My take on Ma’s National Day speech

Ma Ying-jeou, as documented elsewhere, is in the midst of a political crisis, much of it his own making. His approval ratings are desperate, and even among KMT identifiers his support is collapsing. The failed purge of the KMT Speaker of the Legislature has strengthened the hand of Ma’s competitors within the KMT and focused attention on the alleged wide scale covert use of government surveillance mechanisms for political purposes. With more than two years left in his second term, Ma looks punch drunk as he stumbles from one entanglement to another, although as President of the ROC, he remains the pre-eminent political actor in Taiwan.

The founding of the ROC is formally marked every year in Taiwan on October 10 (國慶日), with sundry patriotic rituals and one of the President’s two most important recurring formal addresses (the other on New Year’s day). The occasion of the 102nd ROC anniversary on Thursday thus provided Ma with a platform to re-establish some presidential gravitas, despite the attempt of protesters to sully the august proceedings.

Ma is in a hole at the moment, and in terms of this speech, on a hiding to nothing. By focusing on policy achievements and turning negatives on their head (protests against his misdeeds were facilely reframed as evidence of the strong and free civil society that he supports) he is unlikely to defuse the growing sense that he is totally insensitive to the scale of opposition in society to his rule.

Asking rhetorically whether Taiwanese want a polity characterized by suspicion and conflict (猜忌對立的政治內耗) was a moment of the highest chutzpah. Essentializing cross-Strait relations to mutually beneficial development or a standoff of tension and conflict is a crass old trope that doesn’t do justice to the intelligence of Taiwanese citizens. Many observers will find it an unpalatable irony for Ma to speak of his mission to deepen democratic beliefs and culture (持續深化民主的信念與文化). And it may not be wise to remind citizens of the desirability of an actively responsive government (積極回應的政府) when the president and his government have demonstrated the lack of such qualities time and again.

Although avoiding explicit references to recent events, Ma (who exchanged small talk onstage with the un-purged Wang) addressed cross-Strait rapprochement, Taiwan’s involvement in international society, the economy and liberalization, defence reform and civil society. He did so with a mixture of self-promotion, juxtaposing Taiwan’s current status with previous times and admonishment of recalcitrant citizens and political elites of whom he essentially asked do we want to be a free, advanced and peaceful society and economy [i.e. my way], or not? This is a fairly normal rhetorical device in political speeches, but given the weakness of his position, this was a robust gambit akin to doubling down with a dwindling chip stack.

Ma reiterated that his major achievement has been to reduce the temperature of cross-Strait relations to a level that physical confrontation is, for the present moment at least, unthinkable. Ma noted that rejecting previous strategies of confrontation and isolationism (對抗與鎖國) and ‘pushing reconciliation and cooperation with the mainland’ (與大陸推動和解與合作) has turned the Taiwan Strait from a dangerous flashpoint akin to the Korean Peninsula to a safe and prosperous waterway. Underlying these successes, Ma notes that the common ethnicity on both sides (兩岸人民同屬中華民族) and reaffirms that cross-Strait relations are not foreign relations (兩岸關係不是國際關係). The latter affirmation is the major disjuncture with the ‘two states’ position that emerged during the latter part of Lee Teng-hui’s rule and was the mainstream stated position (for both parties) during the Chen era. And while Chen (and the current DPP) refused to accept the existence of a 1992 Consensus, Ma re-emphasizes that acknowledgement of ‘one country, different interpretations’ has been the basis of rapprochement with the mainland that continues to proceed.

One of the touted effects of the re-booted cross-Strait relationship has been the expansion of Taiwan’s international space and participation in international society. Throughout the Chen era, with whom Beijing refused to deal, Taiwan was actively excluded from every international organization, gathering or activity over which the PRC could leverage economic or political influence. Respect (尊嚴) has long been a sensitive issue (and thus political football), and Taiwanese citizens complained bitterly that their top 20 economy and liberal democracy was excluded from even the most innocuous (or sensible, like the WHO) institutions. There have been genuine breakthroughs during Ma’s term and a half, and he cited several recent examples of meaningful international particpation as a result of Taipei’s new “workable diplomacy” (活路外交). Those who acknowledge the reality of Chinese power and inflexibility on Taiwan’s status, will perhaps agree that limited particpation is the best that Taiwan can achieve. For many others, being permitted to sit in the back of meetings like ICAO (while denied permission to speak or ask questions) as representatives of Chinese Taipei, is incompatible with Taiwan’s status as an autonomous democracy and important global economy.

As is common these days, cross-Strait relations were the major frame through which Ma addressed the economy. No Ma speech would be complete without reference to ECFA, the centrepiece trade agreement signed with China during his first term. Subsequent implementation of the agreement has been problematic, and the promised generalized benefits have not emerged. Like much of the world economy, Taiwan’s growth is anaemic, which suggests that greater economic dependence on China is not the solution to all of Taiwan’s problems. Ma’s argument is that to reap the benefits what is needed is further opening up to China. As such he continues to lobby for the Trades Service Agreement, signed in the summer but yet to pass through the Legislature. Reasonable speculation suggests that this complex agreement was at the heart of the attempted purge of Wang, who agreed to opposition demands to go through the proposed legislation clause by clause. Further speculation suggests that the success of this agreement is the foundation of a meeting between Ma and Xi at the APEC meeting in Shanghai in 2014. Whether that is accurate or not, the services agreement is another centre-piece agreement. Citing examples of small service businesses that would benefit from access to Chinese market, he says that as President he must help young people attain their dreams (我一定要幫年輕人圓夢) and let the many small businesses that are ready to take off spread their wings (展翅高飛). Small businesses and young graduates are among the sectors hurting most during Ma’s tenure, and most concerned about being exposed to greater Chinese competition. Nonetheless, Ma argues that if Taiwan’s economy is to thrive and not be left behind, it must open up, unleash hidden gems and accelerate Taiwan’s progress towards becoming a liberal economic island (自由經濟島).

The exhortation at the end of his speech featured an interesting departure for Ma. In the past eighteen years, half of all National Day speeches have concluded by wishing prosperity on the military (國運昌隆). Lee Teng-hui favoured this formulation, Chen Shui-bian used it from 2000 to 2005 (with the strange exception of 2003 when he said long live Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of democracy三民主義萬歲), and Ma himself said it in 2009. In the three National Day speeches from 2010-2012, Ma employed the formulation long live the ROC, and long live Taiwanese democracy (中華民國萬歲!臺灣民主萬歲!). In this year’s speech he said long live the ROC, long live freedom and democracy, but added ‘Taiwan come on’ (臺灣加油). Jiayou (加油) is a common phrase used to encourage (like vamos or let’s go), and Taiwan Jiayou became a favourite slogan of the Taiwan identity ‘movement’ around Chen Shui-bian. Used by Ma Ying-jeou it is awkward and disingenuous (and employed following admonishment it has the meaning of ‘buck up’, which I suspect may be the underlying meaning here). Analysis of several thousand of Ma’s presidential speeches shows a discourse dominated by the promotion of Chinese identity, while his election campaign materials contain frequent appeals to Taiwanese identity. Against policy preferences that are obviously geared toward a particular type of relationship with China, appeals to Taiwan identity are, at this point, demonstrably instrumental.

Ma’s National Day speech will likely provide more fuel to the view that he is insensible and intractable, but except an Oprah’s-couch-performance, the timing of this speech barred any other outcome.