TAIPEI - Four months after being sworn in as Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou
faces uphill battles, the biggest of which is how to win over public
confidence. His administration has stumbled over the handling of tainted-milk
products from mainland China and now it faces economic fallout from recent
However, many analysts say the setbacks are not expected to affect Ma's
continued push for better relations with China. This positive outlook comes
even after the handling of the milk crisis, and with reports of
smaller-than-expected numbers of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan.
At issue is whether Ma can keep his promises to boost Taiwan's economy through
increased ties with China.
"Personally, I'm surprised with his incapability; I thought he was
more capable," said Shane Lee, a political science professor at southern
Taiwan's Chang Jung Christian University.
The way Ma's administration handled the crisis over contaminated milk products
imported from mainland China frustrated the public. It was seen as doing too
little, too late and when it finally acted, consumers were confused.
Instead of banning imports, immediately checking stores for tainted products
and reassuring the public about food safety, the administration instead simply
raised the level of the harmful chemical melamine allowed to exist in products.
The health minister was eventually forced to step down. He accepted
responsibility for the widespread public panic which caused huge economic
losses. Pro-independence activists blamed the crisis on Ma's policy of closer
ties with China. The administration, however, has recently demanded an apology
from China and said it will seek compensation for economic losses.
Faced with a plunging stock market, Ma's cabinet, while banning short selling
as other countries have done, proposed a measure that was seen as ineffective -
reducing stock transaction taxes. Taiwan's stock market has performed among the
worst in the world since Ma took office.
Struck by successive typhoons in recent weeks, Ma has made only one attempt to
visit hard-hit areas, and the trip came as late as last weekend.
"People have questions about his leadership and ability to handle crisis," said
Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Taipei-based Council of Advanced Policy
Studies and an advisor to Taiwan�s government under former president Lee
Teng-hui. �Ma Ying-jeou, as the president, leader of Taiwan, should urge
his administration to take necessary steps to deal with the crises more
According to various opinion polls, Ma's approval rating has fallen to far
below 30%, compared with the 58% of votes he won during the presidential
election in March.
In terms of relations with China, Lee said that while Ma had shown a lot of
goodwill towards Beijing, he had not received a good response. "China still
opposes Taiwan being an observer of the World Health Assembly," said Lee, in
reference to the supreme decision-making body for World Health Organization. He
added that Beijing had not taken any step toward signing a cross-strait peace
agreement with Taipei and had made no indication it would remove hundreds of
missiles directed at Taiwan.
Direct weekend flights between several Chinese and Taiwanese cities were
launched in July. To date, however, the number of Chinese tourist arrivals has
fallen far short of Ma's original goal of 3,000 daily mainland visitors. In
fact, the current average is only few hundred a day.
Meanwhile, more Taiwanese are going to China to spend money. Still, China has
not agreed to allow direct cargo flights, which would benefit the many
Taiwanese companies doing business in China.
Segments of the public were concerned that Ma's overtures towards China were
coming too fast, Lee said. He specifically noted Ma's indication that he wanted
to sign a "closer economic partnership arrangement" with Beijing. A similar
agreement exists between China and Hong Kong.
"Of course it's good to improve relations with China, but it's very bad if he
doesn't uphold Taiwan's sovereignty. If his policies make Taiwan become a
second Hong Kong, then everything we've worked for in the past few years will
go down the drain. Even KMT [Kuomintang party] supporters don't want this,"
Ma has downplayed his campaign promises to increase Taiwan's annual economic
growth to 6 %, keep the unemployment rate below 3% and boost per capital income
to over US$30,000 a year. He recently said these goals might not be reached
until the end of his term.
But his apparently ineffective responses to crises, even those as simple as
typhoons, are what makes many analysts wonder.
Part of the problem, said Lee, is that Ma seems to be rigidly sticking to the
responsibilities of the president as spelled out in Taiwan's constitution. The
island's charter says the president is responsible for foreign policy,
cross-strait relations and national security issues. Ma has said the day-to-day
governing of the country should be left to the Executive Yuan, or cabinet,
something his predecessor Chen Shui-bian never did.
In practice, Ma's approach is proving bad for his image. After all, he is the
highest-ranking elected official in Taiwan and people expect him to take
charge, especially in times of crises.
The fact that his cabinet largely consists of academics who have not shown the
temerity to handle crises, doesn't help, according to observers and local
"Some people point out that the KMT has been out of power for so long, so it's
very rusty in governing," said Lee, who added that another problem was the old
guard in the KMT is still very much in charge and continues to wield old ways
But given that the new government has only been in office since May 20, the
public should be more patient with Ma's administration, said legislator Tsai
Chin-lung, former secretary general of Ma's ruling KMT party.
"Of course, there are areas in which it can do better, so people are
disappointed, especially when stock prices have been going down, but the
government has only been in office for four-and-a-half months," said Tsai.
He blamed part of the problem on bad luck and lingering problems left over from
the previous administration.
"In the past eight years, people were disappointed with the country's chaotic
system, and really hoped the new government would lead the country forward, but
unfortunately, since Ma took office, we have been hit by former president Chen
Shui-bian's [alleged] money laundering scandal, the global financial crisis,
tainted-milk products, and what seems like a typhoon every week," said Tsai.
"But I'm still confident in Ma Ying-jeou. In the second half of the year, I
think the country will definitely be better," said Tsai.
Ma's approval ratings should not affect the development of cross-strait ties,
analysts and KMT legislators said, as many people still believe his approach is
compatible with maintaining peace and stability between the two neighbors and
revitalizing Taiwan's economy.
Besides, there's no turning back, Tsai said, as China now makes up 36% of
Taiwan's overall trade with other countries. He noted that to date in October,
the number of mainland tourists had increased to 1,000 a day.
"The only road ahead is cross-strait peaceful coexistence. Only through this
can we have economic prosperity," said Tsai, a longtime KMT member.
How the Taiwanese public will warm up to China will depend largely on Beijing's
Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.