Ma Ying-jeou (pronounced Ma ING-je-o) is currently serving his second term as president of Taiwan. After his inauguration to his first term in 2008, Michael Schuman wrote in Time, “Ma Ying-jeou is one of those rare politicians who have an opportunity to shape the destiny not only of their own nation but also of an entire region. In March elections, the charismatic Ma, 57, won Taiwan's presidential election on a message of hope that could defuse his country's nearly six-decade conflict with China and put to rest one of the last vestiges of the cold war in Asia. [Source: Michael Schuman, Time, May 12, 2008]

“Ma, a Harvard Law School graduate, is proposing that China and Taiwan set aside the ideological differences at the heart of their conflict and engage in a sweeping program of economic and cultural exchanges. The heightened traffic of people and money would, he argues, strengthen ties between the two countries, boost their economies and reduce the risk of war. However, as with any reformer, the challenges facing Ma in his quest are as imposing as the goal he is seeking to achieve. Though Beijing appears willing to cooperate in Ma's effort, it is hard to know how far the Chinese leadership is willing to go on issues it considers highly sensitive. Many people in Taiwan are also fearful that gargantuan China will end up absorbing their tiny island if ties become too close. Ma, though, is focused on the opportunities. "It is going to be a win-win situation," he predicts.” [Ibid]

Ma is also the Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT). He has having served in that role since 2005, stepping down for a period between 2007 and 2009, when he fought corruption charges, Previous roles include Justice Minister (1993–96) and Mayor of Taipei (1998-2006). Ma first won the presidency by 58.45 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election of 2008, and was re-elected in 2012 with 51.6 percent of the vote. He was sworn into office as president on 20 May 2008, and sworn in as the Chairman of the Kuomintang on 17 October 2009. [Source: Wikipedia]

AFP reported: Ma Ying-jeou is a graft-busting former justice minister with a Harvard law degree who says he never had ambitions for the job until three years” before he took office. “Born in Hong Kong, the son of a party official who fled China’s communists over half a century ago, he has promised to mend fractured relations with the mainland and revitalise Taiwan’s sluggish economy. His presidency has restored the Kuomintang (KMT) to power after eight years under the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party of Chen Shui-bian. [Source: AFP, May 21, 2008<>]

“It could all have been so different. “I’m not that ambitious,” Ma told AFP. “People tend to say I wanted to become president when I was small. That’s not the case. I wanted to become a locomotive driver. “I decided to run for president only about three years ago when I saw the crisis of the current government. I had to move and I had to move quickly.” Victory came when Ma trounced the DPP’s Frank Hsieh in the March 22 vote, despite accusations he would sell out to China. Now he is Taiwan’s third democratically elected president. He says that while he favors friendlier ties with China, which has become Taiwan’s biggest trading partner and largest export market, he will not debate reunification in any meetings with Beijing’s leaders.” <>

Early Life of Ma Ying-jeou

Ma was born July in 1950 in Kowloon, Hong Kong — then under British rule — after his father, who was a middle-ranking KMT official, fled China. They moved to Taiwan a year later where, he recalled, his mother taught him to read the Zuo Zhuan, or Chronicle of Zuo, a seminal — and complex — early Chinese work of narrative history. “That was pretty tough for a seven-year-old kid... but I just wrote every word from the book trying to memorize that,” he told AFP. “That helped me immensely. It helped me not only with my Chinese, but also with traditional philosophy.” Much later he went to Harvard where he studied for a law degree, and it was from there that he was summoned home by his family. [Source: AFP, May 21, 2008 <>]

Ma Ying-jeou is of Hakka ancestry. His family descended from the Han Dynasty General Ma Yuan and Three Kingdoms era General Ma Chao originating from Hunan Province. In a family of five children, Ma was the only son. Ma earned his LL.B. from National Taiwan University in 1972. He pursued further studies in the United States, first earning an LL.M. from New York University Law School in 1976 and then an S.J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1981. After receiving his LL.M., Ma worked as an associate for a Wall Street law firm in New York and as a legal consultant for a major bank in Massachusetts in the US before completing his doctoral studies. In 1981, Ma returned to Taiwan and started working for President Chiang Ching-kuo. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times, “Growing up in Taiwan as the only boy among five children, Ma Ying-jeou bore the weight of his father's expectations. His father, a champion runner in high school and college, took him on long runs during his late teens after initially viewing his son as too lazy to achieve athletic success. Determined that his son should be a broad-minded gentleman with a sense of national purpose, the elder Ma demanded that his son study the Chinese classics and spend extra hours after school every day mastering Chinese calligraphy. Out of that upbringing came a fiercely determined man who sleeps five hours a night, jogs regularly at dawn - and on Saturday won the presidency of Taiwan with a broad mandate to negotiate closer relations with mainland China. "Although at the time I felt very much - well, sometimes - bothered, looking back I appreciate his role," Ma said in an interview Sunday, particularly recalling the many evenings he spent practicing brush strokes. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, March 24, 2008 \*\]

