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Interview with Ma Ying-jeou

10 July , 2006

The extended TIME interview

By Senior Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim and Contributor Natalie Tso

Telegenic, articulate and highly educated (he has a doctorate in juridical science from Harvard), Taipei Mayor and Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Ma Ying-jeou is the frontrunner to be Taiwan's president in the next election in 2008. Ma, who turns 56 this week, talked with TIME Senior Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim and Contributor Natalie Tso about the scandals swirling around President Chen Shui-bian, cross-strait relations with China, and his vision for Taiwan.

President Chen's relatives and aides are accused of financial irregularities, but he's not. Why do you want him to step down?

We don't feel pride in the President anymore. When he loses the confidence and respect of the people, there is no way for him to lead the country ... This is not a question of whether he committed a crime or not; this is a moral question.

The KMT tabled a motion in the legislature to recall President Chen over the alleged financial irregularities. But the motion needed a two-thirds majority to pass—which only had a slim chance. Was it just a symbolic protest?

No, it's not just symbolic, but significant. It activated a constitutional process that has never occurred in the history of the Republic of China. We [in the opposition] have to submit our accusations, and the President has to respond. There are hearings, and a meeting to review all the accusations. The process is very important to clarify things that we don't know. Actually, nobody objected to the vote because the 86 DPP legislators did not even show up—I think they were afraid somebody might defect. If you are talking about those who were present, it was more than two-thirds. We didn't carry the motion, but we established a historic record.

If the President steps down, would you want a snap election?

No, the vice-president [Annette Lu] would succeed him. The constitution says that. There would be no election, no shift of power.

Are you all damaging Taiwan's image with all this political fighting?

No, we're really trying to clean up the government ... There will be no power struggle as long as [the President] leaves.

What are you doing to fight corruption in your own party?

We have set up a "clean government" commission to monitor our officials, and at the end of this month we will elect new standing committee members. You will recall that when I was justice minister more than 12 years ago, I cracked down on corruption and vote-buying. During my tenure, my prosecutors indicted 341 city or county councillors out of 881—almost 40%—and the majority of them were members of my party. I have a reputation for being clean and impartial, and I am very confident that I will make the KMT a very different party [from what it was]. We know that how clean we are determines our future.

Are you confident that the KMT can win in 2008?

If the President stays on, it actually works to our benefit ... I went on TV and told his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that if the President stays on, for the KMT it's all the better. But it's not in your party's interest. You should make it really clear that you should say goodbye to him; otherwise he'll burden your party. Your party has contributed a lot to Taiwan democracy, but if you're reluctant to do that, you'll pay a really big price. That's my advice to the DPP. I think Taiwan needs the DPP. Only by having at least two parties can we really have a democracy. But with a President like this, the DPP can't really do anything. People won't trust him anymore, even his own supporters.

How would you improve relations with Beijing if you became president of Taiwan?

First, we would stick to the Five Nos: no declaration of independence; no change to Taiwan's name, flag or anthem; no writing in of "two states" in the constitution; no referendum to change the status quo of cross-strait relations; and no abolishing of the National Unification Council. To that I would add the Five Dos. First, we would resume negotiations on the basis of the 1992 consensus [forged during talks in Hong Kong]—in short, "one China, different interpretations." We would negotiate a peace agreement with the mainland which would include confidence-building measures. We would facilitate economic exchanges leading eventually to the creation of a common market. We would increase the international space of Taiwan, based on pragmatism instead of a zero-sum game. We would facilitate cultural and educational exchanges, like letting mainland students come and attend universities here because we have a surplus capacity and they are very short of that. The Five Nos and the Five Dos could by and large take care of cross-strait relations.

Do China's leaders understand how Taiwan has changed, how there is a strong Taiwan identity now among its people? Have the visits to the mainland by your predecessor as KMT chairman, Lien Chan, helped?

