Thursday, May 8, 2008

Much ado about Ms. Lai

Ma's pick for the Mainland Affairs Council may be trouble -- but not because of her supposed independence bent

by Jonathan Adams
Posted May 8, 2007

Taipei—Last week saw an uproar here over incoming President Ma Ying-jeou’s pick of a “pro-independence” figure to head Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.

One Kuomintang legislator likened Mr. Ma’s pick to offering “pork to Muslims,” saying China would be outraged. The stock market tumbled. And the airwaves and headlines screamed that Mr. Ma, who will take office on May 20, may have written a “bad check”—in other words, that he’d made promises on cross-Strait improvements that he now can’t deliver on.

All this was an over-reaction, to say the least.

Certainly, Mr. Ma’s pick—Ms. Lai Shin-yuan, a former legislator from what used to be a hard-line pro-independence party—was surprising. He could have chosen a more China-friendly figure to head Mainland Affairs.

But one person alone can’t derail Mr. Ma’s plans for cross-Strait progress. If Ms. Lai tries to, she’ll quickly be shown the door. Cross-Strait policy will be formulated by Mr. Ma and his National Security Council (led by Su Chi); Ms. Lai’s job will be to implement it.

As for China, its interest in stabilizing the cross-Strait situation should outweigh small “speed bumps” like this one. With its opaque decision-making process, observers are constantly ascribing prickly emotions to the leadership in Beijing, as if it were a hypersensitive teenager.

In fact, by all indications, Beijing is now taking a far more rational, cool-headed approach to Taiwan than ever before. More evidence of that came with the extremely low-key response to Ms. Lai’s appointment from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

Mr. Ma’s pick is also a good sign for those worried he’ll move too close to China. It shows he’s willing to defy and take flak from the hardliners in his own party, in order to seek domestic consensus on his cross-Strait policies. That’s a demonstration of his commitment to Taiwan’s democracy.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lai’s presumed fire-breathing, pro-independence ideology is exaggerated. She has now said repeatedly she fully agrees with Mr. Ma’s cross-Strait stance. That policy, in essence, is to shelve the independence-unification debate and make progress with China on practical economic issues.

Here’s what she wrote in a February 2007 Taipei Times editorial: “The blue-green struggle over the moot point of ‘unification versus independence’ obscures the real problems concerning people’s daily lives. Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation. There is nothing to argue about. It’s time to move on and leave this false debate behind.”

There are some legitimate reasons for concern about the pick, but not the ones that have gotten the most airtime. It’s another line from Ms. Lai’s editorial that suggests an incompatibility with Mr. Ma’s agenda: “Our historic mission at present should be to speak up for all the working people who have been oppressed . . . and fight for their interests.”

Ms. Lai’s social justice and protectionist bent is abundantly evident in her legislative track record. By contrast, many of Mr. Ma’s cross-Strait policies are decidedly pro-business and pro-investor. This may be the real, irreconcilable difference between her and Mr. Ma—not the exaggerated independence issue.

One key test: Will Ms. Lai go along with Mr. Ma’s proposal to lift caps on China-bound investment when her party has adamantly opposed doing so in the past?

Last week’s furor also raises troubling questions about how Mr. Ma will govern. He reportedly consulted only a few people before making the decision to appoint Ms. Lai, so that some top KMT officials first heard the news through media reports. If that’s true, it’s a worrisome replay of President Chen Shui-bian’s brand of top-down, unpredictable decision-making.

Lastly, the media firestorm illustrates a key challenge. Everything President Ma does will be scrutinized under the harsh glare of Asia’s freest media (according to the latest Freedom House poll). He’ll need a smart media strategy to keep everyone in his government on the same page—and not talking to each other via the sensationalist media.

That, again, would repeat the same mistakes made by Mr. Chen’s outgoing government.

Mr. Adams is a freelance journalist in Taiwan.

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