Written by Ben Goren.

One enduring KMT myth focuses on how President Ma got elected. In 2008, Ma ran on a platform of cleaning up Taiwanese politics and on accusations that President Chen was corrupt. Chen’s subsequent prosecution and jailing seemed to confirm Ma’s criticisms, yet allegations of political interference in the judicial process during Chen’s preventative detention and incarceration have overshadowed the KMT’s narrative of “Chen The Dirty Vs Ma the Clean.” Nevertheless, this simplistic framing worked to good effect and gained a lot of traction with Taiwanese, so much so that Ma recalled it for use in televised debates prior to the 2012 election. However, less than a year after getting elected, high ranking KMT and former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yih-shih (林益世) was arrested and put of trial for corruption whilst this year KMT Taoyuan County deputy commissioner Yeh Shih-wen (葉世文) was similarly arrested for accepting bribes in return for land development contracts. Ma’s positing of a reformed KMT as a role model for clean governance, always at odds with the historical record of his party, had collapsed.

Ma’s touted constitutionalism, especially concerning national identity and Taiwan’s status, is the next myth to have imploded. Much international analysis of President Chen’s Administrations (2000~2008) is built on the misleading narrative that Chen’s Taiwanese nationalism caused tensions with China. Chen and the DPP were accused of playing the identity card, or fuelling ‘ethnic tensions’or ‘sub-ethnic rivalry’, yet little or no mention is made of President Ma’s heavy emphasis on Chinese identity and his repeated recourse to Chinese Nationalist ideology; whether it be in declaring all people in Taiwan to be ethnically and culturally Chinese, or supporting and allowing the revision of textbooks to erase the pro-Taiwan edits made during the Chen era and replace them with pro-China content. Ma accused Chen of ‘de-sinofication’ via superficial modifications to the built and symbolic environment to stress a Taiwan identity, yet he immediately reversed many of the changes once he assumed power, sending a very clear message of his ideological identity, and loyalty to China, albeit the Republic of China on Taiwan. Despite a backdrop of rising Taiwanese national identity, Ma has sought to ‘re-sinofy’ Taiwan and reincorporate Taiwan into narratives of the Chinese nation’s history, legitimacy, and authority, making use of anachronistic Chinese nationalist ideology. In return, his administrations have been heavily criticised for historical revisionism and attempting to indoctrinate students.

This Chinese nationalism, presented as pragmatism and faithful adherence to the ROC Constitution, has been warmly welcomed by Beijing for whom a similar variant of nationalism remains a core tool supporting the regime’s domestic legitimacy and authority. China’s influence on the Taiwanese political landscape has also been omitted or underplayed. Beijing manufactured political pressure on the DPP’s platform by causing tension in the relationship between Taipei and Washington. China could have chosen to work with Chen and the DPP, but it made every effort not to.  Working with the KMT, particularly following former KMT Chairman Lien Chan’s visit to Beijing in 2005, the CCP took an active role in both helping to construct the myth of the danger of Chen’s ‘radical’Taiwanese nationalism and in providing support for the KMT to show that the rejection of a Taiwanese identity, and in turn revival of a Chinese identity, would be good for peace, and good for the economy.

In short, identity politics, has been a core characteristic of the Ma Administrations and has actively shaped the Government’s domestic and international policy, to a greater degree than under President Chen. Ma’s Chinese nationalism and identity politics are a reaction to long declining domestic and international relevance of the ROC, to rising Taiwanese national identification, and to pressure from China to reconstruct a cultural, and constitutional platform for future ‘unification’. For Ma, national identity may not be an overt election issue (he has traditionally emphasised his love for Taiwan before election day and his identification with China on inauguration day) but it is a critical component of his desire to both prevent Taiwan replacing the ROC with an entirely indigenous national democratic polity, and to lay the foundations for a future unification of the Greater Chinese nation.

In response, it appears that Taiwanese are unimpressed by Ma’s pro-China ideological tinkering. Where Chen was building on a trend of rising Taiwan national identity linked intimately to democratisation and decolonisation, Ma has sought to ‘re-sinofy’Taiwan, against the prevailing public mood. Where Chen was ‘radical’, Ma has been regressive and in turn this has only served to remind many Taiwanese voters of the distinctly dictatorial heritage of both Ma and the KMT, in China and on Taiwan. A currently popular Taiwanese joke is illustrative of the idiosyncrasy of Ma’s position on Taiwan’s identity and status – it asks how you know when you’re talking to a Chinese, the answer being that they keep trying to convince you that you are.  Many Taiwanese have come to feel the same way about their President.