Oh yeah, they helped a lot. I was surprised at the magnitude of consensus reached last year when Lien Chan met with Hu Jintao. Actually, the Five Dos owe their origin to the five-point consensus [reached between Lien and Hu].

What if Beijing insists on "one China"?

It doesn't matter. They will say one China means the PRC. We will say one China means the ROC. We don't have to recognize each other; all we have to do is not challenge and not deny the existence of the other side. That's the '92 consensus. There is no solution at the moment, but we could have some kind of modus vivendi to prevent the problem from exploding.

Beijing has hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan. Do you trust the Chinese leadership?

No. There's of course a threat to Taiwan, but there's also an opportunity. What we want to do is maximize the opportunity and minimize the threat. If we negotiate with them on the peace agreement, obviously they have to do something about the missiles. If they don't, we won't negotiate ... The most important thing is if they are interested in having a peaceful international environment, particularly stability across the Taiwan Strait. During the two trips Lien Chan made to China, what was missing was actually more important than what was present. What was missing was that "one country two systems" and "peaceful unification of the motherland" were never spoken by any Chinese official. And why is that? Because they now know very well that unification is something not to be obtained in the foreseeable future. They understand it will take some time. Many people in Taiwan believe that Hu Jintao is much more sophisticated than his predecessors in understanding the needs of Taiwan. He represents a different generation of leaders, more pragmatic, less ideological. I'm very pragmatic too. That is why we believe there is room for negotiations.

How would you boost Taiwan's economy?

We need the "three links": direct trade, transport and postal services with China, so that foreign companies will come to Taiwan to invest. Last year only $1.9 billion worth of FDI came to Taiwan, ranking 41 in the world—so little. Foreign companies come to Taiwan not for the local market but to use Taiwan as a regional springboard; we have such an advantageous geographic location, but we don't know how to use it. Without direct flights, it takes us about six to seven hours to fly from Taipei to Shanghai, so we've effectively moved Taipei to where Jakarta is. Can you think of anything more stupid than that? We're very strong in R&D, in design, in incubation and marketing, but it's too expensive to manufacture in Taiwan anymore, so there should be a division of labor between Taiwan and the mainland. Foreign companies could come to Taiwan and enter into strategic alliances with Taiwan companies and jointly go to the mainland to explore their market. Japanese companies, when they go directly from Japan to the mainland, they encounter a lot of difficulties. But if they go there through their Taiwan subsidiaries, many problems can be solved ... We should really make use of all the strengths of our economy, and the language, the cultural affinity with the mainland. When the two sides get together—economically, culturally, educationally—the chances of war will be minimized.

Will you see a democratic China in your lifetime?

I'm not so sure. In the case of Taiwan, it took about 40 years to go from an authoritarian society to a democratic one. In the case of mainland, it should take longer, because of the size and the way they handle political issues. That's sort of the negative side, but on the other hand the advent of the Internet makes things very different because it's much more penetrating than anything else. Let me give you an example. A few days after our [local] elections last December, I went on China's People's Net, which is owned by the People's Daily. People were [posting messages like]: "Why can't we go to a nearby elementary school and vote just like people in Taiwan? We can't do that. Are we second-class citizens?" The existence of Taiwan poses a powerful comparison to the mainland. This is the strength of Taiwan. If the two co-exist for 30 or 50 years, I don't believe we'll be swallowed by [the Chinese].

How do you see yourself?

I'm Taiwanese as well as Chinese. When I went to the U.S. in March, the Americans first thought I may be too close to the mainland but I am one of the few politicians in Taiwan who attends the Tiananmen Square memorial service every year, including this year. I am the only politician who has gone to a Falungong gathering. I was the first politician in Taiwan to come out and criticize China's anti-secession law, not because I support Taiwan independence, but because I think that is unnecessary and unwise. The mainland leadership knows very well that they will have a very different kind of KMT leader—very concerned about human rights, very concerned about law and order, and very pragmatic.