from Asia Unbound

Wenchi Yu: President Ma’s Communications Problem

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)

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)
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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.

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