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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times China is Ma’s ‘opiate of the masses’

China is Ma’s ‘opiate of the masses’

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Public support for an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) is waning. Far from pulling back from the brink and saying thanks, but no thanks to Beijing, the government put on an orchestrated display with China over the Lunar New Year holidays, governments on both sides acting in concert.

First we had Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) talking to the Taiwanese business community in Zhangzhou, waxing lyrical about an ECFA.

“When we say we will do something,” he crooned, “we will absolutely follow it through. So long as it is good for Taiwan, we will see that it is done.”

Then, hot on Hu’s heels, there was President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) addressing Taiwanese businesspeople involved in China and impressing upon them just how important it was to sign an ECFA, and to sign it quickly. Being president, he said, was about creating opportunities: It’s about enabling the Taiwanese to not only make a living for themselves abroad, but being able to hold their heads up high. If he fails in this, it would mean that he was not up to the job of president.

Both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are quite clearly chomping at the bit to get an ECFA signed.

Why is Ma obsessing about this ECFA thing, considering the fact that the majority of the public are opposed to it? The main reason is that Ma advocates eventual unification, and he will further this goal if he manages to get an ECFA signed. He is doing nothing to resist annexation by China. Such a pro-China stance is part and parcel of a “one China” ideology. No surprises here, then.

You also have to factor in Ma’s terrible approval ratings, and it is questionable whether he will actually be able to secure a second term. If he doesn’t see an ECFA signed in his first term, and a pro-­localiza­tion party gets in government come 2012, any ECFA is destined to be scuppered and the idea of eventual unification with China consigned to limbo.

Given all this, both Ma and Beijing realize that time is of the essence. They know that they have to pull out all the stops and, not wanting anything to get in their way, they would like to see the agreement signed before the public can put a spanner in the works. They want, in effect, to get it over and done with.

When Hu says he will follow through, and Ma gambles his reputation on its success, two things come to light: First, we are basically being asked to go ahead and damn the consequences; second, we can divine a certain amount of guilty conscience.

We have to be careful here. Ma’s approval rating is in free-fall. He might be president, but he has already lost the mandate of the people. He needs to create a favorable environment for the signing of an ECFA, and his government has set about releasing somewhat rosy economic statistics to give the impression that the economy is improving. The idea is to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, to suggest that life will get better as soon as the thing is signed. They are casting about for something to assuage the public’s reservations.

So let’s take a look at these figures. Government statistics show the economy grew at a rate of 9.22 percent in the last quarter of last year, a surprisingly robust performance, especially when coupled with an unemployment rate of only 5.68 percent for last month, the lowest it has been for the past year. Surprising figures, yes, but they quickly fail on further analysis. These figures are misleading at best and the government is being somewhat ingenuous here. It has failed to point out the reason that the figures look so impressive on paper, which is, quite simply, that they reflect an economy recovering from a weakened state, not one that is in good shape.

In the fourth quarter of 2008 we had a negative growth rate, with the economy contracting by 7.11 percent. The situation worsened in the following quarter, showing a rate of minus 9.1 percent. Yes, you can say that it grew by such and such an amount in the fourth quarter of last year but, compared with two years ago, this only represents a slight recovery. To say it shows a conspicuous expansion is simply not the case. GDP last year stood at NT$12.83 trillion (US$400.04 billion), which was not only smaller than two years ago, it was actually far lower than the 2007 figure.

The fall in the unemployment rate is also deceptive. It hides the fact that hidden unemployment, long-term unemployment and unemployment for the middle and higher age ranges continues to rise, and takes into account temporary employment openings.

Behind this dressing up of the figures lies a reality that the government doesn’t dare acknowledge. Ma set a campaign goal he called “6-3-3”, which stood for 6 percent annual growth, an average per capita income of US$30,000 and an unemployment rate lower than 3 percent, by 2012. All well and good, but after two years in office, not only has the economy not improved, it is actually in worse shape than it was before he became president.

The pro-Beijing lobby hold that Taiwan’s economy needs to be linked to that of China if it is to have any hope of growing. They claim that the closed door policies pursued by former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) led to Taiwan being marginalized. As it happens, neither Lee’s “no haste, be patient” policy nor Chen’s idea of “effective management” succeeded in stemming the flow of Taiwanese businesses, capital or talent into China on one pretext or another. Consequently it is difficult to make a case for the fact that Taiwan’s economy ever was shut off from China, and the reality is that it has already become increasingly linked to China.

If the theory that Taiwan’s economy stands or falls on how closely it is linked to China’s is correct, then it should surely have become more robust some time ago, and should certainly have been able to withstand last year’s financial tsunami better than it actually did.

Ever since Ma became president, he has done everything he could to forge closer links with China. Not only has he failed to save Taiwan’s economy, he has gotten us hooked on China. To extend the metaphor, after he has signed an ECFA, Taiwan is going to find it very difficult to shake the habit, and we will be at the mercy of the pushers in Beijing.

We have pointed out time and again that an ECFA is no beneficial dietary supplement, it is an addictive class A narcotic. In the short term it’s going to make people feel good and give them heady hallucinations, seeing pink elephants and a robust economy, but when the effect wears off we are going to be in for one hell of a withdrawal. Expect some fatalities.

By obsessively pursuing the signing of the ECFA, Ma is playing games with the interests of 23 million Taiwanese simply to secure his own political self-interests. We would say he has already proved himself unfit for the job of president of this country.


Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2010/03/01

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