US Beef Imports: A Lesson in Communications
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 6, 2010
Yesterday, despite intense U.S. pressure, the Legislative Yuan amended its Act Governing Food Sanitation on a Third Reading. It prohibited the importation of six high-risk types of U.S. beef. President Ma followed up with a low-keyed press conference. The controversy over U.S. beef imports is not over. If anything, the aftershocks have just begun.
In all fairness, the Ma administration never wanted to loosen restrictions on US beef imports. The Chen administration loosened import restrictions when it was in office. Was its action controversial? Yes it was. But everyone ignored it. US beef continued to enter. People continued to eat it. The Ma administration is now allowing in bone-in steak and organ meats. The Legislative Yuan amended its Act Governing Food Sanitation. It allowed in only one item, bone-in beef. This move provoked the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and economic and trade ministries to issue a statement, saying that Washington will now find it difficult to cooperate with Taipei on economics and trade in the future.
That the controversy has come to this is indeed regrettable. Given President Ma's cautious style, how did he wind up with today's mess? Especially considering the fact that whenever problems crop up, the first thing President Ma does is ask what he may do and what he may not do. Unfortunately, even though touches all the bases, legally, institutionally, and humanistically, he always ends up the loser. Why?
The Legislative Yuan found the agreement between Taipei and Washington objectionable a long time ago. It objected to the agreement during the three in one county and municipal elections. Green Camp legislators were not the only ones who refused to support it. Even Blue Camp legislators were in full revolt. The KMT legislative caucus reversed the Executive Yuan. Blue Camp legislators unanimously supported Huang Yi-chiao's version. They insisted that any questionable US beef be banned. If Huang Yi-chiao had been a trouble-maker who never took anything seriously, it would be one thing. But he was not. When the Blue Camp and Orange Camps were struggling against each other, he wanted to join the battle. He could have run against Jason Hu for Taichung Mayor. Even now, he would love to run for Taichung City Mayor. He could run against Hu, Liao, and Lu. But he doesn't like confrontation. When even someone like this voices objections, it shows one thing. The reason President Ma has been criticized is his failure to communicate.
Furthermore, former Director of Health Yeh Chin-chuan admitted that he failed to handover the case to current Director of Health Yang Chih-liang. Yang was left completely out of the loop regarding matters settled during Yeh's term of office. If a government is functioning normally, Yang would accept agreements Yeh already made. Why didn't he? Just exactly what have the National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs been doing?
Taipei's international situation has long been less than ideal. But shouldn't Taipei show a little backbone? This is merely about eating a little beef. Whom did the Chen administration consult before it loosened restrictions on U.S. beef? Chen Shui-bian did not bother to consult any member of the public on Taiwan. Apparently he did not even consult anyone in the Department of Health. He decided to import beef, so the government imported beef. The Ma administration was more transparent than the South Korean government. So why did it provoke such controversy? President Ma Ying-jeou is a gentleman. The only lesson he has never learned is how to develop a thick skin and black heart. Ground beef can be made into hamburgers. But who dares to eat beef brains or organ meats? Even if the government dared to loosen restrictions, no one would dare import them. Even if someone dared import them, they couldn't make any money on them, What is there to be afraid of? Curiously, from the decision-making stage to the Legislative Yuan, no one dared say anything. Former Director of Health Yeh Chin-chuan admitted that the U.S. beef imports agreement was hammered out during his term. Yeh resigned to run for Hualien County Executive three or four months ago. Is the Ma administration afraid to speak up? Is it incapable of communicating with the people? How can a government that habitually keeps secrets communicate with the public?
The Legislative Yuan passed amendments to the Act Governing Food Sanitation. That evening President Ma Ying-jeou was forced to hold a press conference explaining his position. The amended law was inconistent with the agreement reached between Taipei and Washington. Both the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan will have to answer for the consequences. His remarks were utterly superfluous. Who is willing to answer for the consequences alongside the president? The Legislative Yuan? Forget Blue and Green Camp legislators. What about Legislative Yuan President Wang Jing-pyng? The president is in trouble. Is he willing to open his heart to the Legislative Yuan president?
For the past year and a half, President Ma has placed high hopes on public opinion. He has repeatedly lamented that the expression "hating iron for not becoming steel" (being exasperated with someone for failing to realize his potential) has become an expedient way to criticize the president, a cheapshot. Is Ma's lament reasonable? A head of state must not engage in corruption. On this count, Ma passes with flying colors. But that is merely the minimum requirement. We also expect a president to be decisive. Many people have expressed dissatisfaction. The President may not act selfishly for his own benefit. The president must solicit dissenting opinions. Has President Ma heard them? As head of state, as commander in chief of 23 million people, President Ma must ask himself, from the administration's perspective, who can help him communicate its views to the Legislative Yuan, and persuade voters at the grassroots level? From a political perspective, who can help him solve problems, and cozy up to elected officials? From a partisan perspective, who can help him erect a big tent, collecting all the votes? The king is in trouble. Why? Because we know right from wrong in our hearts. Who should be consulted. Who should be replaced. One has standards. Whether to consult a person and whether to replace a person, must not be decided on the basis of personal likes or dislikes. The president is like a sea that collects waters from a hundred rivers. These hundred rivers are not just one or two people. This is not just the president's problem. This is Taiwan's problem. The president says he wants to listen to the Legislative Yuan's views. If so, he should walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. From this day forward, he must communicate major policies in advance. This is a mission he must accomplish.