Ma Ying-jeou, mayor of Taipei and President of Taiwan

Ma Ying-jeou’s official portrait during his presidency from 2008 to 2016

While I also know his predecessor Chen Shui-bian (born 1950) personally, as his short-time Spanish teacher I somehow have a special relationship with Conservative Taiwanese politician Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma Ying-jeou, President of the Republic of China (still Taiwan’s official name) from 2008 to 2016, was born on July 13th, 1950 in the British Crown colony Hong Kong as the fourth child and only son to parents who had fled from the Chinese province of Hunan after revolutionary Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) took over in 1949.

In 1951, in the first phase of the Cold War, his family settled in Taiwan, given the defiant epithet “Free China” by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975).

Ma grew up in its provisional capital Taipei, seat of the Nationalist government until the homeland would be retaken from the “Communist bandits”.

Although many with his last name are actually Muslims, Ma’s father Ma Ho-ling (1920-2005) was a Catholic who apparently had him baptized at the age of eight.

Ma isn’t a practicing Christian like former Vice President Chen Chien-jen (born 1951), but has publicly admitted that his upbringing and frequent contact with foreign educators with a religious background had a strong influence on him.

After studying law at the prestigious National Taiwan University, Ma did his compulsory military service in the ROC Marine Corps and Navy from 1972 to 1974, obtaining the rank of lieutenant.

He won a scholarship to continue his studies in the United States, which at the time hadn’t recognized the People’s Republic yet, where he earned a master of laws degree in 1976 from New York University.

In 1977 he got married in the Big Apple to Christine Chow Mei-ching (born 1952 in Hong Kong, also to Chinese refugees, but from Nanking). Lesley Ma was born there in 1980 and Kelly Ma in Taipei in 1985.

While working on Wall Street and as a legal consultant for a bank, Ma was awarded a PhD in juridical science in 1981 from Harvard University in Massachusetts. Ma also spent time doing research at the University of Maryland in College Park and published some academic papers.

Returning to Taiwan soon afterwards, Ma became an English interpreter for President Chiang Ching-kuo, the only biological son of the late Chiang Kai-shek.

From 1984-88 Ma served as deputy secretary-general of the Nationalist KMT, which at the time still hold absolute power, but was already on the long road of democratization.

For the same period of time, he also assumed the post of vice-chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, a cabinet-level body in charge of dealing with the ideological adversaries on the mainland.

In 1991, Ma was elected a representative to the National Assembly, first constituted in November 1947 in then-capital Nanking for all of China and finally disbanded in Taiwan in 2005.

The first Taiwan-born president Lee Teng-hui (1923-2020), in office since 1988, appointed Ma Minister of Justice in 1993. He was relieved of his post in 1996, allegedly because of his persistent efforts to fight endemic corruption.

In 1998, Ma surprisingly defeated the popular incumbent Taipei mayor and future president Chen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was seeking reelection.

I first met Ma in 2000 when he needed to learn some basic Spanish for a trip to three sister cities and capitals of allied nations in Central America, and vividly remember sharing a simple lunch box in his enormous office, located in a Pharaonic building from the 1990s.

From that time I keep a beautiful red card signed by him, thanking me for my services. The fact that he misspelled my last name never bothered me and I have been proudly showing it around.

If I remember correctly, since then I received a little gift from him three times a year until he left public office in 2016. According to Confucian tradition, it’s once a teacher, always a teacher.

Ma was reelected in 2002 and led the city through the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003, which somehow turned out to be a rehearsal of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Elevated to KMT chairman in 2005, his political career nevertheless was briefly imperiled after unfounded allegations surfaced in November 2006 that he had misused public funds.

In February 2007, he resigned from his party position after being indicted by the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office, but in August 2007, the Taipei District Court found him not guilty of corruption.

Even before being finally acquitted of all charges by the Taipei District Court in August, a verdict uphold by the Taiwan High Court in December, Ma announced his presidential candidacy for the next year.

In March 2008, Ma won a landslide victory against Frank Hsieh (born 1946) by a margin of 58 to 42%, as the country was ready for a change after eight years of DPP rule.

His triumph followed a similarly resounding win for the KMT in the legislative elections in January, when it secured 81 of the 113 seats in the parliament and obtained a supermajority.

Ma vowed to restore the island’s rapid economic growth experienced since the 1970s until the early 21th century, in part by boosting trade and investment ties with China by opening direct air and shipping links and lifting restrictions on investments.

Staunch anti-Communists for decades, the Nationalists had slowly begun advocating closer relations with their former bitter foes, as both sides opposed formal Taiwanese independence.

While promising to work toward a formal peace agreement, Ma favored an incremental approach and conceded that it would take time to really improve the complicated bilateral relationship.

Ma and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping ultimately met in Singapore on November 7th, 2015 for a historic summit. To avoid conferring any legitimacy on the other’s government, both addressed each other as “mister” rather than “president”.

Taipei benefitted from a tacit understanding reached with Peking to stop competing for recognition from each other’s diplomatic partners, known as “diplomatic truce.”

During Ma’s whole presidency, only the tiny African nation of The Gambia broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but wasn’t able to reestablish them with China until he had stepped down.

Reelected KMT chairman in July 2009, for the 2012 presidential race Ma campaigned on his administration’s record of improved ties with China and the conviction of his forerunner Chen.

Ma won reelection against DPP opponent Tsai Ying-wen, the first woman to run for president and who would eventually succeed in 2016, by 52 to 46%.

However, the KMT’s majority in the legislature declined to 64 seats and Ma’s popularity began to wane, especially after a heated controversy in 2013 about long-term legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (born 1941).

In March 2014, a trade pact allowing Chinese investment in various service industries in Taiwan signed in June 2013 was brought down by public opposition, mainly the Sunflower Movement.

In September 2014 Ma was hit, but not hurt by a book hurled at him by a student. The Presidential Office officially condemned this senseless act of politically motivated violence, which can also be seen as an example for the brutalization of traditional customs.

Ma again resigned as chairman in December 2014 to take the main responsibility for the loss of more than half of the municipalities and countries to the DPP in what many saw as a non-confidence vote.

Banned by the Constitution from a third term, after leaving office the new DPP administration blocked Ma from traveling to Hong Kong for a speech and he had to give prepared remarks via teleconference instead.

Ma subsequently faced legal troubles concerning his dispute with Wang when in March 2017 he was indicted for allegedly ordering the leak of information from a wiretapped conversation.

Notwithstanding that a lower court ruled in favor of Ma, in May 2018 that decision was overturned by the High Court, which sentenced him to four months in prison with the option of paying a fine in order to avoid jail time. Ma appealed the ruling and in July 2019 it was overturned due to insufficient evidence.

The biggest challenge that Ma and his sympathizers nowadays face is the fading influence of the KMT, seen by many Taiwanese as a relic from an authoritarian past and not as the force that saved them from a takeover by the People’s Liberation Army.

If it can’t reinvent itself quickly, not only will an increasing radical and undemocratic DPP stick to its guns in the foreseeable future, but the force that shaped Taiwan decisively during half a century might simply fade into oblivion. Ma’s heirs are running out of time…


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