the root of it all

A few posts ago, I expressed uncertainty about why Ma 馬英九 chose to attack Wang 王金平.  After listening to a couple of weeks of shrill rhetoric, I think I have a better guess about what is behind this all.  Please be aware, I am still not sure.  I consider these to be working hypotheses.  As new information comes to light, I will reconsider whether they are still tenable.

In my earlier post, I speculated that the changing composition of the KMT’s legislative caucus might have undermined Wang’s power base.  The idea was that the caucus was becoming increasingly dominated by legislators with a stronger Chinese identity.  Since Wang is commonly referred to as the leader of the “Taiwan KMT,” it was possible that his core support had eroded away.  After listening to various statements from deep blue legislators, I have rejected this hypothesis.  Again and again, legislators who I consider to have a strong Chinese identity have decidedly not turned their backs on Wang.  Instead, the usual reaction is to say something respectful and mildly supportive of Wang while expressing frustration and bewilderment at the power struggle.  To me, it has looked like they are siding as much with Wang as possible without opening themselves up to retaliation from Ma.  At first, the messages of support for Wang were extremely tepid, but they seem to be growing stronger as public support for Wang becomes clearer and clearer.  I don’t think the question of Chinese identity vs. Taiwanese identity is at the core of this conflict, and I’m fairly sure it certainly isn’t shaping a new anti-Wang faction within the KMT legislative caucus.

So why did Ma attack Wang?  Two plausible answers have emerged.  One is the conspiracy theory: KMT party elders were scheming to gut Ma’s power, and Ma’s attack on Wang was a preemptive strike.  This theory is oddly appealing to me, but I ultimately don’t quite buy it at this time.  I’m leaning toward the other story, which is a mishmash of personal grudges, executive vs. legislative worldviews, and opportunistic behavior.

First, let’s look at the conspiracy theory.  The basic story is that several KMT elders were conspiring to force Ma to relinquish his control over the party at the upcoming party congress on September 29.  Four families are said to be behind this conspiracy, and all four have a senior patriarch and a younger active politician.  The four elders are Lien Chan 連戰, Hau Pei-tsun 郝柏村, Wu Po-hsiung 吳伯雄, and Kao Yu-ren 高裕仁 高育仁.  Their ambitious progeny are Sean Lien 連勝文, Hau Lung-pin 郝龍斌, Wu Chih-yang 吳志揚, and Eric Chu 朱立倫.  Collectively, that is an impressive list of KMT royalty.  The four families supposedly wanted to force Ma Ying-jeou to publicly accept responsibility for the 2014 local elections.  If the KMT did poorly, Ma would be obliged to step down as party chair, and the four families wanted to replace him with Wang Chin-pyng.  This would give them control of the party and allow them to determine nominations for the 2016 presidential and legislative elections.  Of course, simply accepting such a proposal would immediately label Ma as a lame duck, and his power would inevitably ooze away as the 2014 election approached unless, by some unexpected twist, the KMT’s popularity somehow reversed its downward slide.  Since Ma has two and a half years left in his presidency and presumably wants to accomplish a few more things in that time, he had to stop this plot.  Removing Wang accomplished two things.  First, it eliminated Wang as a vehicle to replace Ma.  Wang is generally liked within the party, and any alternate vehicle would almost certainly be more controversial.  Second, it sent a clear message to the four families to back down.  Ma was still powerful and dangerous, and they would do well not to antagonize him.

Note that the conspiracy theory is not predicated on a Chinese/Taiwanese cleavage.  While Ma and Wang are supposedly leaders of the Chinese KMT and Taiwanese KMT, the cleavage breaks down when you look at the four families.  I don’t know much about Kao Yu-jen’s stance, but Lien Chan and Wu Po-hsiung are two of the very few politicians more pro-unification than Ma and those two pale next to Hau Pei-tsun.  If those three are on Wang’s side, which side is the deeper blue?

I’m not usually fond of conspiracy theories, but I find this one oddly attractive.  There are three aspects that appeal to me.  First, this story provides a clean motive for Ma’s attack.  This political struggle is first and last about who will hold political power within the KMT.  One group of politicians (the four elders) ran the party during President Chen’s first term, but Ma used his popularity with the general public to wrest control of the party away and push them to the sideline.  Now, with his popularity waning, they are counter-attacking.  If they can get control of the party, they can put their sons into power and control the KMT for a new generation.  I have always thought that Lien (certainly not Wang) was the biggest threat to Ma’s power, and this conspiracy theory is built on that idea.

