One great thing about the Financial Times is that they have a reporter stationed in Taiwan, one of the largest trading nations in the world, and a key flashpoint for a possible East Asian conflict. Kudos to them for doing what many other organizations have not. Unfortunately, that reporter is Kathrin Hille, who seems to have an unabashed affection for Ma Ying-jeou and unmitigated contempt for Chen Shui-bian. Hille’s latest piece on Taiwan concerns the trial of Ma Ying-jeou.

Mr Ma, a Harvard-trained lawyer who built his image on a reputation for clean government and strict moral standards, is accused of having pocketed more than T$11m from a discretionary fund between 1998 and 2006 while Taipei’s mayor.

In the first court hearing Tuesday, Mr Ma pleaded not guilty. He admitted that he took the money but argued it should be viewed as a supplement to his personal income rather than as public funds.

Ma does not appear to have passed the bar anywhere. So from whence this “Ma the lawyer” claim so common in the foreign media? Hille also reproduces Ma’s defense:

The definition of the allowance is disputed since thousands of other government officials in Taiwan have treated their discretionary funds much as Mr Ma in a practice that evolved over decades of authoritarian one-party rule under which officials were not called to account.

There is nothing “disputed” about it. The funds are clearly government funds intended for government use. Ma’s defense is the Taiwan Defense(tm): Everyone Does It. Readers will recall that the KMT accused Chen Shui-bian of misusing his special funds, and never said that it was OK, since everyone did it. If that’s Ma’s defense, no reasonable court can fail to convict. Note that Hille reports Ma’s defense without ever noting that Chen Shui-bian was accused of doing the same thing by the KMT. Nor that Ma Ying-jeou himself has accused the Chen government of being corrupt for doing what Ma himself was doing. Irony like that deserves wide dissemination….

Hille goes on to report:

Opinion polls, though notoriously unreliable in Taiwan, unanimously see Mr Ma as the frontrunner in the presidential race.

This is wrong. A poll from New Taiwan has Hsieh up on Ma 53% to 47%, which seems a very reasonable figure.

One interesting thing Hille emphasizes, and rightly, is the probable timing of the verdict:

“Since such trials on average take six months to a year to a [final] ruling in Taiwan, it is highly likely we’ll see a final verdict directly ahead of the polls,” said Herman Chiang, a professor for public administration and policy at National Taipei University. “I believe it will be a guilty verdict. The only question is whether it will be on corruption charges or some minor offence that would still allow him to run.”

The verdict will probably not affect the Dec 2007 legislative elections, since Ma has no official status, and the legislative elections are going to be relentlessly local. But a late verdict could have an impact on the Presidential election.