Ma is married to Christine Chow (Chow Mei-ching), who is a lawyer and at the time Ma was elected president in 2008 worked for a government-controlled Taiwanese bank. At that time the New York Times reported she “takes pride in riding the bus to work every day.” The couple has two daughters. Lesley (Ma Wei-chung), was born in 1981 in New York when Ma was attending Harvard. She completed her undergraduate studies in life sciences at Harvard University and then her graduate studies at New York University. Ma's younger daughter is Kelly (Ma Yuan-chung), who was born in Taiwan and completed her undergraduate studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. Ma and his wife sponsor children of low-income families in El Salvador through World Vision. On an official trip to Central America in June 2009, Mrs. Ma was able to meet with one of her sponsored children, an 11-year-old boy in San Salvador. + \*\

Controversy Over Ma Ying-jeou’s Origin and Birth

Ma’s father is native of southern China. Ma himself speaks fluent English and Mandarin is his native tongue. He speaks Taiwanese with a strong accent. In response to allegations that his Taiwanese credentials are lacking because be was born in Hong Kong to a mainland family, Ma said, “"I was biologically conceived in Taiwan, although I was born in Hong Kong, so technically I was made in Taiwan.”

On 11 December 2008, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Chai Trong-rong called a press conference and produced a document that alleges Ma's birthplace to be contrary to what is officially reported. On this document, the birth certificate for one of Ma's daughters, Ma fills out "Shengchin" [sic] as his own birthplace, contradictory to his officially-reported birthplace of "Hong Kong" (under British rule). Chai also noted that First Lady Christine Chow's birthplace was listed as "Nanking, China," even though she is listed as also being born in Hong Kong. +

Chai continues to charge that, since Ma was born after 1949 and in Shenzhen, he is legally a citizen of the People's Republic of China. Presidential Spokesperson Yu-chi Wang responded to Legislator Chai's charges by reaffirming that all information from the President's Office regarding the President's birth is accurate. Wang also informed that Ma, on his 11 December visit to Hong Kong, was able to obtain records of his birth at Kowloon's Kwong-Wah Hospital and Ma also keeps the original of his birth certificate issued by the Registrar General of Hong Kong, thereby confirming once again his birth in the former British colony instead of mainland China. Copies of Ma's birth certificate have also been previously shown to the public. Wang also tried to dispel rumors that Ma had received affirmative action in his applications to Jianguo High School and the National Taiwan University with an "overseas Chinese" status. For that, neither President Ma nor his critics was able to provide a definitive proof. The issue of affirmative action remains open. +

Political Career of Ma Ying-jeou

According to AFP: “His political career began in 1981 when he was an interpreter for Taiwan’s then president Chiang Ching-kuo, who was chairman of the KMT. From 1991 to 1993 he was vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the island’s top China policy-making body, before becoming justice minister. But his attempts to crack down on corruption irked key business leaders and their influential friends in the then-KMT government, costing him the justice ministry in 1996. He switched to teaching law at National Chengchi University before he was called upon by the party hierarchy in 1998 to run for mayor of Taipei against Chen Shui-bian, who had been in the job for four years already. Ma won the mayoral contest, but his rival went on to win the presidency in 2000 on a platform stressing Taiwan’s independent identity, ending the KMT’s 51-year rule of the island. Ma remained mayor until 2006 but — in what many analysts saw as a ploy by the DPP — was indicted for corruption, accused of misusing 11 million Taiwan dollars (330,000 US) in special expenses. He denied the allegations, insisting he handled the expenses just like any other civil servant, and was eventually cleared by the Supreme Court. [Source: AFP, May 21, 2008 <>]

Ma Ying-jeou started working for President Chiang Ching-kuo as Deputy Director of the First Bureau of the Presidential Office and the President's English interpreter. Ma was later promoted to the chair of the Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission under the Executive Yuan at the age of 38, becoming the youngest cabinet member in the ROC government. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Ma was deputy secretary-general of the KMT from 1984 to 1988, also serving for a period as deputy of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), a cabinet-level body in charge of cross-straits relations. President Lee Teng-hui appointed him ROC Justice Minister in 1993. Ma was relieved of his post in 1996. His supporters claim that firing was caused by his efforts at fighting corruption among politicians and the police. He remained a supporter of the Kuomintang, rather than supporting the New Party formed by KMT supporters who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. Ma returned to academia and most people at the time believed his political career to have effectively ended. +

