The Government Should Provide a Forum to Debate ECFA
China Times News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 11, 2009
Last Saturday the ruling KMT lost the County and Municipal Elections. Naturally voices within the KMT have demanded a post mortem. The media has collectively pointed the finger at US beef imports and ECFA for arousing intense opposition in central and southern Taiwan. These were the Ma administration policies critics found the most objectionable. Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-hsiang said he was willing to debate ECFA with the opposition DPP. Even Premier Wu said he was willing to participate. But the DPP announced it was unwilling to participate, frustrating the ruling KMT's efforts to resolve the issue or find any leverage. DPP's reluctance to debate the issue may reflect self-doubt and evasiveness. But the ruling party cannot avoid responsibility for facilitating communication and dialogue.
We realize of course that people have different views about government policy. But Ma administration officials did a poor job of communicating the benefits of ECFA to the public. The issues remained unclear. That is why once the DPP accused the KMT of "being in favor of selling out Taiwan," the KMT found it difficult to counter the charge in southern Taiwan. But suppose the KMT had made clear what ECFA was all about. Suppose an eloquent economic minister had debated the issue. Suppose the premier had joined the battle. Considerable controversy would have remained. ECFA involves dozens of industries. If one fails to break the issues into separate categories, but instead debates them in broad terms, one would still have trouble escaping charges of "toadying up to Beijing and caving in to foreign pressure." In the end, it would merely have intensified the confrontation, and made it more difficult to clarify the issue.
As a United Daily News editorial explained earlier, at this stage ECFA is merely a broad framework, a table of contents. At most it includes a brief summary of the contents. Frankly speaking, the framework is so vague there is really nothing to oppose. The public may have concerns about certain industries. Therefore all discussions must include industry consultation. All sorts of issues have all been put on the table, including our current predicament, the benefits of signing, the potential impact of signing, mutual interests, complementary niches, and job retraining. All require broad-based public participation. The Ministry of Economic Affairs can hardly settle the matter by itself. The ruling party considers ECFA beneficial to Taiwan, but finds itself unable to explain clearly to the public how it will benefit. Why? Because the ruling administration has underestimated the power of public sentiment within civil society.
Conceptually speaking, the government can play an active role as the final arbiter of policy. Alternatively it can provide a public forum and play a passive role as the neutral mediator of a policy debate. The ruling administration may have arrived at certain conclusions about the importance of signing ECFA in a timely manner. But ECFA is a far-reaching, many-faceted economic issue that affects the livelihoods and prospects of tens of thousands of people, including both the manufacturing and service sectors. How can can a single, solitary economic minister settle the issue all by himself?
ECFA must be discussed. It must be debated. In fact, it must be divided into a number of different industry sectors and properly explored. Industry associations for various industries must develop talking points, explaining the benefits of signing ECFA. If a particular industry association is unable to convince a majority of the public about the benefits of ECFA, then perhaps that particular industry sector should not be opened up. Perhaps conditions should be added. If a particular industry considers failure to sign ECFA tantamount to a death sentence, then it can make its appeal to the public, instead of hiding behind the government and getting a free ride.
Take the financial industry for example. The two sides have signed an MOU authorizing banks on Taiwan to conduct business on the Mainland using Renminbi. The biggest beneficiary will of course be the banking industry. That being the case, naturally they, and not the government, should be the ones to step forward to convince opponents. If the public has doubts about the transparency of a branch bank on Mainland China, companies on Taiwan can address their concerns in a public forum and offer the appropriate assurances. If the chief beneficiaries, the bankers, are unable to address these public concerns, then opponents will have won a major victory. In which case, the government should perhaps go with the flow and hold off on its implementation.
As we see it, government officials should provide a forum to debate ECFA. The administration may have the final say, but at least during the policy formulation stage, the debate can be about the economic pros and cons of ECFA, instead of becoming a political struggle between the ruling and opposition parties. If the government is willing to provide a forum for various industry sectors to debate the pros and cons, then economic issues can remain economic issues, instead of being reduced to ideological confronations between diametrically opposed political parties.
ECFA is an economic issue that has a bearing on many industries. To invoke the DPP's own slogan, "No matter how barbaric the DPP might be... " It can hardly make enemies of all these industry sectors. The ruling administration should think things through. Perhaps then it will invite these industry sectors to explain the pros and cons of ECFA to the public. If they fail to explain ECFA clearly, but instead leave it a confused mess, then the Ma administration will find it difficult to escape the DPP's political attacks.