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Former President of Taiwan talks democracy and politics

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. (Courtesy of Rod Searcey/Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law)

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou addressed a crowd of 400 University faculty, students and local community members in his Wednesday talk on democracy, cross-strait relations and future challenges facing Taiwan.

The event was jointly sponsored by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Hoover Institution.

Ma, who served as President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) from 2008 to 2016, began his talk by describing his previous visit to Stanford in 1971 as a law student on a 70-day trip with the U.S. State Department’s Asian Pacific Student Leader Project. He spent three weeks in the Bay Area, he said, and recounted seeing anti-Vietnam War protests on campus.

Ma said that at the time when he left office, he had brought relations between Taiwan and mainland China into what he described as an era of “unprecedented peace and prosperity.” He added that Taiwan has been rated by the U.S.-based Freedom House, an independent organization that scores nations by level of democracy, as more free than the U.S. in terms of political rights and civil liberties.

Ma went on to discuss future challenges in Taiwan, including the economy, international trade and cross-strait relations. Ma expressed his support for nuclear energy and said he was frustrated with Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also said he believes his 2015 meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping marked the beginning of reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China.

Democracy in China and Taiwan

In his address, Ma expressed his dissatisfaction with policies introduced by the current Democratic Progressive Party. As an example, he cited recent legislation regarding the legitimacy of party assets, which he claims unfairly targets Kuomintang, the main opposition party of which he is a member.

Ma also emphasized the importance of discussion surrounding Taiwan’s national identity in light of recent political tensions domestically and around the world. Specifically, he pointed to concerns about Taiwan’s independence and its engagement with mainland China.

“[Focusing too heavily on the identity question] is actually not a good or rational way of doing things that could lead Taiwan into a constant struggle,” Ma said.

Regarding the growth of democracy as an institution in mainland China, Ma said he is cautiously optimistic.

According to Ma, a growing Chinese middle class will contribute to calls for greater freedoms. Specifically, he explained that he believes 70 to 80 percent of citizens need to be of the middle class in order for democratic movements to gain momentum. Currently, 30 to 40 percent of China’s population is middle class.

“I don’t believe that…people [who are] well-educated [and] well-fed do not want to participate in public affairs,” Ma said.

When asked how the United States can encourage democratic change in China, Ma responded by calling for increased U.S. economic activity, which he argued would help reduce the trade deficit between the two nations.

In response to how mainland China’s recent elimination of presidential term limits would affect cross-strait relations, Ma replied that he wished for more prudence on President Xi’s side.

“I’m not quite surprised, but just somewhat disappointed,” Ma said.

In recounting his Nov. 2015 meeting with the Chinese president, Ma said Xi was “not a tyrant” compared to former Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khruschev. Instead, Ma recalled Xi being “cool-headed,” but urged that Taiwan and the U.S. should take caution in dealing with the Chinese president.

National security

Regarding Taiwan’s security position in response to potential increases in Chinese political and military aggression, Ma referred to a three-layer defense that he initially proposed during his presidency. In it, Ma identified cross-strait institutional relations, international allies and finally the Taiwanese military as safeguards for Taiwanese freedom.

Ma also said he believes Taiwan should take an active role in international humanitarian issues.

“It’s very important […] to not be engaged in an arms race with mainland China,” Ma said. “The top priority is not to win a war, but to prevent a war from happening.”

In addressing his support for nuclear power, Ma cited Taiwan’s lack of an indigenous energy option. He added that the United States, Russia and Japan all currently employ nuclear power.

In the closing remarks to his address, Ma reaffirmed the importance of continuing to develop the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China. He also cautioned that Taiwan should be wary of power abuses that may negatively impact its “dynamic but fragile” democracy.

“Taiwanese people must have the right to express their views,” Ma said.

Contact Sean Chen at kxsean ‘at’ stanford.edu and William Dunlop at wjdunlop ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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