Finally, it is in the arena of international policies, that the seventh myth of the Ma Administration has come unstuck. Once again, following a now familiar pattern, the main culprit responsible for the collapse in public trust in Ma’s cross-strait and international policies has not been the policies themselves but the glaring disconnect between Ma’s claims of the impact of his policies and the actual impact of them as experienced by Taiwanese on a day to day level.

Despite consistent verbal support for Ma’s cross-strait policies from Washington, and despite the Ma Administration sending observers to the WHA for the first time, when it comes to Taiwan’s international space, Ma’s declaration of a diplomatic truce with the PRC has proven entirely one-sided every time Taiwan has sought meaningful participation in the international community. Embarrassingly, Taiwan has also continued to slowly lose its diplomatic allies in contradiction to Ma’s claims that this trend was the result of his predecessor’s ‘check book diplomacy’and provocation of the PRC. Beijing has undermined the credibility of Ma’s policies by doing little to rein in attempts to squeeze Taiwan’s international space, a phenomenon which it regards as symbolic of a Taiwanese de facto independence that constantly undermines its efforts to convince other countries of the legitimacy of claims that Taiwan is a sovereign territory of the PRC.  Under the Ma Administration, Taiwanese working in the international arena have continued to be denied participation in international events following Chinese pressure on event organisers, and have continued to be castigated and threatened when they happen to express their national identity as Taiwanese. Taiwanese do not fault Ma for trying to ease relations with China, but at the same time they find President’s Canute-like insistence that his policies are working and reaping benefits to be discordant with the reality they are experiencing. As they see it, Beijing has not significantly changed its position and there is in reality no diplomatic truce. Against this backdrop, Ma’s repeated claims to the contrary appear delusional, and disrespectful of the intelligence of citizens.

In addition, Ma’s retrogressive revival of claims upon the territory of the PRC, and the way his claims upon the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea suspiciously dovetail with those of the PRC, have led to accusations of a covert cross-strait co-operation driving a wedge between Taiwan and its neighbours and allies. Cross-Strait tension has been displaced to tension between PRC/ROC and neighbouring maritime states. In this regard, Ma has appeared less pragmatic than dogmatic, and his ‘flexibility’ in accommodating Beijing sensitivities on the world stage has been interpreted as spinelessness and appeasement. Under President Chen Taiwan might have been internationally isolated but at least it knew what it was and manifested some degree of self-respect and pride.

For many Taiwanese, Ma has achieved only a temporary respite in cross-strait tensions since the underlying causes of those tensions reside in Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, which aside from superficial attempts to win Taiwanese hearts and minds, remains relatively unchanged. It is evident to many that harmonious relations between Taiwan and China are predicated entirely upon KMT-CCP cooperation and the ability of the KMT to retain control of the Presidency and a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan.  In return, there are serious concerns that the price Ma is willing to pay for “Improved Cross-Strait Relations ™” is too steep, humiliating, and quickly eroding the ability of Taiwanese to freely determine the nature of their country’s relations with China into the future.  Whilst analysts in Washington continue to speak of retaining the ‘Status-Quo’, Taiwanese have watched as Ma has systematically altered it, to the detriment of Taiwan’s identity as a de facto independent nation. Ma’s insistence on an anachronistic and literal interpretation of Taiwan’s identity as only an ‘area’of the ROC in the transplanted and heavily modified 1947 Constitution has only served to revive calls for constitutional reform to free Taiwan from the birdcage of its legal identity as a colonial holding of China.

In summary, Although Ma won re-election in 2012 this does not in itself indicate that polling indicating his poor public approval levels are wrong. Two years into his second term, it appears that many Taiwanese have become inured to, and cynical about, President Ma’s apparent hubris, paternalism, and patronage.  Ma’s biggest crime in their eyes has not been ‘bumbling’ but rather persistent and chronic mendacity and myopia. Ma’s biggest mistake has been to commit the same cardinal political sin as his predecessor – to make promises he could not keep. Whereas the DPP have seemed able to reflect upon past errors and be somewhat reflexive to changes in public opinion, Ma’s refusal to admit failure or error is his and the KMT’s abiding Achilles Heel. Six years later, the myths that Ma utilised to get into power as President are rapidly coming apart at the seams, exposing a rotten core of broken promises, duplicity, and an obsessive pro-China ideology at stark odds with the way a majority of Taiwanese perceive themselves and their nation.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan. The first part of this essay was published here.