Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou in a Bad Patch

Over the nearly two years since Ma Ying-jeou was sworn in as Taiwan's president, his popularity has seesawed from a high of 58 percent when he was elected to a low of around 20 percent when his government was perceived as arrogant and incompetent in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, then recovered strongly on the government's performance after the global financial crisis. Now it has plummeted again, with just 23.8 percent of the electorate approving of his performance.

Ma's popularity now is at risk over the ECFA – the Economic Cooperation and Framework Agreement with China, a preferential trade agreement being discussed in Taipei and one that voters widely believe will sacrifice the island's autonomy to Beijing. Although the ECFA is similar to pacts signed between China and Hong Kong and China and Mexico, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has made it a crusade against unification.

Chinese products, they say, will flood Taiwan's markets, many of them tainted and poisonous. Mainland workers will usurp jobs. Highly educated youth will leave for Shanghai. Those who stay won't find jobs because mainlanders straight out of Beijing's elite graduate schools will not only be shifty but also more diligent. Farmers, workers, fishermen all are bound to face a harsh future due to unfair competitors from the other side of the Taiwan Strait, they say. More and more Taiwanese men marry mainland women, and their children won't cherish a Taiwanese identity.

The 59-year-old Ma came into office as Taiwan's rising star. Born in Hong Kong, he earned a law degree first from National Taiwan University in 1972, then a master's at law from New York University Law School, and a doctorate from Harvard Law School, then working as an associate on Wall Street before eventually returning to Taiwan. His American education and approach to governing appeared to present a clean break from the country's previous deeply scandal-tainted politics, especially those of his own predecessors in the Kuomintang.

He became president in May 2008, and at that time to many Taiwanese from across the political spectrum, he was not only the most promising choice but also the world's best-looking leader. The disgraceful end of Ma's predecessor's career also helped Ma to be regarded as Mr. Clean. By the time Ma came to power, former president Chen Shui-bian had been the target of repeated corruption claims and indeed in September 2009 Chen was sentenced to life imprisonment for embezzlement, money laundering and bribery.

And, when in 2008 the world financial crisis hit, Ma Ying-jeou's cabinet reacted quickly and positively. The government issued consumer shopping vouchers, with each eligible Taiwanese receiving NT$3,600 (US$113) to attempt to revive the domestic economy. This went well with the public.

But Ma abruptly stopped being everybody's darling in the days after August 8, 2009. Typhoon Morakot devastated southern Taiwan, the traditional stronghold of the DPP. The cabinet reacted too slowly and in the eyes of many inappropriately. Ma traveled to destroyed villages, but instead of comforting the survivors, he blamed them for not having consented to evacuation. This was hard to swallow for people whose relatives had been killed a mere 48 hours earlier. Taiwanese and international media were on the spot, Ma's behavior was perceived as arrogant, and his approval ratings, braced by the reaction to the economic crisis, fell from 52 percent to 29 percent in a matter of days.

The mainland's economy got through the global crisis almost undamaged, a factor that has not only been noticed in the west but also in Taiwan. Suddenly many Taiwanese's perception of China changed, since the US, EU and the rich Asian democracies looked for rescue from China and not like in the old days the other way around. Although domestic year-on-year GDP growth for 2009 was a negative 4.06 percent, the economy troughed in the first quarter by minus 10.16 percent and has been recovering since. Domestic consumption regained its strength thanks to the government's intervention and a healthy stock market. In 2010, GDP should be a more normal 4.10-4.50 percent, with consumers largely mollified by the government's action.

Thus the time appeared ripe for Beijing and Taipei to start negotiations on the ECFA, and the first round of talks were held in Beijing in January. As expected, the Taiwanese opposition fiercely opposed the historic approach between the CCP and the KMT-ruled Taiwan. In the same month, Ma again lost a good portion of his political capital earned during the financial crisis.

Unexpectedly to the Taiwanese public, the government also announced it was about to loosen restrictions on the import of certain types of US beef. As in other Asian countries, the imported had been halted over fears of mad cow disease.

When South Korea reopened to US beef in 2008, it came after weeks of massive protests that almost overthrew the government. Ma Ying-jeou was heavily criticized for having failed to consult the legislature and the public before lifting the ban. It came to demonstrations in Taipei, the topic was reported on by the media for weeks yet it didn't reach the South Korean scale.

Since Ma's government must have been aware of what happened in Korea, the decision to risk his standing with the Taiwanese public could have been a political maneuver: in times of ongoing ECFA negotiations the demonstrations gave Beijing the signal that the Taiwanese are still likely to hit the streets if there are developments they don't approve of. Beijing has good reason to fear TV-footage of demonstrations going on in ‘Greater China,' regardless whether they happen on the mainland, in Hong Kong or in Taipei. Ma Ying-jeou's approval ratings dropped, yet through this sacrifice he kept an overly pushy China at bay.

At present, Ma's approval ratings are almost as low as in the weeks after Morakot hit. Recent events on the domestic political stage haven't helped. Earlier this month Department of Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang announced his surprise resignation over a disagreement with Premier Wu Den-yih concerning national health insurance, publicly blasting the government for what he called short-term policy making only for the sake of winning the next elections.

This was not the only Cabinet member that left since shortly after Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng resigned after failing to win support for her opposition to the death penalty.

On March 31 the second round of ECFA talks will open in Taipei. Beijing is likely to watch Ma's public standing closely, as are Taiwanese businessmen who operate on the mainland. A domestically weak Ma Ying-jeou is the last thing they need, since the signing of agreements will become much more difficult. Many also worry that as soon as Beijing senses that with a Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou developments don't go the way as it has been anticipated, the Chinese side will leave the path of reconciliation. The thought of what might come then sends chills down the spine of people not only to both sides of the Taiwan Straits but also in Tokyo and Washington.

Taiwan's next presidential elections are to be held in 2012. That's a long way ahead. Since Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, things can change overnight, and it's far from certain that Ma's approval ratings won't bounce back. Given that the stakes are so high, it's in the interest of both the Taiwanese business community and China that they go up again. To make things go smoothly for Ma, the Chinese government could easily resort to economic aid in a form as subtle as in 2009, when it awarded orders to Taiwanese companies to supply a large scale program that brought cheap household electronics to China's provinces. Money makes the world go around and the Chinese government, which least wants to see a failing Ma, holds US$2.4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.