Lately, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been criticized if fuel prices go up, and if they go down. As Ma explains it, he was right when he decided to hike the prices and he was also right to subsequently cut them, so he feels he really does not deserve the criticism.
People who want to stand up for Ma say the price changes were necessary because of fluctuations in international oil prices. They say that while Ma may be a bit more stupid and a bit more incompetent than other leaders, he is honest, and so should not be criticized too harshly.
Is this really how things are? Ma has indeed been criticized because of his incompetence, but it is also because he comes up with a lot of lofty and grandiloquent explanations for raising prices, and when he then cuts them, he is again absolutely convinced that he is right.
This is a cheap play for popularity. Let us examine the bombastic and pompous statements Ma and his team have used over the past four years.
When elected in 2008, Ma immediately announced an increase in fuel prices, while also strongly criticizing former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration, saying it had manipulated fuel prices for electoral purposes. Ma’s administration managed to say this with a straight face. Then, before the five special municipality elections and from December 2010 up to this year’s presidential election, the Ma administration turned around and cut fuel price increases in half. Ma’s government presented a magnificent reason for doing this: It said it was because it empathized with the people and that it had nothing to do with the upcoming elections. It was impressive to see how the administration pulled it all off — all costs were absorbed by CPC Corp, Taiwan (CPC).
After Ma won the election and secured the presidency for another four years, he turned around and said that fuel prices would once again have to be determined by the market, calling it “reform” and saying that reform hurts.
He said that if consumers did not take that hit now, it would hurt even more in the future and also said it was unfair to use taxpayer money to subsidize fuel prices. What a sweet guy. Then Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) said that Taiwan’s 95-octane unleaded gasoline was some of the cheapest in the world. Two days after his re-inauguration, Ma said international fuel prices had increased for 15 months in a row.
They said all these things as if the price increases were the most natural thing in the world, and totally devoid of controversy.
When international fuel prices kept dropping, CPC had to drop their prices 10 times. This caused the public to question the government’s skill in predicting fuel prices. Ma said that trends in petroleum prices had also fooled many international experts, which shows how difficult they are to predict. There were still lots of justifications, though, and Ma said he was not responsible for the poor predictions and the initial decision to adjust prices in one big increase. Ma and his administration cited the price estimates made by Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs in March and April.
So after so many international experts began predicting that fuel prices would drop, why did the Ma government not listen? Why did the government first say it would implement a large, one-time increase in fuel prices to reflect the market, but then, when international oil prices fell, decide to cut prices by less than the amount that international prices had dropped?
In the end, CPC chairman Chu Shao-hua (朱少華) had to call a press conference and admit that the price hikes were intended to make up for the losses incurred when prices were frozen and that they had nothing to do with the increase in international fuel prices.
In spite of this contradicting everything the government had said up until that point, the government still feels it did the right thing — it had to save CPC from going bankrupt, and what could be more righteous than that? It is a huge sin when others freeze prices, but when the Ma administration does the same thing, it does so out of concern for the public. When the government decides to unfreeze prices, it calls it a “great reform.” Then it says the following 10 consecutive price cuts are necessary because the original price increase was the result of poor forecasts by international experts and that prices were cut by less than the drop in international prices to save CPC from bankruptcy.
Political strategy has been involved in every bit of manipulation of fuel prices and lies have been pouring out of the government’s mouth with the same ease with which a Confucian scholar would recite Confucius (孔子) and Mencius (孟子).
Everything the government has said has been contradictory and it has shown no fear of being caught out. Ma is not very competent, but he does want to retain the presidency and to be liked by the public. Now that his lies have been exposed, he maintains his sanctimonious attitude and refuses to apologize. Is it any wonder that the government is receiving the criticism it is in a modern, democratic society?
If we look back a few years, when former premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) said that fuel prices should not be manipulated for political gain and that the government should always do the right thing even if it means being criticized, we will see that his views stand in stark contrast to what has been happening recently.
Now that Ma is on the receiving end of so much criticism, perhaps he should heed those pearls of wisdom left behind by his much-loved and esteemed former premier.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron