Much style, some content, no tough questions for Ma

President Ma talks about international issues with the foreign correspondents in Taiwan, evades discussing domestic concerns

Taipei Times
Thursday, December 4, 2008

By Richard Hazeldine

A lot of column inches have been devoted over the years to President Ma Ying-jeou's ability to communicate in English, so his appearance yesterday before the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club seemed like the perfect opportunity to witness his skill at mixing style with content.

As the local English-language media were not allowed questions -- a fact that irritated several in the domestic press pack -- it was also a chance to see if the nation's foreign correspondents could provide Ma with the kind of tough questions that have been lacking since his appearance on the BBC's Hardtalk program in 2006. But the tough questions never came.

As he entered the venue, accompanied by Government Information Office Minister Vanessa Shih and a Presidential Office staffer, Ma looked distinctly uneasy. He launched into a gloomy 10-minute opening statement on the first six months of his term and how the global financial crisis had affected his promises of economic growth.

Throughout the 90-minute session, Ma's fluency held up well -- but he did stumble on several occasions with figures, reverting to a quick check of the numbers in Chinese with his aides.

Consistent to a fault, however, Ma used the term "mainland" to describe China, so much so that many of the foreign correspondents found themselves employing Ma's questionable terminology in their questions.

He also made one or two factual errors, such as accusing Democratic Progressive Party Taipei City councilors of offering a reward for anyone who could pelt Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin with eggs during his visit last month, when in fact it was members of the pro-independence group Taiwan Society North.

He did impress by answering questions precisely and comprehensively, except for the terse response to a query on whether he would welcome the Dalai Lama.

Overall, however, the nature of the audience meant that questions focused on international issues, which meant that this reporter -- and several others -- were left disappointed that Ma wasn't pressed on domestic problems that may yet influence cross-strait ties.