Thursday, January 22, 2009

Eight Months: The Difference between Ma Ying-jeou and Barack Obama

Eight Months: The Difference between Ma Ying-jeou and Barack Obama
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
January 22, 2009

Barack Obama has assumed the Presidency of the United States. But can his ultra-high popularity withstand the harsh test of reality? That remains to be seen. On Taiwan such doubts may even be amplified. People watched as Ma Ying-jeou win by a landslide, only to have his halo tarnished within a few short months. How can Obama avoid the same fate?

The Repubic of China and the United States of America are different. But Ma Ying-jeou and Barack Obama's backgrounds have a number of similarities. One. Both were minority candidates elected by all the people. Their successful candidacies demonstrate the meaning of ethnic harmony. So-called "mainlanders" in the Taiwan region, and African Americans in the US comprise roughly the same percentage of the total population, 13%. Two. Both Ma and Obama were preceded by men notorious for their recklessness, Chen Shui-bian and George W. Bush. These men ruled for eight years and two consecutive terms. Ma and Obama overthrew both their predecessors and their parties. Three. Both are Juris Doctors from Harvard University. Obama is 11 years younger, and less experienced politically.

Apart from these similarities, the biggest difference between the two is the eight month gap between their electoral victories. This difference may determine their respective destinies, Ma Ying-jeou was elected to rid the nation of the DPP's economic isolationism and separatist demagoguery. During his inaugural speech he said, "People must rise up, only then can Taiwan be reborn." The theme of Taiwan's rebirth brimmed with dreamy optimism. Many people assumed a new era of peace and prosperity had arrived. Who knew it would all come tumbling down amidst the global economic crisis? None of the world's nations has been spared. Ma Ying-jeou's "633" promises evaporated in an instant. Frustrated in their expectations, the people lost confidence and patience in the Ma administration.

By contrast, the global economy was already in a recession during the final phase of Obama's campaign. The American people are not going to blame the depression on him. Furthermore, Wall Street was the primary culprit responsible for the current wave of financial turmoil. This deepened public antipathy toward Bush administration incompetence and malfeasance. It made them to look to the new vision for America symbolized by Obama. Eight months was enough to allow the American people to recognize the Bush administration's responsibility for economic crimes, and to realize that Obama was merely attempting to save the economy. On this point, Ma Ying-jeou was clearly not as lucky as Obama. Because eight months after his inauguration, he has become the target of intense public dissatisfaction.

Public opinion has always been hard to fathom. This should be clear from the reversal in public attitude toward Ma Ying-jeou and Lee Myung-bak. Besides changes in the larger context, this has to do first with the individual leaders' ability and personality, and secondly with the nation's political structure and the electorate's political maturity.

Take Ma Ying-jeou for example. He won by a 58% landslide. This reflected the public on Taiwan's revulsion for ethnic demagoguery. They chose to join hands across this divide. But agitation by demagogues over the past few months has undermined this positive development. Blue vs. Green confrontation has resurfaced. Several Ma Ying-jeou nominated officials with Green political backgrounds have been implicated in scandals. Taipei and Beijing have sought to cooperate in investigating the Chen family corruption scandals. The Green Camp has attempted to capitalize on these, to create an atmosphere of confrontation. The superficiality and myopia of political demagogues are the biggest psychological obstacle to a society's efforts to transcend ethnic bigotry.

Actually, compared to America's long history of black vs. white race issues, Taiwan's Blue vs. Green conflict over the last decade is an artificially invented social division that has unfortunately become real over time. That is the saddest fact of all. A democratic nation such as the United States took 200 years to finally resolve stubborn issues of race. This shows how difficult it is to heal social fissures. Society on Taiwan was originally harmonious. Yet it has moved in exactly the opposite direction. Political demagogues have invoked "love of Taiwan," intentionally widening social differences and intensifying communal strife for their own selfish political interests. How many people can tolerate such cynical calculation?

Obama has assumed office wearing a halo. Can he summon up the wisdom the world expects of him? That will be the test of his administration. Amidst the Great Depression he has brought the American people a precious gift. He has inspired everyone to follow America's example. As we watch the inauguraton in Washington from faraway Taipei, we too may be inspired, alerted, and encouraged. Perhaps we can all complain a little less, and sympathize and understand a little more. In which case, we may feel a little less anxious and a little more confident about how to extricate ourselves from our current predicament.

2009.01.22 03:17 am









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