Second, I love the idea that elections play a crucial role in this conspiracy theory.  One of the worst things about the new electoral calendar is that the new president and legislature go nearly three full years without any elections.  A lot of policy-oriented people love this, because the new regime can act freely and implement policies it considers necessary for a period of time without worrying about whether they are popular with the public.  I hate it for exactly the same reason.  In a democracy, I think it is a bad thing for a government to try to force through unpopular policies.  If you can’t convince the public that a certain policy is a good idea, you probably need to rethink the policy.  This long period with no elections is not a major problem if the party in power remains popular.  However, if there is evidence that the public has withdrawn its support, the government may lack sufficient legitimacy to implement major policies.  Just this morning, the TSU party chair Huang Kun-huei 黃崑輝 called for Ma to stop all negotiations with China (especially over setting up representative offices on the other side) because a president with only 9.2% satisfaction has no legitimacy to represent the Taiwanese people in negotiations with China.  I partially share Huang’s concern.  The KMT government has been miserably unpopular since the beginning of Ma’s second term, and it sometimes seems oblivious to this.  Ma is moving ahead with major policies, and I’m not sure that public support still underpins these efforts.  Would he dare to try to pass the service trade agreement if there were an election two months from now instead of fourteen months away?

Huang’s argument is not entirely unfair, but a low satisfaction rating doesn’t necessarily mean that Ma has lost public support on China policy.  It could be that former supporters are happy with Ma’s China policy but unhappy with other things, such as political infighting, corruption scandals, or public encroachment on private property.  What Ma needs is an election to either renew his legitimacy or politically emasculate him.

I initially had a similar reaction to the Wang episode.  Ma would never have dared to try to assassinate Wang if an election were only two months away.  However, since voters will probably have moved on to other concerns in fourteen months, Ma was free to plunge the party into a round of vicious infighting.

However, the four families theory completely reverses this conclusion.  In the conspiracy theory, Lien, Hau, and the others are relying on public opinion to punish the KMT in the 2014 local elections.  That is, Ma’s poor performance, public disaffection, and an expected backlash at the polls combine to form the lever that the elders can use to pry power away from Ma.  If Ma were still a popular president, they would have no opportunity.  In fact, rather than needing to strike out to stop the plot, he would welcome the opportunity to take credit for an expected KMT victory and increase his own power.  This political infighting isn’t happening because actors are unconcerned about elections; it’s happening precisely because they are all thinking squarely about elections!  In short, the four families conspiracy theory implies that politicians can never stop worrying about public support and future electoral outcomes!  (Imagine me weeping tears of joy.)

The third reason I am attracted to the conspiracy theory is counterintuitive to me.  I would like it to be true because it suggests China is cultivating a new generation of collaborators within the KMT.  (What???  Clearly, this one needs some explaining.)

While the conspiracy theory was circulating through the TV talk shows, one scene kept popping up over and over.  Xi Jinping 習進平 was receiving guests at some function, and Lien Chan was standing by his side.  The guest they all showed was Lien Chan’s son, Sean Lien.  Lien Chan said something to Xi Jinping, presumably introducing his son, the two shook hands, and the younger Lien moved off.  There was no audio, but the visual was quite evocative, if you wanted to attach some meaning to it.  If you choose to see it as an innocent event, it was simply a polite formality.  However, if you want to read more into it, it looked like Lien was presenting his son to the Chinese leader as a future important person in Taiwan politics who the Chinese would do well to be aware of.  If you want to go even further, from the Chinese point of view, you could see it as China finding a new client in Taiwanese politics to build their Taiwan policy around.

