ECFA: Among the Clouds
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
February 12, 2010
President Ma Ying-jeou recently took to the battlefield. He spoke directly to the public, explaining the necessity of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). But yesterday National Security Council Secretary General Su Chi announced his resignation, explaining that "this phase of the mission has been accomplished." Communications between President Ma and the public, and between President Ma and his advisors appear to have broken down yet again.
President Ma is of course not so naive as to imagine that a single speech will allay public doubts. But his recent speech has raised new concerns. It has made the prospect of ECFA even more remote. It highlights the government's confused strategy to promote ECFA. ECFA now resides among the clouds.
President Ma's press conference was entitled "Presidential Report: Cross-Strait Economic Agreement." It used plain language to explain its purpose: "helping people do business, enhancing Taiwan's competitiveness." It stressed ECFA's legitimacy. But in order to benefit from this huge business opportunity, some sectors must pay a price. President Ma did not evade this point. He proposed remedies. He attempted to allay public concerns about diminished sovereignty. He said the administration would pay close attention to concerns about equality, dignity, reciprocity and proportionality. In general, President Ma was sincere in his communications. He displayed confidence in his policy. But in terms of content, he seemed to be spinning his wheels. Things he was afraid to speak remained unspoken. Not only did existing doubts remain, even more doubts were raised.
The first doubt concerns the timetable. President Ma said there is no timetable for signing ECFA. But MAC, the Executive Yuan, and the Presidential Office all made clear that the target date was the Fifth Chiang-Chen Meeting during the first half of this year. Now President Ma says there is no timetable. Is President Ma reverting to "political language?" Or as SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung put it, have negotiations over ECFA entered a "more difficult" stage? Current signs suggest it is the latter. President Ma's remark that he has no timetable may also be true. Changes are being made to ECFA's original timetable.
The second doubt relates to the first. If negotiations over ECFA are "more difficult," just how much more difficult are they? Ever since the administration began promoting ECFA, the issues have been over-simplified. To defuse public concerns, this must be addressed. The administration emphasizes only the benefits of signing ECFA. It never talks about where the two sides disagree. Disagreements include terminology, tax relief and tax increase issues, market opening, and the scope and direction of long-term economic cooperation. These disagreements constitute barriers. Problems abound. But so far none of them have been discussed. Perhaps the administration considers it too hard to explain. But to play down the complexity leaves the public with the impression the administration is engaging in "black ops." It raises suspicions about the government's negotiations. CommonWealth Magazine recently released its survey of 1000 Leading CEOs. Ninety percent of them supported ECFA. But nearly half of the CEOs worried that the administration would not be able to protect Taiwan's interests. If even the elites have such misgivings, then misgivings at the grassroots level are probably even deeper.
Can the administration state the issues clearly? That is our third doubt. The administration has sketched out ECFA's broad outlines. But it remains vague about the specifics. The two sides are currently discussing the content of ECFA. Both sides are negotiating over their own interests. Obviously neither side can show its hand prematurely. Obviously the administration cannot say anything for the moment. Therefore the public has been told the same thing about ECFA a thousand times. Hearing the same message a thousand times leads to numbness or even skepticism. Negotiations are ongoing. The details of any imminent market opening have yet to be revealed. Our side has asked for tariff relief. President Ma declared in advance that he would not allow Mainland agricultural products in. This has slowed negotiations to a crawl. How will ECFA look when it finally emerges from the talks? The administration can't be sure. Therefore how can President Ma make it any clearer?
These doubts show that the administration underestimated the ability of the public to rationally debate the issue from day one. It overestimated the power of political ideology. It prettified, simplified, diluted, and blurred the issue. The counterproductive result was public skepticism. After the Spring Festival, the ruling and opposition parties must communicate more closely over ECFA. ECFA must be brought back down to earth, out of the clouds. It must become tangible to the public. The Ma administration must redouble its efforts.
Su Chi may have "accomplished this phase of the mission." But President Ma hasn't.
2010.02.12 03:34 am