Cross Strait

Language barriers

Why Taiwan’s leader may need to stop giving interviews in English

“I was misquoted!!!”

There’s a Chinese proverb: “Sickness goes in through the mouth and trouble comes out of the mouth.”

Something that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou may well be reminded of, after finding himself in trouble at home after an interview with the Associated Press.

In the interview, which was conducted in English, Ma said that as soon as the priority economic issues were dealt with, like those on investment guarantees and ways to resolve disputes and tariffs, his government is prepared to discuss political agreements with China. According to AP, Ma suggested that those talks could start as early as his second four-year term if he wins re-election in 2012.

After the interview came out, Taiwan’s Government Information Office complained that AP did not “correctly reflect” the views expressed by the president. Ma later called an impromptu press conference, denying that he had provided a specific timeline for political talks. The only forecast, he said, had been that economic matters would come before political ones. AP, however, stood by its report.

This is not the first time Ma has claimed that he has been misquoted by the foreign media. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last December, also conducted in English, Ma said: “Whether there will be reunification as expected by the mainland side depends very much on what is going to unfold in the next decades.”

The last word, originally written in the singular, was changed after Ma protested.

Pro-independence opponents quickly jumped on the opportunity to attack the president. “He [Ma] shouldn’t say something now and something else later,” griped DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen. “People will start thinking he’s double-dealing and delivering different messages to the international media and to the Taiwanese.”

But if Taiwan’s robust export orders in September are anything to go by, it’s not going to be long before the two sides can start on the political discussions. In part due to the wide-ranging Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed with China, which includes tariff cuts on about 800 items and took effect in September, export orders to the mainland have soared.

According to HSBC, Taiwan’s total export orders in September rose 0.9% from a month earlier to $35.9 billion, the highest monthly figure on record. Within that same time period exports to China and Hong Kong rose 11.4%, says HSBC economist Donna Kwok. She adds that if not for such strong Chinese demand, the year-on-year growth rate would likely have eased as a result of depressed overseas sales.

Huang Ji-shih, director of Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, attributed the big increase to Chinese companies stocking up on high-tech gadgets ahead of an anticipated buying spree during China’s Golden Week Holiday, which began October 1.

China has been trying to charm the Taiwanese with economic sweeteners like the ECFA, which many say is a gambit to the long-term goal of reunifying with the island.

Still, many of Taiwan’s pro-independence opposition think any political talks with Beijing are “premature,” says DPP legislator Huang Wei-cher, as national consensus on the matter has yet to be achieved.

Not that flare ups in relations are a thing of the past, either. The China Post, a Taiwanese paper, reported on Monday that Beijing had threatened to withdraw from the Tokyo International Film Festival unless the organisors changed the identifier of the Taiwanese delegation to China’s Taiwan or Chinese Taipei. The Japanese said no, so the mainland delegation withdrew in protest. Needless to say, the news stirred a ruckus back in Taiwan.

Ma would be well advised to steer clear of giving an interview in English on the subject…


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