This is a big problem for Ma Ying-jeou.  His presidency is built around the idea that he can deliver better relations with China.  He certainly would reject the notion that he is a Chinese client or collaborator (as would the Liens).  He sees himself more as a partner in an effort to reshape cross-strait relations.  To this point, Ma and Hu/Xi have had a fruitful partnership, with each seeing the other as a helpful ally.  However, the Sean Lien clip seemed to imply that China has moved on.  Maybe Ma is no longer their Great Hope.  Maybe his star has faded, and they have started to look for another Taiwanese politician to work with.  One can easily imagine that if they are looking at Sean Lien, they are also looking at other next-generation KMT leaders.  That would be disaster for Ma.  He still has two and a half years, and he needs Beijing to think that all political efforts must go through him.  If China is exploring alternate conduits, Ma is already a lame duck.  In this variant of the story, Ma had to counterattack forcefully to publicly reassert his authority not just to other KMT members but also for Beijing to see.

Why do I find this comforting?  It paints Ma as dispensable, and it therefore reduces the urgency to get things done.  When Ma was elected president, I was worried the Beijing might have unrealistic expectations.  After all, Ma could not afford to stray too far from public opinion, and Beijing might be disappointed when he did not deliver unification.  The scary point was that Beijing seemed to have marked Ma as the Great Hope.  Ma was the most pro-unification politician they could reasonably expect to be able to win the presidency.  If they couldn’t get unification under Ma, when would they ever get it?  And if they couldn’t get peaceful unification from the elected politicians, would they be more inclined to go to the military option?  The conspiracy theory allays that fear.  Beijing can now dream about a future working with the sons of Lien Chan, Hau Pei-tsun, and/or Wu Po-hsiung, and they know that those three are ardently in favor of unification.  (The lineage is just a bonus for the blatantly pro-nepotism Chinese regime.)  They don’t have to resolve the question of Taiwan’s status now because there may be another pro-China president in Taiwan sometime in the near future.  In fact, if the KMT will always produce politicians eager to become Chinese clients (and I’m sure that’s how the Chinese see them), China can even afford to wait out a DPP president or two.  In game theoretic terms, they have learned that this is a repeated game, not a single-shot game.  There is a future they can dream about, and that means they don’t have to solve everything in the present.

While I’m attracted to the conspiracy theory, I don’t quite buy it as the actual root cause of the current political struggle.  There are two main reasons.  First, there seems to be no concrete evidence for it.  As far as I can tell, it originated in the swirl of talk shows in the first few days of the crisis.  Unsubstantiated rumors are common in that forum, and they are often completely false.  The story really hit the mainstream when the United Daily News put it on the front page.  However, the UDN’s only source was “media reports.”  In other words, I think they were basing it on the talk show rumors.  No one has been able to trace this story back to a concrete source, not even an anonymous concrete source.  If the four families were really plotting to emasculate Ma at the party congress, they would have to organize a lot of people to be ready to vote.  Word would leak out, and we would presumably have at least one person willing to talk about it.  Instead, everyone, including members of the four families, has vehemently denied that any plot exists.  So no evidence, no conspiracy.  Or maybe not.  As one of my friends reminded me, if you are plotting to assassinate the king, you don’t tell anyone beforehand.  If word leaks back to the king, the assassination is doomed.  You have to swear everyone to absolute secrecy if the plan is to work.  (For example, Ma’s strike against Wang was a complete surprise to everyone.)  Still, the complete lack of evidence seems to me a major blow against the conspiracy theory.

The second problem compounds this lack of evidence.  As my brilliant wife pointed out, Ma’s team might be playing us for suckers.  As I pointed out above, the conspiracy theory explains why Ma had to launch a preemptive strike.  In other words, it’s not his fault!  Instead of blaming Ma for proactively causing this vicious and unpopular party infighting, the conspiracy theory points the blame elsewhere and recasts Ma as the innocent victim.  He didn’t want to fight, but he was forced to!  And how did this story leap from the crazy lunatic periphery into mainstream consciousness?  It was the front page story on the United Daily News, which has loudly and enthusiastically supported Ma throughout this struggle!  Did the Ma camp plant the story to make us sympathize with him?  That seems as likely to me as the possibility that the story is actually true.

So without any concrete evidence in favor of the conspiracy theory and a very good reason to be wary of it, I am forced to search for another explanation.  Depending on how events in the KMT party congress unfold in a few days, I may revisit the conspiracy theory, but for now I’m leaning against accepting it.

I’m going to label the story that I’m leaning toward as the mishmash theory, because it combines several of the other explanations floating around into one (hopefully) coherent story.