Ma Ying-jeou as Mayor of Taipei

In 1998, the KMT fielded Ma to challenge the then-incumbent Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was seeking re-election. Despite Chen's public approval rating of over 80 percent,[citation needed] he was defeated. In the 2000 Presidential Election, Ma remained loyal to the KMT and supported its candidate, Lien Chan, over James Soong, who had bolted from the party and was running as an independent. The competition between Lien and Soong split the Pan-Blue vote and allowed his former rival Chen to win the presidential election with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. The election result, combined with other factors, incited a great deal of anger against Ma when he tried to dissuade discontented Lien and Soong supporters from protesting by appealing to them in his dual capacities as Taipei City mayor and a high-ranking KMT member. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Ma was able to repair the political damage and, in December 2002, became the leading figure in the KMT by easily winning reelection as mayor of Taipei with the support of 64 percent of Taipei voters while DPP challenger Lee Ying-yuan received 36 percent. His solid victory, especially in light of opposition from both President Chen and former President and KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui, led many to speculate about his chances as the KMT candidate for the 2004 presidential elections, although nothing came of it. Ma again dissuaded angry Pan-Blue supporters from protesting, following the very close re-election victory of President Chen in 2004 after the 3-19 shooting incident. Ma chose not to join in calls to challenge or contest the election. Ma also avoided associating himself with claims that the assassination was staged. +

Ma suffered some political damage as a result of the SARS epidemic in early 2003 and was criticized for not mobilizing the Taipei city government quickly enough and for keeping Chiu Shu-ti, the public health director, who was previously criticized for her lack of concern for the outbreak. Flooding in metropolitan Taipei in 2004 also led to public questioning of his leadership and caused Ma's approval rating to slide. +

During his time as Taipei's mayor, Ma had many conflicts with the central government over matters such as health insurance rates and control of the water supply during the drought. Ma also was implicated in a scandal of Taipei Bank stock releases in 2003. However, the case was dismissed after an investigation by the Taipei prosecutor. He was strongly criticized by the DPP for not allowing the ROC national flag to be flown along with a PRC flag during Asian Women's Football Championship held in Taipei. Ma responded that he was merely following Olympic protocol, which only officially recognizes the Chinese Taipei Olympic Flag and forbids ROC national flags from being shown in an Olympic Game Stadium. +

His initiatives in administering the city of Taipei include changing the transliterations of street names and the line and stations of the Taipei Metro to Hanyu Pinyin, as opposed to Tongyong Pinyin. Ma has expressed mild support for Chinese reunification and opposition to Taiwan independence. He opposed the 2004 referendum, which had been widely criticized by the U.S. and PRC. Nevertheless, his opposition to the Anti-Secession Law of the People's Republic of China, while other leaders of his party remained silent on the issue, led to him being banned from visiting Hong Kong to make a public speaking tour in 2005. He also criticized the PRC for the Tian'anmen crackdown. +

On his achievements in Taipei, David Lague wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “He proudly recounts how the outlay of more than $10 billion over six years will have increased the proportion of waste water piped away for treatment from 41 per cent to 82 per cent by the end of the year. Furthermore, he said, life expectancy in Taipei is this year expected to reach an island high of 80 years, the city subway carries 1.05 million people a day, a six-fold increase over 1997, and each Taipei resident now produces an average of 0.4 kilograms, or 0.9 pounds, of trash each day, sharply down from 1.12 kilograms when he was elected. [Source: David Lague, International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2006]

Ma Ying-jeou’s Star Power

David Lague wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “In the politics of greater China, Ma Ying-jeou has unrivaled star quality. On the Chinese mainland where propaganda- powered personality cults have given way to a colorless, collective leadership, Ma enjoys a popularity that transcends one the most potentially explosive fault lines in Asia. When in 2001, he visited his birthplace, Hong Kong, enthusiastic locals turned on the sort of welcome the expatriate British reserved for starchy royals in colonial times. It was the same in majority-Chinese Singapore, where the telegenic Ma was feted earlier this year even while gently encouraging the stern People's Action Party to relax its authoritarian rule there. [Source: David Lague, International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2006 |>|]

