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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 074 - (26/03/10)

Four legislative by-elections held at the end of February, saw the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) suffer yet another humiliating defeat. In Hualien County, on Taiwan’s east coast the KMT barely managed to keep control; it lost heavily in Taoyuan and Hsinchu counties which, traditionally, it held by wide margins. Chiayi County also went to the DPP but that was expected. This is the fourth time that the present administration has suffered recent electoral defeat and that after a decisive win in the national elections barely two years ago.

On March 22 2008, then presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou scored a decisive win over his DPP counterpart, Frank Hsieh, returning the presidency and the administration into KMT hands after eight years of DPP rule. In that election Ma and his party garnered almost 60 per cent of the popular vote. Expectations were high that the incoming administration – which promised it would learn from the mistakes of the past – would work more closely with the business sector (which has tended always to be pro-KMT) and would be less confrontational towards China.

Those high expectations have been confounded and that early victory appears (so far at least) to represent the zenith of public support for the Ma presidency. Since then, approval ratings have continued to slide. The latest opinion polls, show a massive drop in confidence by the public at large. One such poll taken by the Chinese-language magazine Global View gives President Ma an approval rating of only 23.8 per cent – down by almost one per cent from the previous month. More to the point, his disapproval rating rose by 3.3 percentage points to an alarming 66 per cent. A similar poll conducted at the same time by the United Daily News gave a similar result. That poll gave him an approval rating of 27 per cent and a dissatisfaction rating of 53 per cent.

While the accuracy of the numbers can be debated, one thing is clear – there has been a massive erosion of public support in the government and dissatisfaction continues to grow. Unless arrested, his chances of winning a second term look remote indeed.

The KMT, and its president in particular, would like to blame “external factors” for the level of public dissatisfaction and to a point, they have a case. While the storm clouds were gathering early in 2008, the full fury of the global economic downturn had not yet been felt – nor indeed was its severity on the global economy foreseen at that time; many thought it to be primarily a US problem without thinking through the ramifications for the rest of the world: When America sneezes, Asia catches a cold.

But the people of Taiwan have no intention of letting the government off the hook that easily. Indeed, if that were the sole factor in the present abysmal ratings, with the economy now back in growth mode, the slide in popularity should now be reversing. It is not!

First and foremost, is the China factor. The antagonism shown towards China by the DPP did not sit easily with the ordinary Taiwanese who were quite comfortable with a retention of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. The DPP government by contrast was downright provocative and confrontational with China; the proverbial “mouse that roared.” But if the DPP was provocative, Ma and his government have proven themselves totally sycophantic. Very early in the piece and in an effort perhaps to mend the damaged fences with Beijing, instead of coming across as “pro-China” it took the fatal extra step of becoming an implementer of Beijing’s policies on the island of Taiwan. Mr Ma abrogated the role of president in favour of that of prefect.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of this sea-change came with the arrest and incarceration of Taiwan’s former (DPP) president, President Chen Shui-bian. Was he “guilty as charged”? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But that is not entirely the point. The more serious aspect is the manner in which the judiciary was manipulated into ensuring that the court returned a guilty verdict – not only on the president but also his wife (who has been a paraplegic for the past quarter century as the result of being run over by a truck in the nineteen-eighties (and run over three times by the same truck)! At that time, Taiwan was still under martial law and Chen was the leader of the illegal opposition. Nobody was ever charged in relation to that incident.

There may have been a few skeletons in the DPP closet, and the current administration has done a lot to bring them into the open; but if the DPP has a closet of skeletons, the KMT has sufficient to fill an entire cemetery. Many commentators believe that the treatment meted out to Chen, and particularly the disrespect shown him and the former first family, is what might have been expected from a Chinese court but not a Taiwanese one. It led to the natural question as to whether Ma was acting as a surrogate for Beijing in this episode.

A similar disturbing sign came about with the visit to Taiwan in late 2008 of the highest ranking PRC official ever to visit Taiwan. While children were given PRC flags and ordered to line the streets to welcome their guest, those caught carrying Taiwanese flags were arrested. The bizarre nature of this event was covered internationally at the time. Taiwanese in Taiwan were arrested for carrying the Taiwanese flag. Bizarre indeed.

But it is not only in regard to his China policies that Ma has been found wanting. His initial off-hand approach to the devastation caused last year by Typhoon Morakot left many people gasping. Despite more than 500 people losing their lives, response mechanisms were slow to get into gear and the only instruction from President Ma was to the fire brigade to send life boats – an entirely inappropriate response for the hilly areas affected by mudslides of such magnitude as to annihilate entire villages. Offers of foreign aid were rejected. When President Ma finally visited the area after several days of procrastination, he appeared angry at the interruption to his schedule and expressed his annoyance on television when talking to villagers who had lost everything except their lives.

In this respect, the government may have learned something. When a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck southern Taiwan in the early hours of March 4 this year, the response was immediate. Happily, no lives were lost although 64 people were reported injured mostly from falling objects, and power supplies to the area were disrupted. Perhaps because the epicentre was close to Siaolin Village which had been wiped out by Morakot, Taiwan’s military organized a relief effort in under 20 minutes and Ma visited the area the same day. The attitudinal shift was noted and the government won praise from local residents for its prompt actions.

The administration may have been slow to learn but it does appear to be learning to heed public opinion. Whatever the deficiencies of the eight years of DPP rule, it did underpin the democratic development of the national consciousness; President Ma is having a painful time adjusting to this new reality and he needs to mend his autocratic ways. Most notably this must come about in his engagement with China since he is now paying the price of getting out too far ahead of his constituents. China too must take note. If the leaders in Beijing push too hard they risk further backlash and no matter the rhetoric, they do not want an armed confrontation over Taiwan any more than the rest of the world.

Democracy can be a powerful weapon and perhaps the people of Taiwan are not only teaching their president but delivering a lesson to Beijing as well. And this is the strength of the democratic system.

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