US Beef: The Administration Should Have Stuck to the Script
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 4, 2009
The controversy over U.S. beef imports has become a full-blown prairie fire. The question everybody wants to ask is, wasn't it entirely predictable?
Was the government merely overconfident, or just plain arrogant? Either way, senior government officials underestimated the amount of fallout. Could loosening restrictions on U.S. beef imports lead to a public backlash? The answer was abundantly clear last year, when the same crisis played out in South Korea. Intense public protests mired South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in a major political crisis. On Taiwan meanwhile, the Ma administration learned nothing from this lesson of history. It was totally unprepared for the public reaction to its decision to loosen restrictions on U.S. beef imports. It was concerned only with policy level maneuveuring, with what sort of quid pro quo it would get from the United States, with what sort of agreements would be signed. It never considered the social and political firestorm that might follow once restrictions on U.S. beef imports were loosened. The result was like the movie "Chronicle of a Death Foretold." The loosening of restrictions on U.S. beef imports caused major shockwaves to Taiwan. It is hard to believe that while negotiating restrictions on U.S. beef imports, the Ma administration never seriously considered the experience of Korea. It never considered offering the public a thorough explanation.
Actually, this sort of sluggish, even oblivious response, is not confined to the issue of U.S. beef imports. Over a year ago, nearly all of the Ma administration's key policies were plagued by this problem. The officials responsible were too politically naive. As a result minor issues often snowballed until they were beyond repair. The Ma administration was not necessarily the real culprit. But because it failed to handle matters properly, it often ended up as the scapegoat. For example, the Chen Shui-bian administration allowed in mainland China milk products. But melamine contamination was blamed on the Ma administration all the same.
The impact of policies and decisions should be explained to the public in advance, in order to increase public understanding, reduce public resistance, and prevent the political opposition from demagoguing the issue. The Ma administration has access to experts and scholars able to provide professional advice. It has access to politicians, civil servants, and elected representatives with long experience in politics. They have their fingers on the pulse of public opinion. They know how the political opposition will respond. They know opposition pundits will find the chinks in the administration's armor. They know how the administration must respond so that its policies can be successfully implemented. But high officials in the Ma administration have always assumed that the public would never question its policies, that the public would dutifully applaud its policies, giving it a free pass, and that all would be well under heaven. But is Taiwan society really like this? Was the Ma administration, from the president on down, born yesterday? The KMT may not fear sniping from the DPP. But when people lack sufficient information, when the government makes no effort to communicate, then no matter how well-intentioned those in power might be, the public will not automatically buy what they say. Besides, when policies are made by a handful of people, any blind spots and any ill-considered aspects have little chance of being corrected before being put into practice.
Did senior government officials conduct sand table exercises to gauge public reaction before loosening restrictions on U.S. beef imports? Shouldn't a ruling administration that hopes to act responsibly provide the the public with detailed information? Shouldn't it provide everyone with as much information possible about U.S. beef? For example, which countries have loosened which requirements on which beef parts? On which beef parts does our government intend to loosen restrictions? The Ma administration has a responsibility to provide the public with the facts before it decides to loosen restrictions. These policies have an impact on people's lives and property. The people have a right to be informed about the administration's policy measures.
During criminal investigations and trials, suspects often respond like toothpaste in a tube. However much pressure one applies, however much toothpaste one gets. However much evidence the prosecution obtains, however much the suspect confesses to. Frankly, the current administration is acting remarkably like a criminal suspect. However much the public complains and the political opposition criticizes, however much the Ma administration is willing to respond. Are we to conclude that if the public failed to complain, the administration would not even bother explaining its position? In an era of democracy, the public has strong opinions. Opposition parties are constantly sniffing for the scent of blood. If the Ma administration keeps its head in the sand, it will have an ever harder time. The DPP understands public sentiment only too well. It uses this understanding to lead the public around by the nose. The ruling KMT, on the other hand, understands public sentiment not at all. It does many things without first providing appropriate explanations. It has been blasted repeatedly, but never seems to awaken from its stupor. No wonder so many characterize the Ma administration as brain-dead. Some need a longer learning curve than others, but the Ma administration's learning curve is just a little too long.