“Where we have fallen short, we intend to redouble our efforts, where we have moved too slowly, we shall pick up the pace.”
— Ma Ying-jeou in an interview to BBC
As a teenager Ma Ying-jeou had a grueling schedule. His father would wake him up before dawn and demand that his son jog alongside him for hours. Soon after the run, his father would drop him off at a school that taught masterly Chinese calligraphy. By evening, when Ying-jeou returned home, the elder Ma would be toting tomes of Chinese classics for his young son to read.
The elder Ma’s strict regimen for his son was understandable. His four other offspring were girls and Ying-jeou was his only son. The father’s hopes for his son were high, punctuated by the name he bestowed upon him: “Ying’ literally meant rising talent and ‘jeou” signified a personality whose character was grounded on morality. If the elder Ma were alive today, he would have marveled at his own prescience in naming his son, for Ma Ying-jeou has recently been reelected as the president of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China).
“Although at the time I felt very much — well, sometimes — bothered, looking back I appreciate his role,” Ying-jeou recalled about his father in an interview to the New York Times in 2008 just after being elected as Taiwan’s president. Ying-jeou’s rise to the top of Taiwan’s political food chain is in itself a study in discipline. Four years later, in 2012, he has again retained the top job thanks to a pragmatic approach that reinforced Taiwan as a business-friendly country but at the same time held the rule of law as sacrosanct.
Ying-jeo was no novice to politics. His father himself was a high-ranked member of the Kuomintang party that ruled Taiwan for the greater part of the past sixty years. While Ying-jeou’s strict upbringing helped him earn a law degree in Taiwan and later a doctoral degree at Harvard, Ying-jeou yearned for a political career back home. He eventually became a translator to Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan’s president in the early 1980’s. Three years later, he was elevated as the ruling Kuomintang party’s deputy general secretary. At 38, he became the country’s minister of Justice and was its youngest cabinet minister.
…Ma (Ying-jeou) is an experienced, outstanding helmsman who will steer the economy through the 10 million, not just 1 million, waves.
— Terry Gou, Taiwanese businessman and the founder of Hon Hai Precision.
Ying-jeou’s biggest political break occurred in the late 1990’s when he beat Chen Shui-bian, in the mayoral election for Taipei City. But then tides changed. While Ying-jeou’s nemesis Chen Shui-bian rose to the national stage by becoming the country’s president in 2000 and winning re-election in 2004, Ying-jeou’s career as a mayor in Taipei was dogged by allegations of graft in 2006, forcing him to quit both as the mayor of Taipei and as the chairman of Kuomintang party. After a year of hiatus and fighting it out in the courts, Ying-jeou was acquitted from graft charges, and just in time to rally the Kuomintang party behind him for the forthcoming presidential elections against Chen Shui-bian’s unpopular Democratic Progressive Party. Kuomintang under Ying-jeou won in a landslide in 2008.
It is true, the history and culture of China and Taiwan are in many ways intertwined. The majority of the populace in both mainland China and Taiwan are of Han ethnicity. Geographically, they are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Yet over the past six decades, the two have behaved like sworn enemies.
It is in this context that Ying-jeou’s presidency becomes significant. In a stark difference to his predecessor’s increasingly confrontational stance to the mainland, Ying-jeou has taken a more conciliatory approach to China for the sake of Taiwan’s economy. Without giving up Taiwan’s sovereignty, Ying-jeou has based his strategy on the principle of “no unification, no independence and no use of force”, neither tethering Taiwan to China nor completely shaking loose. This situation was acceptable to China, allowing business with Taiwan.
Promptly after Ying-jeou’s election, direct flights between China and Taiwan began for the first time in nearly 60 years. Today there are 550 direct flights a week between Taiwan and China. Taiwanese businesses, which have superior technology, now have a ready market in the 1.3 billion strong China. In 2010, a free trade agreement between China and Taiwan cut tariffs on nearly 800 items. Since Ying-jeou’s ascent to power, exports between China and Taiwan have jumped many folds to $160 billion in 2011. At a time when Taiwan’s traditional markets are reeling under a downturn, China has been a timely trade partner helping to keep Taiwan’s unemployment and inflation rate quite low.
Both China and the U.S. too heaved a sigh of relief when Ying-jeou was reelected this January. The election of a pro-independence candidate in Taiwan would have put China and the U.S. at loggerheads. But thanks to Ying-jeou’s low profile style, more pressing economic and geo-strategic concerns can be addressed.
Still, Ying-jeou secured only 51.6% of the popular votes in 2012, down from almost 58.5% in 2008, on concerns that Taiwan’s sovereignty would be diluted under the might of China. Ying-jeou, an avid jogger, now embarks on a long tight-rope walk to balance Taiwan’s identity on the one side and prosperity on the other. Ying-jeou will now need all the discipline that his father inculcated in his youth to complete this ambitious yet complex journey.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019