The first ingredient is the lingering grudge.  Listening to various pro-Ma statements, I have become convinced that there is a long-term feeling within Ma’s camp that Wang is a bit corrupt.  Wang is, of course, deeply embedded in factional politics in Kaohsiung, and local factions have a well-deserved reputation for corruption.  Moreover, Wang has been the leader of the central and southern KMT legislators for years, and this is another way of saying that he is the leader of the local faction wing of the party.  It is not hard to imagine that he has done countless favors for people of questionable ethics over the years, and many within Ma’s camp might see him as representing institutionalized corruption.  This apparently spilled out into the open in the 2005 party leadership and 2007 presidential nomination struggles, when Ma claimed to be fighting against black and gold within the party.  Of course, Ma publicly made peace with Wang and has been working with him over the past six years.  However, I sense now that this may always have been a very tense relationship, or at least that Ma and his people considered it a necessary evil to accommodate someone who they thought practiced and/or enabled systematic corruption within the KMT.  I think of this lingering distaste as a background factor.  By itself, it would not have been sufficient to spur an attack.

The second element is the critical one.  It looks like the executive and legislative branches have very different views of how politics are operating.  In particular, the executive branch seems to think that the legislature is not acting promptly enough on its legislation, and, when it does act, it is amending bills far too much.  Further, the executive branch is focusing its dissatisfaction on Wang Chin-pyng.

The clearest statement of this that I have seen comes from the United Daily News editorial from last Tuesday, September 27, titled 『王金平與台北地院的「80/20法則」­』。  I suspect this editorial had indirect, and maybe even direct, input from the presidential office.  It is written from the perspective of the executive branch and complains that Wang routinely negotiates away most of the social benefits of the laws that the executive is trying to pass.  What he doesn’t negotiate away, he collects for himself.  He then uses these resources to consolidate his own power within the legislature.  The editorial complains that the legislature is no longer a collective decision making body.  Instead, Wang decides everything unilaterally.  Behind the closed doors of the inter-party negotiations 政黨協商, Wang decides what bills will come to the floor, what amendments will be allowed, how much the opposition parties will be allowed to protest, and everything else.  Because Wang has so many resources at his disposal (from the “tax” he takes on every bill), he can dictate terms to all the parties.  Thus, Wang is systematically siphoning away benefits from the general public to further his own grip over the legislature, much to the chagrin of the executive branch.

These charges don’t all quite make sense to me.  For example, I think it is probably unrealistic to think that Wang dominates the interparty negotiations.  The various parties probably play the dominant roles.  However, one can see where some of the complaints come from.  The executive branch sends lots of bills to the legislature, and the legislature doesn’t simply pass them all.  I looked at the success of government bills several years ago.  Even in the Lee Teng-hui era, with unified party control over the executive and legislature, only about 50-60% of government bills were passed by the legislature.  Of those, most were amended at least a bit.  In other words, most of the legislation written by the executive branch either died in the legislature or was changed significantly.  I don’t know what the success rate in the current legislature is, but I imagine it is similar.  From the executive point of view, this is awful.  They spend years researching bills and putting together a coherent bill that they believe properly balances the various legitimate interests in society.  Then legislators, worrying about their parochial (read: corrupt) interests, either block those bills or rewrite them and destroy that careful balance.

I’m not sure why they have focused all their frustration on Wang.  It might feed back into the idea (see above) that he has always been the center of corruption in the legislature.  Since he is at the center of all negotiations in the legislature, they could make the leap to believing that he must be responsible for all delays and amendments (which they apparently interpret as illegitimate attempts to extract resources).

There are also a couple of anecdotes (from different sources) about Wang upbraiding KMT floor leaders.  He is supposed to have reprimanded both Lin Yi-shih 林益世 and Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池 (at different times) for claiming credit with the executive branch when some legislation was passed but blaming Wang for obstruction when legislation did not get through.  These stories support the notion that the executive branch might blame Wang for all bad things.  After all, the KMT floor leaders may have been presenting the events to them in exactly that way.

