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Wenchi Yu: President Ma’s Communications Problem

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
March 25, 2014

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei on March 23, 2014. (Minshen Li/Courtesy Reuters) Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei on March 23, 2014. (Minshen Li/Courtesy Reuters)


Wenchi Yu is a former U.S. Department of State official and an Asia Society and Project 2049 Institute fellow. Previously, she was a legislative assistant in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, and she grew up in Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter: @WenchiY.

Taiwan is in the news again, this time because of a standoff between Taiwan’s government and protesters over a trade pact with China. For those who are concerned about Taiwan’s future, this is an opportunity to examine why Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s government has failed to lead.

It is not his policies, not the opposition, not the so-called “riot students” who occupy the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the government’s non-transparent Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China.

It is Ma’s communications problem.

President Ma was elected as Taiwan’s president in 2008 and again in 2012, representing the Kuomingtang party (KMT). Before becoming president, he maintained a clean public image as a scandal-free, well-educated, and rational leader. As a second-generation mainland Chinese in Taiwan, he has intentionally kept his distance from the KMT establishment, gaining the support of those who want Taiwan to move beyond the ethnic mainland Chinese and Taiwanese divide.

But Ma has let down the Taiwanese people because he does not know how to communicate effectively: not to his own KMT party members, not to the KMT majority leader of the Legislative Yuan, not to the opposition, not to the media, and not to the people. The result? There is little support for any of Ma’s major policies. And the lower Ma’s public approval ratings, the less he communicates. This is a serious problem for Ma and his close advisors.

As any good politician knows, strategic communication is one of the most important skills to have. Big ideas and major policies need to be explained to the people, to parliament, and to the media to convince them why supporting you and your policies is important to the country and its citizens.

In the case of the most recent public outcry over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China, Ma did not have an effective communications strategy and failed to bring key stakeholders on board. His government ignored the demand of 70 percent of the public for better scrutiny of the proposed trade agreement, and neglected the standard procedures in the Legislative Yuan, simply wanting to fast track passage of the agreement. Ma’s team failed to explain why this trade agreement is so important for the country’s economy.

Whether one believes signing this agreement is Taiwan’s only means of survival — as it has been touted by Ma’s team — the general public does not necessarily oppose significant trade flows between Taiwan and China. In fact, many believe Taiwan’s economic future depends on trade, including through the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and bilateral free trade agreements. While trade with China is a different matter as it concerns Taiwan’s economic security, Ma’s inability to consult and communicate is turning Taiwanese citizens against him. This is worrisome to those who hope to see Taiwan adopt a more open relationship with China, be it political or economic.

Given the protests, it is unlikely that the trade agreement would be passed by the Legislative Yuan without serious compromise on Ma’s side. But this incident is causing societal upheaval while further delaying constructive and meaningful trade policies that the country so desperately needs.

It is time for President Ma to deploy a better communications strategy. The press conference on March 23 did not give people the impression that he wanted to “communicate.” He appeared defensive of his policy — legitimately so — but the root cause of the protest is that Ma has not communicated why he thinks this policy is so important and how he is going to mitigate the risks of the trade agreement with China. Governing in a democracy is about effective communication of ideas and policies. It is not too late for crisis management; below is some advice for President Ma’s communications team to get through this current crisis:

First, Ma needs to acknowledge that he has not effectively communicated the positives of the trade agreement with China.

Second, he must reach out to KMT party legislators, to opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators, and most importantly, to the majority leader Wang Jin-ping. Though the two leaders rarely agree, Ma needs Wang’s support.

Third, the president should dispatch his top national security advisors to the diplomatic community in Taipei. Most of these diplomats are most likely in support of a better trade agreement between Taiwan and China.

Fourth, Ma needs to talk to the media and the people. Simply holding a press conference is insufficient. One-way communication will not satisfy the Taiwanese people because it does not show that President Ma is listening to people’s concerns. He must explain the pros and cons of the proposed agreement in an open and honest manner. If he truly believes this agreement is essential to Taiwan’s future, he should be confident in its merits and explain it well.

President Ma needs to start to communicate. His refusal to engage with the rest of the society is not only hurting his presidency, but it is also affecting Taiwan’s future.

The views expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the policies, positions, or views of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of State, Asia Society, or the Project 2049 Institute.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by nwnlhs

    This is disingenuous. To chalk up the problems in the Ma administrations to a simply communications problem ignores the many problems in Taiwan today and the domestic crises Ma and the KMT have brought upon themselves.

    Right. Forget the fact that they strong armed this agreement through the Legislative Yuan without sticking to their own agreement that they would review it clause by clause (and then subsequently passed it via party organs without any form of open review). It must be that Ma didn’t communicate well enough. Had he done so, perhaps this would have been what he would have said:

    “You Taiwanese are too ignorant and childish to understand anything. This pact is good for Taiwan. So, because it is so good for Taiwan, and because you fools understand nothing that I, a cultured Chinese, can, I will ram this down your throats and you will take it like the subservient fools you are. And by the way, you are not Taiwanese; you are Chinese. But I know better, so I don’t need to explain anything to you.”

    Give me a break.

  • Posted by AD

    I agree there is more than a hint of the authoritarian style paternalism in Ma’s explanations. If the people don’t want it, no matter how “good” it is for them, then he needs to back down.

    This exposes one of the major problems in Taiwan’s democratic process. It is still dominated by several of the pre-democratic era structures that were never dismantled as the KMT shifted toward democracy, not as a way to divest itself of power, but rather, as a means of maintaining power. Once the legislators are elected, they often act with impunity in the interests of the party and not in the interests of their constituents.

    Ma’s authoritarian impulses often come to the surface in times of crisis.

  • Posted by Abby Lee

    As a democratic institution, the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has attached great importance to communication with the people. Since the trade pact was signed in June 2013, the Legislative Yuan has held 20 public hearings on it. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, Mainland Affairs Council and related agencies have jointly organized over 110 forums with 46 industries and 264 business leaders, and relevant agencies have briefed the Legislative three times.

    In a bid to facilitate a dialogue , President Ma has expressed his willingness to meet with student to discuss the service trade agreement.

    Democracy is an hard-earned asset of Taiwan. President Ma and Premier Jiang both respect the concerns shown by students and the general public for national affairs. It is therefore hoped that students voice their views in a democratic, peaceful and rational manner.

    Passage of the services trade pact will further Taiwan’s economic liberalization and internationalization and secure Taiwan’s future economic and trade competitiveness.

  • Posted by A.T.

    C’mon, if you watch or listen to the recordings of the public hearings, you’ll know clearly that they’re not two-way communication. They’re conferences where scholars and citizens asking questions regarding the trade agreement, and government officials simply sat there and said “We’re doing this anyway, period.”

    Ma government hosted the public hearings to pretend that they’ve done something to communicate with the public, while they’re not.

    Also, judging from their recent press conferences, there is really no “respect” to students’ and citizen’s concerns. Neither Ma nor Jiang addressed the concerns raised by the students in their press conferences. They just repeatedly saying that “this trade agreement is important to Taiwan’s future and we need to get it done” with some obvious political rhetoric.

    What they did is just like your comment, Abby: presenting some numbers of what they did for communication, while none of them is functioning. It’s perfunctory.

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