I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers. – Gandhi

The international media came out with two views of Ma this week that make a startling contrast. One in Forbes refers to Ma’s past in the KMT party-state, rare for a piece in the international media. The other, from Tom Plate at AsiaMedia, discusses Ma with the balance and fidelity to truth of a thirteen year old girl describing a teacher she has a crush on. Regrettably, the Plate commentary was widely distributed around the world.

Plate opines:

Taiwan supporters and relatives from sweeping southern California jumped around the room as if partying for the Chinese New Year. Viewing a live TV-feed from Taipei, the cramped crowd erupted into something akin to delirium when the new president took the podium. His name is Ma Ying-jeou, 57, he went to Harvard, and my wife volunteers that he is quite good looking.

Handsome or whatever, he gave a terrific inaugural speech that is important for everyone to know about. That’s because the policy directions taken in Taipei regarding its head-to-head relationship with Beijing could help determine whether someday a war erupts in Asia.

I’ve reviewed Ma’s speech below; I don’t know anyone who thought it was terrific. It was at best a terribly timid speech, totally China-centric, and lacking in any great vision, as Ruan Ming pointed out in the Taipei Times today. It’s fun to read comments in Plate’s piece like:

The final point is that it is very unlikely that Beijing, for the foreseeable future anyway, will find a better man with whom to negotiate than Ma. He’s sensible, international, and is strong on the vision thing. He wants to lift the internationally touchy bilateral relationship out of the basement of adolescent rivalry and into the master sitting room of adult diplomacy. China should exert every effort to work with him to its greatest abilities.

This paragraph is the purest dreck. The idea that Ma is “international” is laughable. Ma mentioned only the US in his speech, and then focused on China. Japan, whom he had supposedly been mending fences with, did not rate a mention, much to the ire of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. A broad reference sufficed for Taipei’s diplomatic allies, and its Pacific neighbors appeared not at all, nor was there any future-oriented remark about India, or anywhere else. Ma may talk global, but he thinks local. Ma’s “vision” is rooted in the Confucian values he instanced in his speech, which conspicuously avoided any mention of liberal democratic values. Ma remains the man who threatened Taiwan’s bureaucrats with revenge two years ago, sued the prosecutor who took him to court for corruption, and cites Tang poetry when he visits farmers in rural Taiwan. You need only compare him to Lee Teng-hui, as Ruan Ming notes:

Ma should not forget that, in May 1996, Taiwan’s first popularly elected president, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), clearly said at the beginning of his inaugural speech: “Today, 21.3 million compatriots are officially entering a new era, under which sovereignty is in the hands of the people!”

But Ma said: “In resolving cross-strait issues, what matters is not sovereignty but core values and way of life.”

“No better man?” For each the last eight years there was a better man than Ma in office in Taiwan — one who defended dissidents instead of attacking them, one who passed the bar that Ma failed, one who made dynamic changes in the same city that Ma did very little for, one that had a vision of Taiwan as something bigger than just another satrapy in the empire run from Beijing. One who opened his first administration with a pragmatic and open approach to cross-strait relations. That would have been a worthy man for Beijing to negotiate with. But Beijing lacked the stature to engage with Chen. Instead it schemed with the KMT to place a pliable counterpart in office.

Note also that Plate regurgitates a key media trope: that of the DPP as immature. Here the immaturity is glossed as “adolescent.” The reality is that it was China, not the DPP, that refused to engage in talks. Real issues, not adolescent games, are at stake in the struggle between Taiwan’s independence movement and Beijing’s annexation drive. Consider these lines from Plate about Ma:

That’s why his initial speech as president was a work of considerable diplomatic artifice.

He avoided antagonizing the mainland while not giving the keys to the island to the boys in Beijing. Instead of speaking in grand (and illusive) concepts, he proposed practical, step-by-step negotiations designed to build confidence and trust.

There were numerous attempts on the DPP’s part to initiate negotiations with Beijing, and substantive talks were conducted on all sorts of issues. But here Plate, by inference, paints the complex diplomacy between Taiwan and China under Chen as just a matter of “grand and illusive” concepts. But the cold hard fact is that the “step-by-step negotiations” that Plate refers to (hard to tell because Ma does not refer to any steps), which I assume must mean the talks on tourists and on direct charter flights, are not Ma’s idea but were initiated under the DPP.

Oh yeah. Those “grand and illusive” thinkers legalized Taiwanese investment in China, set up a system of direct charter flights, brought in 1,000 tourists from China a day, erected frameworks for professionals to come work here and for Chinese to purchase land here, conducted talks on the return of criminals from China to Taiwan, initiated and extended a wide range of exchanges, and sundry other stuff too numerous to mention. But Plate’s presentation, dominated almost entirely by stereotypes Beijing has fed to the international media, fails to take the proper measure of the previous administration.

Ordinarily I’d recommend reading a whole item I put up here, but you’ll want those two minutes of your life back.

Very different is the piece from Forbes. For one thing, it places Ma in the context of his past in the martial law era, something unheard of in international media presentations:

Ma spent much of his career as a technocrat during the era of one-party rule under the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. He earned a reputation as a competent if cautious administrator.

That was before Taiwan began experimenting with democracy in the 1990s. Like Chinese President Hu Jintao and other Beijing offiicals, Ma was a bona fide party cadre, dutifully serving its interests. At times, he even employed political rhetoric that echoed what is routinely articulated by Beijing officialdom. While serving as the party’s deputy secretary-general in the mid-1980s, Ma assiduously deflected criticism of the harsh restrictions the regime imposed on the Taiwanese, famously remarking that “we only enforced 3% of the martial law.”

The article dances around Ma’s commitment to martial law, but it does come out and say that he supported it. Great work here. The article goes on to describe Ma’s rise and has some interesting observations from former Chen Shui-bian advisor Antonio Chiang:

Ma’s recently deceased father was a middling party official who fled China with the Nationalists. The elder Ma was in charge of the Kuomintang’s youth league, similar to Hu’s early role within the Chinese Communist Party, educating students in party doctrine. Ma senior instilled in his son the disciplines of traditonal Confucian ethics, plus a great sense of historical mission and patriotism.

Ma gained entry into politics the old-fashioned way: through connections. Thanks to his father’s networking efforts, Ma got a job–not long after graduating from Harvard University–working as an English translator in the office of Taiwan’s President Chiang Ching-kuo.

But the democratic maelstrom that engulfed Taiwan in the late 1990s transformed Ma as well; he adapted to become a consummate politician. Gone were the dry, stodgy party speeches, replaced by a snappier, more media-savvy delivery and remarks peppered with slang as well as the day-to-day expressions common in the Fujian dialect he recently picked up.

Antonio Chiang, a political columnist with the popular Apple Daily newspaper in Taiwan, who has known Ma since their school years, said Ma does not socialize with politicians. Instead, he has surrounded himself with young intellectuals: academics, journalists and writers. For his campaign staff, he recruited no one from the party or the ranks of the civil service or legislature.

“He is no longer the former bureaucrat. He seems to have taken on a new platform,” Chiang said. “He has always been too slow and often found himself on the wrong side of history but then tried to adjust himself to the new environment. We need to give him the benefit of doubt.”

The Forbes piece is about 60% the length of Plate’s, yet it is far more balanced and informative. What a shame….