One does not get this same sort of view of Wang as the corrupt dictator of the Legislative Yuan from KMT legislators.  As I mentioned above, most KMT legislators seem rather bewildered in their comments, as if they don’t quite understand just why the executive branch has chosen to launch this assault on Wang.  I’ve been listening very carefully for any KMT legislator to suggest that Wang wasn’t expediting legislation through the process efficiently enough, and I haven’t heard anything like that.  Instead, they seem to think they are doing a responsible job, carefully considering the drafts sent to them by the executive and the needs of the public.  Unlike the executive, they do not seem to have any sense that the executive bills are polished and should be passed as is.  Rather, executive bills are starting points that often need sharp edges smoothed out.  All the delay, negotiations, and amendments to allay the concerns of various interests in society are anything but institutionalized corruption.  They are instead the legitimate process of how the elected representatives forge legislation in a representative democracy.  Making sausage is messy.

Critically, there is a distinct lack of legislative experience in Ma’s executive branch.  Vice President Wu is the only inner circle member (I can think of) with legislative experience.  (Wu was not a particularly active or influential legislator.  He seemed to regard his time in the legislature as a waiting period until he could return to a more important job in administration.)  Neither Ma nor Jiang ever served in the legislature, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any cabinet member who has.  Ma likes academics and technocrats, and this may be harming him now.  His cabinet may have unrealistic expectations about how the legislative process works and how much deference they should expect from the legislature.

The third element in the mishmash theory is bumbling opportunism.  Ma and his cronies saw a golden opportunity to remove Wang, and they leapt at it.  Unfortunately, they did not anticipate the court’s injunction, and they seriously misjudged the reaction within the party and among the general public to their charges against Wang.

I’ve talked about the court decision in another post.  Here, I’m going to discuss why the opportunity looked so golden to Ma’s team.  I don’t know whether Ma asked the SID to find dirt on Wang or whether they found it first and then gave it to him.  The important thing for this story is that Ma learned of Wang’s lobbying the prosecutor on behalf DPP legislative leader Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘.

Keep in mind that, according to my mishmash theory, Ma’s camp already considered Wang to be corrupt.  Now they had a clear piece of evidence proving it.  Ma probably mistakenly thought that the rest of the party and the general public also shared his view of Wang as corrupt.  The public hates corruption, so Ma may have thought they would welcome his attack.  Think about how the public has reacted to recent cases.  When Lin Yi-shih 林益世 and Lai Su-ru 賴素如 were accused of corruption, the public immediately rushed to condemn them.  There was no assumption that they might not be guilty.  When Yen Ching-piao 顏清標 was convicted of the relatively minor offense of trying to get an improper reimbursement, the public rejoiced in his downfall.  After all, Yen was corrupt and everyone knew it.  Who cares what the charge was.  Wang Chin-ping, like Lin and Yen, was a local faction leader.  Ma probably lumped him together with them in his mind, and he may have expected the public to do so as well.  He was going to take a stand against corruption, and the public would support him.

The fact that Wang interceded on behalf of Ker, a DPP legislator, probably also weighed in Ma’s thinking.  How could he help someone from the opposition party?  Ma may have thought that KMT members would be disgusted with this and view Wang as something of a traitor.  Alternatively, Ma may have seen this as one more piece of Wang’s institutionalized corruption.  Wang used his power to exercise influence on and for everyone, regardless of party.  Of course he would help Ker, because Ker would be expected to return the favor by deferring to Wang’s dictates in inter-party negotiations.

If Ma expected to win the battle for hearts and minds, the propitious timing may have convinced him he could also win the actual fight quickly and cleanly.  I simply can’t believe the protestations that Ma did not know about Wang’s trip to a remote Malaysian island.  The timing is too perfect.  Ma must have learned about the trip and scheduled his attack to maximize the chances of success.  He could make his accusations the minute Wang left the country and get a vote through the KMT disciplinary committee almost before Wang returned.  There would never be another chance like this one to remove Wang.  After the surgical strike, Ma was confident he could win any legal challenges and/or strip Wang’s seat before he had a chance to react.  Faced with a fait accompli, any opposition within the KMT would simply melt away.  After all, the first rule of politics is to end up on the winning side.  This whole episode would be completely settled by the party congress at the end of the month, which would serve to confirm the new status quo.

