by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Facebook

FORMER PRESIDENT MA YING-JEOU recently spoke at the Delphi Economic Forum in Athens. Before the forum even took place, however, his participation led to controversy due to the fact that the event’s website listed him as the “former president of Taipei.”

This, of course, raises specters of the “Chinese Taipei” title that Taiwan participates in international sporting events, such as the Olympics, using. This is often perceived as an indignity, particularly for athletes that are not athletes. But, that being the case, does the leader of “Chinese Taipei” go by “president” or “mayor”? For its part, the Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan to be a province of itself, not a city.

Following protest from Taiwanese authorities, this led the Delphi Economic Forum to change Ma’s title to “former president of Taiwan.” Yet clearly, there was still discontent behind the scenes of the event, resulting in his title again being changed to “former leader of Taipei.” This is not exactly true, seeing as Ma was the former mayor of Taipei. However, in that case, the right title would be “mayor.” That being said, it is not exactly incorrect that the former president of Taiwan is also the leader of Taipei, among other Taiwanese cities, towns, and municipalities.

Strangely, one day before Ma was set to speak, his title was again changed to “Former President of the Kuomintang Party.” It was not incorrect that Ma was previously the leader of the KMT, but his job title as such was chair, rather than president. The KMT has sometimes conducted meetings with CCP officials on the basis of party-to-party dialogues, rather than official state meetings.

For his part, Ma did not hit back at the indignities he had received during his comments. Instead, Ma chose to attack the Tsai administration, which had otherwise voiced discontent about Ma’s being referred to by the wrong title. Ma’s comments were along the lines of framing the Tsai administration as “illiberal” and having deteriorated Taiwan’s democratic institutions through authoritarian actions.

Ironically, Ma was lambasted during his term as “Dictator Ma” for ramming the CSSTA through the legislature in circumvention of oversight mechanisms and seeking to expel political enemies of his within the KMT, such as then-majority speaker Wang Jinpyng. Such actions were among what sparked the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the youth-led occupation of the Taiwanese legislature.

Likewise, Ma’s political career started during authoritarian times, working under Chiang Ching-kuo’s presidential administration. Ma himself proves an example of how individuals whose political careers began during the authoritarian period continued being active figures in political life after Taiwan’s democratization.

However, in past years, Ma has increasingly leaned into attacks on the Tsai administration with the claim that there has been democratic backsliding under Tsai. The pan-Blue camp has increasingly sought to frame the Tsai administration as authoritarian, such as with regards to that pan-Blue television network CtiTV’s broadcast license was not renewed over CtiTV’s reporting in the lead-up to 2020 presidential elections, or claiming that the Tsai administration is conducting a “Green Terror” worse than the KMT-orchestrated “White Terror”, never mind it is not exactly as though the Tsai administration is executing political dissidents by the thousands.

Former president Ma Ying-jeou. Photo credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Facebook

Nevertheless, the debacle about Ma’s title at the Delphi Economic Forum comes shortly after a much-publicized trip to China by the former president. Ma framed this visit as aimed at dialing back tensions with China, though this did not prevent China from launching military exercises directed at Taiwan following the meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.

Yet if Ma framed the visit as aimed at restoring the dignity of the ROC, certainly, his treatment at the Delphi Economic Forum suggests that this was unsuccessful. One can expect the pan-Green camp to criticize Ma’s actions along these lines, similar to how the pan-Green camp framed Ma’s trip to China as an indignity in which he was not treated in China as a former head of state would normally be. This would be to suggest that Ma’s actions did not allow for equal treatment of Taiwan by China, but only served to denigrate Taiwan.

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