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Ma should be grateful to protesters

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Published on Taipei Times

Ma should be grateful to protesters

By Chen Mao-hsiung 陳茂雄

Tuesday, Dec 29, 2009, Page 8

‘If it were not for the independence supporters taking on China, Taiwan’s negotiating space would be a lot smaller.’

Last week’s visit to Taichung by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) was met with daily protests by Taiwan independence advocates. In the short term, the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) will lose marks because of these protests, but it in the long run it will gain from them.

Ma loses in the short term, not because of the pro-independence protests themselves, but because of the public inconvenience and resentment caused by the government’s security measures. The long-term benefit comes from the protesters playing the role of China’s main adversary, allowing Ma’s government to be its secondary adversary and so gain more room for negotiation.

Ma’s opinion poll ratings are ridiculously low. If this doesn’t change, it will be hard for him even to be nominated as the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate for the 2012 presidential election, never mind getting re-elected. Ma is pinning all his hopes on signing a cross-strait economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China. If, in the course of ECFA negotiations, China lets Taiwanese reap some tangible benefits, Ma’s political career could be salvaged. The problem is, however, that China may not do what Ma wants. Although the Chinese have come out with a lot of sweet talk, they never forget their ultimate goal of unifying Taiwan with the motherland.

Beijing reckons it can bring Taiwan back into the fold even without providing benefits, so why should it provide them? It is an odd situation. In personal relations, if someone makes a goodwill gesture, most people will respond in kind. When it comes to politics, things are not so simple. Although Ma has shown goodwill to China, Beijing has failed to reciprocate. From China’s point of view, although Ma is not the same as the Democratic Progressive Party, he is also an obstacle to unification.

While the world is appears to be moving toward democracy and away from dictatorships, which have been crumbling one by one, China’s government maintains its grip on power by using extraordinary nationalistic fervor. If everyone is super-nationalistic, they are more likely to support the government. The regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was a prime example. In China’s case, its people’s strong nationalism is expressed in anti-Japanese sentiment and their determination to see Taiwan united with China.

Successive presidents have had no room to negotiate with China, because Beijing insists that there is only “one China,” of which Taiwan is an inseparable part. It is not willing to make the slightest concession on these points. Former presidents refused to hold negotiations entirely according to China’s preconditions, so the two sides had nothing to say to one another.

Ma has taken a more humble approach, but China has shown little gratitude. This leaves Ma in a predicament. While the fruits of his government’s negotiations with China fall far short of what was hoped for, critics at home call Ma a traitor for making too many concessions. If only someone would play the role of China’s main adversary, making the Ma government its secondary adversary, it would give him more room for negotiation.

Ten years ago, I took over as head of the general affairs section of my university. The job did not go smoothly at first, because my predecessor got on very well with the hundred or so staff in the general affairs section, and they had formed quite a close-knit clique. The former section head resigned only because he got on badly with the school’s principal, and before stepping down he said that nobody would be able to succeed him. I was up against covert resistance from the former head’s clique, which made it hard to get anything done. In fact I even risked falling into a trap that could put me in jail. It was a crisis.

One of the college deans at the time was given to criticizing the way the university was run, and often criticized the general affairs section staff at regular department head meetings. Seeing an opportunity, I immediately took on the role of defender of the section and refuted the criticism. Arguments between this dean and myself became a regular feature of the weekly meetings, and all my staff knew about them. In this way, it only took a few weeks to form a team. Facing an external adversary, the staff forgot their hostility to me as the new section head and even became quite friendly.

The independence protestors’ demands are equal to China’s demand for unification, and neither side is willing to give ground. In heckling Chen at every turn, and in quite an extreme manner, the pro-independence side has helped provide the Ma administration with more room to negotiate. If it were not for the independence supporters taking on China, Taiwan’s negotiating space would be a lot smaller.

Chen Mao-hsiung is a professor of electrical engineering at National Sun Yat-sen University.


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