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Snags in the cross-strait relationship

Monday, May 11, 2009
By Joe Hung, Special to The China Post


Some 15 years ago, C.F. Koo, the late chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), asked me a thought-provoking question in a kind of tete-a-tete at a cafe in Piazza Spagna in Rome. “As things are going now,” he asked, “do I have to continue to do my extra job?”

His “extra job,” by the way, was to improve relations between Taiwan and China as former President Lee Teng-hui's top negotiator with Beijing. His main job was to run his Ho Hsin business conglomerate, which included the Taiwan Cement Corporation and the Chinatrust bank. I knew he was very much frustrated, though I ventured to answer he must go on doing his extra job the best he could.

Koo wasn't a mere business tycoon. He knew Taiwan has to have a modus vivendi with China, if possible, to survive and thrive. That's why he gladly accepted the extra job when Lee, who shared that view, offered it when the SEF was set up in 1991. Everything had gone well until Lee changed his mind. He was convinced by leading U.S. macroeconomists of China's impending financial collapse and began to think Taiwan would gain little by a burgeoning detente with the People's Republic of China. Koo's effort was no longer necessary. But he stayed on as SEF chairman.

The successor to Koo, after two very brief stints of as many truly sinecures appointed by ex-President Chen Shui-bian, is P.K. Chiang, a technocrat who served as minister of economic affairs, chairman of the Council for Economic Planning and Development, and vice president of the Legislative Yuan or speaker pro tem of parliament. President Ma Ying-jeou, who is doing what he can to improve relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, just as Lee did in his early presidency, appointed Chiang to do Koo's extra job on a full-time basis.

A consummate negotiator, Chiang has done his job even better than Koo over the past year. Over time, however, he has lost President Ma's trust. Ma loves his Mister Clean image and dislikes tongues wagging that Chiang was helping his son win lucrative business deals in China, buying expensive apartments he could not afford, and trying to get a protege appointed CEO of a state-owned corporation.

Chiang tendered his resignation as SEF chairman, which was perfunctorily rejected by President Ma, who just perfunctorily warned his National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi when Mrs. Su was promoting the sale of her new book in China. Chiang declared then he would retire anyway on May 26. Shortly afterward, Ma's friendly persuasion made him agree to stay on — until after he meets his Chinese counterpart Chen Yunlin in Taipei in late November or early December.

Chiang's resignation would cause a snag in Ma's effort to normalize economic relations across the strait. The president, who has shunted Kuomintang (KMT) chairman emeritus Lien Chan aside as Taipei's representative in the dialogue with Beijing, is likely to hit another snag by compelling Wu Poh-hsiung, the current chief of the ruling party, to retire next year. Lien founded an economic forum between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party in 2005 to bring about a rapprochement between Taiwan and China. Both Lien and Wu, the former in particular because of his rapport with Chinese President Hu Jintao who doubles as general-secretary of his ruling Communist Party, have contributed, and will contribute, in no small measures to the enhancement of a cross-strait economic entente.

Wu succeeded Ma as chairman of the KMT in opposition in 2006 after the latter was indicted for corruption, charged with misappropriating his expense account while he was mayor of Taipei for eight years. Lien, Wu and Chiang helped Ma win the 2008 presidential election. And they are ready and more than willing to continue helping the president usher in a new era of cooperation between Taiwan and China.

Ma was absolved of all corruption charges immediately after his landslide victory on March 22 last year. Now he is considering making the KMT as clean as he wishes by doubling as its chief or putting up a proxy.

His one other purpose, which is equally essential, is to get into the saddle to effectively control often contentious and sometimes rebellious KMT lawmakers who form a more than two-thirds majority in the Legislative Yuan headed by his one-time political rival Wang Jin-pyng.

That is easier said than done.

It was just a snap of the fingers for Chiang Kai-shek to whip all KMT lawmakers into line, for he was, well, the generalissimo. His son Chiang Ching-kuo was able to control the parliament because practically all the parliamentarians were lawmakers for life elected in China in 1948. The generalissimo ruled Taiwan as director-general of the servile KMT. His son ruled as chairman of the obedient KMT. Lee could afford to let dissenting KMT legislators bolt his democratic KMT, which never lost power before a split in 2000. James Soong revolted against Lee, quitting the KMT to run for president. The split made it possible for Chen Shui-bian to get elected president and form a minority government.

Chen was able to exert full control over his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) long before he doubled as its chairman. He was a great fund raiser. He raised untold millions of dollars to subsidize every public office holder of his party. Remember his daughter shouted at paparazzi who asked her if Chen was passing out bribe money here and there? “Who in the DPP hasn't received money from my father?!” the former first daughter cried out.

That's how the former president managed to coerce his party into submission. Incidentally, he is standing trial for forgery, corruption and money laundering, charged with pocketing a substantial part of the spoils.

Can President Ma emulate the generalissimo, Chiang Ching-kuo, Lee Teng-hui or Chen Shui-bian? Ma can't. He can't declare martial law. He didn't inherit the KMT leadership like Chiang Ching-kuo did from his father. He can't afford to let KMT leaders leave the party as Lee did. Lee could, because the party still had lots of money to help its candidates for public office. The KMT is poor now.

Can Ma raise just as much money as Chen did? He isn't cut out to be a fund raiser.

Perhaps the only help Ma can offer politicians of the ruling party is his presidential coattails on which they may hope to ride. The coattails, however, are getting wider apart and shorter as Taiwan is struggling to weather the worldwide financial crisis.

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