In the past few months, I've been reflecting on the legacy of Ma Ying-jiu, and have come to the realization that perhaps we've all been a little too hard on him. While not perfect, it does seem clear to me that former President Ma was not the monster or failed statesman, better suited to being the butt of a joke than leading a nation, than many people make him out to be now that we are well into the Tsai administration.
You're probably wondering why I would start thinking this way, considering the way I, too, unfairly excoriated Mr. Ma for years. So, here are a few reasons why:
First, it's unfair to say that Ma's ultimate goal and vision for Taiwan was reunification with China. It's obvious that this is not the case: at no point during his tenure as leader of Taiwan did Taiwan reunify with China. Therefore, Ma preserved Taiwanese de facto independence through responsible and staid leadership based on sound communication and negotiation strategies with the mainland.
It's also clear that Ma was a competent steward of the Taiwanese economy, by pursuing clear-cut and proven economic strategies vis-a-vis China. Reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait by not angering China was a responsible decision on Ma's part, which the current administration of Taiwan would be wise to heed. Greater economic cooperation between the two sides is, of course, beneficial for all, and the electorate's choice of Ma to lead the island shows the clear-eyed pragmatism of Taiwanese voters. Indeed, since leaving office, Ma's hard work to bolster the struggling economy have been hurt by the ending of group tours from China on the part of newly-elected opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen.
While it is true that Taiwan's economy stagnated somewhat during Ma's two terms, from an analytical perspective, it is clear that the economic damage of not engaging with China would have been far more deleterious to Taiwan's future economic and political prospects.
Ma was also a responsible steward of Taiwanese democracy, as evidenced by unequalled political stability in Taiwan, something that was in short supply in the territory through the twentieth century. During the tumultuous Sunflower occupation of the legislature, Ma's clear-eyed and peace-oriented handling of the situation meant that no violence erupted as a result. This was by far the most problematic event in Taiwan's post-war history, after decades of stable economic development that eventually led the once-authoritarian KMT to nurture democracy on the island.
Beyond that, Ma was very forward-thinking, always considering the well-being of Taiwan first. It is clear that Taiwan has neither the offensive or defensive military capabilities for any major conflict with China, and Ma wisely kept Taiwan on a conservative course by not attempting to re-take the mainland, sagely conceding that reunification would be the business of future generations of Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Ma was also the first president of the Republic of China to meet Chinese president Xi Jin-ping. Their historic and consequential meeting was of great importance for the future of cross-strait relations.
Clearly, continuing the pursuit of peace and avoiding causing trouble with the mainland is in Taiwan's best interest, as China might be angered by any moves toward formal independence by self-ruled Chinese Taipei. This has been the goal of leadership in Taiwan since 1949, when China and Taiwan split following the Nationalists' defeat in China. The autonomous region of Taiwan must consider this as it looks to the future and considers new paths of policy and negotiation.