With hindsight, we now know almost all of these assumptions to be wrong.  Ma conducted his lightning strike, but he lost the legal challenge.  Instead of a triumphant confirmation of his victory at the party congress, he is now digging in for a desperate tooth-and-nail fight for survival that figures to last for several bloody months.  Moreover, he will have to fight this battle without the benefit of public support.  Instead of hailing his blow against corruption, the public has reacted very negatively.  It seems they didn’t view Wang as particularly corrupt, and they have been much more concerned about Ma’s improper use of the SID than Wang’s lobbying of the prosecutor.

Like the conspiracy theory, the mishmash theory is also not a story of a clash between Chinese identity and Taiwanese identity.  There are plenty of deep blue KMT legislators who have not lined up behind Ma.

Instead, the mishmash theory is really about a more universal theme in presidential politics, the fundamentally different ways in which the executive and legislative branches view the world.  Presidents in many countries view the legislature as corrupt and parochial.   Legislators, they think, are elected by special interests and depend on clientelism, factions, vote-buying, pork, locally influential extremists, and demagoguery to win their seats.  How can they represent the people?  In contrast, the president is elected by all the people in an election with a much stronger focus on issues that the people care about.  The executive branch presents policies that balance the needs of all the people.  When the special interests based in the legislature use their influence to emasculate the president’s policies, this is a travesty.  Democracy is subverted!  Legislators, of course, see the world in very different terms.  They are on the front lines and understand how people at the grassroots feel much better than the distant and imperious president.  If anything, the collective popular mandate of the legislature is greater than that of the president since they collectively represent a far more diverse set of interests than the president.  The democratic system requires them to examine executive bills carefully and consider the potential adverse impacts on their constituents.  Of course the legislature modifies and rejects executive bills: democracy demands it!

The mishmash theory is also about what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error.  The idea is that when I do bad things, it is because of the circumstances.  When you do bad things, it is because your character is seriously flawed.  Ma was willing to attribute all the shortcomings to Wang’s flawed character.  Every time the legislature demurred, it reflected Wang’s innate corruption.  At the same time, Ma didn’t worry too much about improperly obtaining information about Wang from the SID.  That was circumstances, not character.  Unfortunately for Ma, many other people viewed Wang’s actions as the result of circumstances and Ma’s own actions as a reflection of his character.

Let me end this post with a quick caveat.  Please remember that this is all still speculation.  I don’t know for sure if any of this is right.  I think the mishmash theory makes for a plausible explanation of recent events, but I’m still not 100% sure that it is correct.  Even if it is largely correct, there are probably important details that are wrong.  I consider it to be a working hypothesis, and it is subject to revision as we learn more.

7 Responses to “the root of it all”

  1. Echo Says:

    “Again and again, legislators who I consider to have a strong Chinese identity have decidedly not turned their backs on Wang. Instead, the usual reaction is to say something respectful and mildly supportive of Wang”

    The above statement was made on 9/21, more than 10 days ago. In your opinion, is it still true as of now (10/2) ?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Yes. I don’t mean that none of them have supported Ma, but I certainly don’t see a solid block of all the Chinese-identity KMT legislators lined up against Wang.

      Do you have a different view?

  2. Echo Says:

    (regarding Lian’s meeting with Xi): “He (Ma) still has two and a half years, and he needs Beijing to think that all political efforts must go through him. If China is exploring alternate conduits, Ma is already a lame duck. In this variant of the story, Ma had to counterattack forcefully to publicly reassert his authority not just to other KMT members but also for Beijing to see.”

    Interesting idea. But this needs an additional connection — between Lian and Wang — to explain why Ma attacks Wang when what he fears is the younger Lian.

    (# I think I need something like “labeling” or “chapters” or other headings to help me get back to where I read when my mouse moves away in this looooong article … I’ve got lost several times already)

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Sorry it’s so long. I wrote this piece for myself. I’m (still) trying to figure out how to understand the whole episode. The double spaces are supposed to indicate a new section. Maybe I’ll try subheadings next time.

      As for the Wang/Lien connection, I also thought that was a weak point. I think the idea was supposed to be that (the elder) Lien was planning to use Wang as a replacement for party chair. By striking at Wang and keeping uncontested control of the party chair, Ma reduced the urgency for Beijing to turn to a new partner.

  3. Echo Says:

    高裕仁 —> 高育仁

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