Evaluating the Historical Legacies of Our Political Leaders
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 20, 2012
Summary: With a single word, The Economist touched off more controversy about President Ma Ying-jeou's legacy. The Economist referred to Ma as a "bumbler." Is President Ma a bumbler? Is he incompetent? Is he "pandering to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan?" Is he another King Zhou of Shang? We need not seek premature conclusions. History will render its verdict, one that is reasonable, that does not exaggerate, that does not defame. When the time comes, his critics too will see how they rank.
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With a single word, The Economist touched off more controversy about President Ma Ying-jeou's legacy. The Economist referred to Ma as a "bumbler." This article asks how we should evaluate the legacies of our political leaders. We have no desire to draw any firm conclusions about President Ma's legacy at the moment. We merely cite him as an example.
We can evaluate the legacy of a political leader from two perspectives. The first is according to his standing in history. The second is according to his standing during his own lifetime. From an historical perspective, he can be compared to his predecessors and his successors. Therefore we can evaluate Ma Ying-jeou by comparing him to Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. We can also compare him to future generations. From an historical perspective, Ma Ying-jeou compares rather favorably. Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian tore Taiwan apart. They stood on the wrong side of history. They led Taiwan down the garden path. Ma Ying-jeou undid the mistakes of his predecessors. He set future generations irreversibly back on the right path. The DPP is currently debating whether to undertake reforms. That is evidence of Ma's impact.
Let us consider a political leader's status during his own lifetime. We can compare him to his contemporaries, both at home and abroad. We can compare Ma Ying-jeou to Frank Hsieh in 2008, and to Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. Frank Hsieh is currently promoting DPP reform. He even says "There is nothing wrong with the DPP learning from the KMT's cross-Strait policy." This is the difference between Ma and Hsieh. Had Tsai Ing-wen prevailed over Ma Ying-jeou in 2012 and become president, her record would surely be inferior to Ma Ying-jeou's. She would surely have been incapable of making cross-Strait relations work, let alone other matters. This is the difference between Ma and Tsai.
Compare Ma to his contemporaries abroad. Leaders of the major powers are presiding over their nations' economic decline. Few leaders of nations with freedom of the press, competition between political parties, democracy, and a free economy, are in good odor or enjoy popular support. One look at Europe proves that. Cabinets in Japan are overturned regularly. South Korea's Lee Myung-bak enjoys better press abroad than he does at home. President Barack Obama, leader of the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, has the same label attached to him: bumbler. Look at the cover story in the same issue of The Economist. See how it criticized France. Clearly Ma Ying-jeou is not the one in lowest repute. No wonder President Francois Hollande was hopping mad.
Any evaluation of a political leader's worth should take into account the difficulty of the task he faces. He must be able to manage the resources of the nation. Chiang Ching-kuo's administration was tainted by martial law and the Chiang Nan Incident. But the nation was in dire straits. He wrestled with social constraints. He eventually implemented democracy and cross-Strait exchanges. This secured his legacy, both historically and contemporarily. Taiwan was in crisis. Chiang Ching-kuo achieved much with little, making his accomplishments all the more impressive.
Taiwan faces problems, domestic and international, that are extraordinary and daunting. It must cope with demands from without, and demands from within. It must cope with the "one China framework" from the CCP, and the "rectification of names" from the DPP. It must promote liberal democracy. It must tackle the challenges of globalization despite its lack of resources. It must meet public expectations of economic growth and distributive justice. As Jerome Cohen noted, the presidency of the Republic of China is the toughest job in the world. Ma's predecessors Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian tore Taiwan apart. Taiwan became a "troublemaker," detested by both Washington and Beijing. This is why it is not easy to be President of the Republic of China. This is why Lee and Chen wanted to repudiate the Republic of China altogether, and divest themselves of the burden its governance. By contrast, Frank Hsieh wants to reclaim the ROC.
Ma Ying-jeou is President of the Republic of China. The public does not want cross-Strait relations to collapse into chaos. It does not want a repeat of Chen Shui-bian's corruption. Chen's daughter summed up Chen's corruption well when she said, "Who hasn't taken money from my father?" Taiwan lacks the wherewithal to duplicate Lee-Myung-Bak's landing on Dokdo, or George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Some members of the public wanted Ma to sign ECFA. Others did not. Some members of the public wanted the capital gains tax. Others did not. Some members of the public wanted gasoline and electricity rate hikes. Others did not. Some members of the public wanted servicemen to pay taxes. Others did not. Some members of the public wanted second generation health care. Others did not. Have members of the public forgotten "market price real estate listing?" Former Vice President Vincent Siew and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jing-pying both expressed opposition. Should "market price real estate listing" be implemented? How can Ma Ying-jeou convince opponents? He can't even convince Vincent Siew and Wang Jing-pyng.
The Economist's evaluation of Ma Ying-jeou is self-contradictory. It said, "Nothing suggests Mr Ma's main policies will change (or that they should)." This harsh editorial said President Ma "will not change" and "should not change." Ma's critics are apparently just as "bumbling" as President Ma. Take the U.S. beef imports controversy. It raged for six months. Some legislators camped out on the floor of the Legislative Yuan for five days. Recall what happened. The Economist leveled some harsh criticisms. But did it bother to evaluate the Ma administration's U.S. beef imports policy? Did it bother to ask itself why it "will not change" and "should not change?" Is the Ma administration really that incompetent? Or are its critics merely being unreasonable?
Consider a political leader's ability and achievements according to his standing in history and his standing during his own lifetime. They can be divided into four categories. One. A political leader may use evil means in the pursuit of evil ends. A major offender would be someone like Mao Zedong. A minor offender would be someone like Chen Shui-bian. Two. A political leader may use evil means in the understandable pursuit of lofty ends. Examples include Deng Xiaoping's draconian measures and Chiang Ching-kuo's martial law. Three. A political leader may use legitimate but clumsy means in pursuit of justifiable ends. Examples include ECFA, Market Price Real Estate Listings, and U.S. beef imports. This was the case with Ma Ying-jeou. Four. A political leader may use legitimate and sophisticated means in pursuit of justifiable ends. Perhaps once in the lifetime of every political leader an opportunity like this will arise. But no political leader is ever going encounter fair winds and following seas during his entire career.
On March 22, 2008, Ma Ying-jeou was elected to his first term as president. On March 25th, this newspaper published the third in a series of editorials, entitled, "Ma Ying-jeou's Challenge: A Good Person Must Become a Capable Person." As we can see, doubts about his ability have long haunted Ma Ying-jeou. This newspaper's editorials have criticized him relentlessly. This newspaper feels that a democracy must be critical of its political leaders. But simplistic judgments, including characterizations of Ma Ying-jeou as the tyrannical King Zhou of Shang are hardly fair. Under democracy those in power will do what they must do. Critics will say what they must say. But Ma Ying-jeou's legacy will not be determined by Wang Chien-hsuan's characterization of him as "incompetent," or by The Economist's characterization of him as a "bumbler." .
Is President Ma a bumbler? Is he incompetent? Is he "pandering to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan?" Is he another King Zhou of Shang? We need not seek premature conclusions. History will render its verdict, one that is reasonable, that does not exaggerate, that does not defame. When the time comes, his critics too will see how they rank.