The Shutdown in Taiwan: Ma Ying-jeou's Peculiar Obsession

In a politically mature society, in a free democracy, getting an approval rating of less than 10 percent is apocalyptic for one's own political career and often for one's party. And yet it would appear that Taiwan's KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has achieved this and is heading lower in his approval ratings. Having just fired the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's unicameral parliament, Wang Jin-pyng and Justice Minister Tseng Yon-fu, it is hard to guess how much further he will range in his commitment to alienate all but an inner circle of his supporters. Feathers are flying across party lines to sort out how and why these things have transpired. In answer to these criticisms, Ma has called for newspapers to tread more softly on his fragile ego, as if stifling a press adds to the luster of any presidency. Then again, given the history of the blue end of Taiwan's political spectrum, the metaphorical use of stifling might also include a rather more real-world implication. Why would Ma seek to pursue a policy at odds with principles of mercy and justice when it seems on the verge of resigning his own party to history?

Ma's predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, won power away from the dominant KMT for the first time in Taiwan's history. He ran on a ticket of Taiwanese independence, even as he moderated his stance upon election. Importantly, he was thought to not only be a voice against being assimilated into the undemocratic practices of the People's Republic of China but stood against opening the floodgates of commerce out of a fear that Taiwan's industries would be swallowed into the giant economy without strong enough worker protections. In the midst of all this turmoil, the former president sits in prison while having his medical conditions neglected and grows weaker with each day. A symbol of hope to some and a fool to others, his stuttering, shaking hands, and increasingly unsteady gait show him a shadow of his former self and yet Ma will not grant him a release or pardon. This does not bode well for a multiparty democracy that is untempered by regular transitions of power between parties, and particularly poorly for the KMT to be visiting such behaviors upon a former head of state who was the first to challenge KMT supremacy.

Though tied up in our own budgetary and healthcare debates, the American political system has sat up and taken notice. Democrats and Republicans have shown a rare bit of bipartisan concern over the behavior of the Ma government. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are joined in this by Congressman Andrews of New Jersey in voicing their concern for the condition of the former president. Secretary of State Kerry himself was asked about Chen Shui-bian during his last testimony on the Hill.

With overall unemployment lower in Taiwan than in the United States, the figure to watch is one that shows unemployment among younger people (ages 20 to 24) to sit at an uncomfortable 14.77 percent, higher than it was at the beginning of the year. President Obama won two terms with the energy and power he was able to bring forth from this sector of American citizens, but Taiwan's unemployment rate surely spurs younger generations to leave the island to seek their economic future in other nations. President Ma seems less concerned with the brain drain that he is imposing on Taiwan's future and resulting financial despair, too busy removing the last vestiges of hope from a prisoner denied full medical access. This does not augur well for the stability and progress in transitioning to a mature democracy nor respecting basic human rights.

Mr. Ma has plenty to deal with in terms of matters of state importance and concern. He might consider the economic losses that future generations will struggle with or even the future reputation of his own political party at home and internationally. Let the press do their job without intimidation either stated or implied. Media intimidation has no place in a modern society. Importantly, acknowledge your missteps and send Chen Shui-bian home. Do it for your party's future. Do it for Taiwan to be able to maintain international respect for its accomplishments. Do it because it is the right thing to do. In a time when so many governments are restricting the observance of universal human rights, Taiwan stands able to be remembered for standing apart. The question is whether Ma Ying-jeou will continue to lag behind forward nations in doing the right thing or whether he will stand in the forefront of setting an example. At the moment, we fear that he is doing the former rather than the latter. We intend to return to Taiwan in November for a Human Rights Conference at Soochow University there and will arrive early to seek meetings with all segments of the political spectrum to inquire after justice and rights with regards to Chen Shui-bian's treatment among other human rights concerns in Taiwan. For the future of Taiwan and for the international observation of human rights, we urge the ethical treatment of the former president, the abolition of the death penalty, and the address and observation of other universal human rights norms.