who don’t care that much for politics. But this should not be the centerpiece of the campaign, as it seems to have become over the past week. Look, if you are talking about three piggies, you aren’t talking about things like the peace agreement that could fundamentally reshape the race.

  2. Michael Turton Says:

    FG, Soong is taken for pro-unification because he constantly affirms that he is, not because of his ethnic background.


    • frozengarlic Says:

      I would say that is true today, but it was not so evident in 2000. Remember, he didn’t really say a whole lot about national-level politics from the time he became governor in 1993 until his campaign started in 1999. Both he and the entire country changed a lot in those years, so we really didn’t have much to go on except for his platform. His platform, as noted above, was decidedly moderate and said basically the same thing as Chen’s and Lien’s. Well, that and the fact that Lee Teng-hui couldn’t stand him. When you don’t have good information, you use heuristic cues, like ethnicity, to figure out where people stand. Since 2000, he has clarified his position, so inferring is no longer necessary.

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