BY CHRIS SZABLA
The election of Ma Ying-jeou SJD ’81 as president of Taiwan has reverberated well beyond East Asia. In comments to the Record, several students concerned with Taiwanese affairs – including Harvard SJD students following in the newly elected president’s footsteps – voiced their opinions on the election, and offered to explain Ma’s ascendancy.
SJD candidate Chi Chung focused on the economy of the island nation, saying that, in that area, “the will of the electorate is difficult to second guess”. Concerns about trade would allow Ma and his Kuomintang (KMT) party to seize upon a policy of subtle engagement with the mainland: “The PRC and the KMT are expected to seize on the agreement that there is one China as the foundation for their relationship, and put aside their disagreement”.
This will lead to “Ma…loosen[ing] the restrictions on trade, investment, travel, etc.,” Chung continued, but trying, at the same time, to keep the mainland at something of a distance. “It is unthinkable for Ma to make Taiwan to be like Tibet,” Chung concluded. “I think the voters in Taiwan know Ma would not do that.”
Another SJD candidate, Yen-tu Su, offered a more cynical take on the election – and a less optimistic look into the future. “Last month’s presidential election in Taiwan, I think, is basically a vote against the scandal-ridden DPP government,” Su said, noting that voters were also frustrated with the ruling party’s “partisan bickering and gridlock”. Ma’s “star power” and the infatuation of the Taiwanese media with his persona also played a role, according to Su, “without which it would be difficult to imagine how he could survive the sharp criticisms of his competence, judgment, and even integrity”.
Su noted that these advantages allowed Ma to override swing voters’ concerns about such issues as whether or not he still maintained U.S. permanent resident status. Overall, observed Su, “Ma’s popularity may lie in his public image, his refined temperament, and even his English proficiency, but probably not in his Chinese-leaning identity. So Mr. Ma’s campaign tried and succeeded in framing the election as anything but a vote on national identity.”
“The election was between two moderates,” explained Su, “and the differences between their platforms on China policy were rather negligible.”
The takeaway from the election was mixed, according to Su, who noted that “the election result was disheartening for Taiwan’s liberals and progressives, who tend to be DPP supporters and are critical of Mr. Ma’s questionable roles and conduct” during the period in which the KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party state. The silver lining Su managed to find in the result was the fact that it led to a peaceful transition: “[Runner-up Frank] Hsieh and his supporters know how to concede an election. Taiwan’s presidential democracy is functioning in terms of holding the incumbent party accountable, and it’s the lesson Mr. Ma needs to learn from his predecessor.”
This last line appeared to echo Su’s earlier concerns about the character of the old KMT, and suggests lingering fears about its conduct in power. 3L Jennifer Cheng had a similar reaction, albeit more succinct: “To put it mildly, I was disappointed by the result,” she said.