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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Ma’s covenant of political silence

Ma’s covenant of political silence

It was reported a few days ago that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who is also chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), declared that “covenants” would be drawn up for the party’s legislators-at-large to keep their political statements in line with party policy.

In real democracies like the UK and the US, such a weird idea as a “political covenant” would probably only appear in the writings of satirical columnists. It is not uncommon for members of the US Congress to speak or vote against the positions of the president, even if they belong to the same party — and no president would ever think of trying to control them with a “covenant.”

For seven years before he became British prime minister, Winston Churchill repeatedly criticized the leaders of his own Conservative Party in parliament for underestimating the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany, and he went so far as to aim his criticism at the policies of then Conservative Party leader and prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

At the time, dominant figures in the party merely distanced themselves from Churchill. Nobody thought of using a “covenant” to shut him up. The imposition of iron discipline by central party leaders is something that happens only in totalitarian countries.

Most people’s impression of the KMT is that it is an authoritarian party whose members allow their opinions to be molded by their leader and dare not express other opinions, but this has not always been the case. In the 1920s, KMT founder Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), finding himself in a weak position, wanted to build ties with the Soviet Union.

Senior members of the KMT were outspoken in their criticism, warning earnestly that this policy was not in the best interests of the party or the nation. They spoke out even at the risk of annoying Sun.

Later, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who indirectly succeeded Sun as head of the KMT and supreme leader of China, was assailed repeatedly by KMT heavyweights for allowing members of the powerful Kung (孔) and Soong (宋) families to sully the party and corrupt the state.

Teng Wen-yi (鄧文儀), a high-ranking military and civilian official who graduated from the Whampoa Military Academy (黃埔軍校) headed by Chiang, went so far as to suggest sending the heads of these families, H.H. Kung (孔祥熙) and T.V. Soong (宋子文), into exile.

Even after the KMT government was defeated by the Communists and withdrew to Taiwan, where Chiang and his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) had firm control of the state apparatus, dissenting voices could still be heard in the KMT. While the most well-known dissenter was presidential adviser and newspaper publisher Lei Chen (雷震), there were others who were expelled from the KMT for their outspoken views, such as legislator Chi Shih-ying (齊世英) and Control Yuan member Tsao Teh-hsuan (曹德宣). Clearly, the older generations of KMT members were not all sycophants and yes men.

This tradition of outspoken criticism within the KMT has gone out the window now that Ma is in charge. Although murmurs are sometimes heard in the party, they are only concerned with minor issues or personal interests. When it comes to important matters, nobody speaks out in opposition to Ma. This is a worrying trend.

Ma’s theme of putting relations across the Taiwan Strait above all else is an extremely important political tactic with far-reaching consequences, but no one in the KMT has questioned it. Even KMT founder Sun encountered obstruction from within his party when he advocated the alliance with the Soviet Union and tolerance of the Communist Party.

Is Ma’s prestige greater than Sun’s? Do his party comrades have such faith in his infallibility that they are willing to follow him without question?

Ma’s proposal to abolish conscription and work toward a fully professional military is also highly problematic. It would be hard to find an example of other countries that have scrapped conscription while facing threats from a hostile neighbor. The change presents many uncertainties, such as whether the state coffers can cover the cost of the new structure and whether enough recruits can be found for those units that face the greatest dangers.

The move from conscription to recruitment would be irreversible. What will we do if the change turns out to be a mistake? Can Taiwan’s leaders evade responsibility by bowing for 10 seconds like Ma and his Cabinet did after their poor performance in disaster relief following Typhoon Morakot?

It seems that the decision to scrap conscription was made hastily by Ma and a few people in his coterie, rather than through a process of broad consultation and listening to a full range of opinions.

It is quite shocking that nobody in the KMT has questioned this policy.

Ma’s proposal to institute “political covenants” is not a sign of a democratic mindset. The almost complete lack of dissenting voices in the KMT suggests that the party no longer has straightforward and outstanding statesmen who are concerned about the great issues of the day.

These developments are bad news not just for the KMT, but for everyone in Taiwan.

David S. Min is a political commentator and author of Heartfelt Wishes of a Citizen.


Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2009/11/05

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