Meet Taiwan’s Conciliator-Elect

A political earthquake shook Taiwan on March 22. Out went the brash, pro-independence Chen Shui-bian. In came mild-mannered Ma Ying-jeou, who has ambitious plans to open Taiwan's economy to China. The power shift has raised high expectations of economic revival and a cross-strait thaw. NEWSWEEK'S George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams sat down with Taiwan's next president last Thursday to talk about his plans. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You won in a landslide. Why?
MA: The pugnacious nationalism … of the government created many problems. But I think economic problems were the biggest [factor]. People felt that enough is enough. My running mate and I made a very comprehensive proposal for the future. But our opponent … didn't really lay out a vision for Taiwan. He spent a lot of time attacking me, and my family members. That also proved to be counterproductive. People wanted the candidates to tell them where Taiwan should go.

You now have a strong mandate. What do you think the Taiwanese people want?
They want a vibrant economy, a clean government, a society with equitable distribution of wealth and a peaceful Taiwan Strait. They've been very much troubled by the existence of a corrupt government … this is something that people resent. The year before last, there were 100,000 people rushing into the streets to protest [against corruption involving the First Family and top officials].

I think it's quite clear that the policy of quasi isolation made Taiwan less competitive. Taiwan's national competitiveness in all of the surveys lagged behind the other three "tigers." Our economic growth has become … better only than Japan's.

What contributions did Chen make to Taiwan's democracy?
He started as a human-rights lawyer, defending political prisoners, so he did contribute to Taiwan's democratization. And I think his rise to prominence from a very poor family proves that Taiwan is a society with mobility. But he didn't keep his house in order. I was surprised by how many family members of his were involved in corruption charges. That's one thing. Another is his insistence on the ideological isolation of Taiwan. [This] really brought a lot of damage to Taiwan.

You recently called Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao "unreasonable" and "stupid," and suggested a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if the Tibet situation gets worse. Do such comments hurt your efforts to improve cross-strait relations?
I didn't like the way he talked about Tibet and Taiwan together. That was really an irritant, particularly during a presidential election—it actually aided my opponent. The boycott is conditioned on two scenarios. The first is that [China] continues to suppress the Tibetan people, and the situation gets worse. And then we should consult the people.

Given the gloomy global outlook, how do you expect to revive Taiwan's economy?
It's impossible for Taiwan to decouple its economy from that of the United States. But cross-strait trade and investment still [gives us] some room to maneuver.

Do you have a message for Chinese President Hu Jintao?
The existence of Taiwan is an undeniable reality. We have different degrees of Taiwanese identity; that is very natural. For instance, my parents came from the Chinese mainland, and I was born in Hong Kong. Once I become president, I have to insist on … Taiwanese identity. But that won't hurt bilateral relations because I will not pursue or support de jure independence. On the other hand, I won't discuss unification during my term. So maintaining the status quo is the best choice. Hu once said [we should] maintain the commonalities, [and] ignore the differences. If we can maintain that spirit, a lot of things can be achieved. I call upon him to seize this opportunity.

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