“Along with a populist style, Ma would also bring a Clintonesque mastery of detail. To many in the wider Chinese community where restraint, courtesy and moderation retain their appeal, Ma combines these traditional virtues with something more fundamental - raw sex appeal. "He's well educated. He's well mannered. He's very reasonable when he talks to people," said a political commentator and former Kuomintang lawmaker, Susie Chiang Su-hui. "Oh, and he's very handsome." |>|

“The son of a Nationalist Party worker, Ma was an infant in 1951 when his family moved to Taiwan via the then British controlled Hong Kong. With a doctorate in law from Harvard and blueblood Kuomintang credentials, Ma was fast-tracked through the party in the years before Taiwan became one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. A fluent English speaker, he was an interpreter for the late President Chiang Ching-kuo who launched the Taiwanese political liberalization in the late 1980s. |>|

Ma Ying-jeou as a Politician

Ma's cross-political following has led some to note him as a rare example of relative civility in the notoriously rough and tumble world of Taiwanese politics. Ma has generally avoided being accused of using the vitriolic and sometimes offensive rhetoric common in Taiwanese political debate. His academic background and bearing have helped cultivate the image of Ma as an honest, dispassionate technocrat. Despite this reputation, and his wooden speaking style and shy demeanor, Ma is also considered a charismatic figure and is popular among women and youth. [Source: Wikipedia +]

On the other hand, Ma's critics claim that Ma, overeager to appear unbiased and/or neutral, is overly indecisive and lacks bold vision. Ma is often accused of avoiding being out in front on some of the more vigorous or controversial criticisms of President Chen or opposing parties, or involving himself in intra-party disputes. Among these critics, Ma has been referred to as a "non-stick pan" or "Teflon-man." Recently, there has also been some criticism of his stumping for election candidates suspected of and later indicted for corruption charges. Many in the Pan-Green Coalition expressed opinions that Ma misled voters by lending his clean charismatic image to unscrupulous candidates in his own party. +

Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times, “Throughout his career, Ma, who has a doctorate in legal studies from Harvard, has taken legally precise positions that sometimes have been politically popular and sometimes have not. "He's very lawyerly, and his first reaction to events is to fall back on principles and the legal ramifications," said Douglas Paal, who was the director from 2002 to 2006 of the American Institute in Taiwan, which handles American diplomatic interests here in the absence of full diplomatic relations. "It has given him an ability to respond to any issue that comes up in Taiwan, and there seems to be one every three days."[Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, March 24, 2008]

Ever since high school, Ma said, his dream was to build a democratic country governed by the rule of law.“I’d like to leave a legacy of building a country based on the rule of law,” he said. Ma’s mentor at Harvard was Jerome Cohen, a professor of law who has written a number of articles calling on the Taiwanese government to pay attention to legal reform. Ma told Cohen that despite its free elections, the rule of law in Taiwan still had a long way to go. The president said protecting human rights was his top priority and that he had signed two UN conventions in May in a bid to bring the country’s human rights standards in line with those of the world’s leading countries. [Source: Ko Shu-ling, Taipei Times, September 11, 2009]

In recent years, Ma has increasingly employed Taiwanese (Hoklo) in public speaking, perhaps to avoid backlash for his parents' mainland China origins, and he has called himself a "child of Bangka (Wanhua)", identifying himself with the historic district of Taipei where he grew up. Others claim that Ma's mainland Chinese ancestry will further alienate members of the KMT who are "light-blue" vs. the pro-unification "deep-blue." +

While often nicknamed as "Teflon pot" for his extreme preservation of personal image, Ma was nonetheless caught in some political controversies. A series of mishaps during his tenure as the mayor of Taipei, including the administration problems that enlarged the extent of the Typhoon Nari , the shutdown of Hoping Hospital , the Phosgene Incident , the Scalping Incident and the Human Ball Scandal (in which a severely beaten four-year-old girl was bounced from hospital to hospital without treatment, until she died of her injuries), impaired Ma's reputation. However, Ma maneuvered through these incidents relatively unscathed. +

One of Ma's most satisfactory mayoral construction was the Maokong Gondola. However, the frequent breakdown of the gondola earned the residents' distrust of the new transportation system. One poll showed only 14 percent of the Taipei City residents were satisfied with it, and it even led to protests. The Taiwan Environmental Information Center states that the choice to use a gondola lift intended for temperate zones in a tropical zone shows the failure of the Taipei City government led by Ma. +

Ma was known as “Little brother Ma” when he served as Taipei’s mayor. In July 2005, Ma was selected as the new chairman of Kuomintang Party in a vote involving 1 million Kuomintang members. It was the first vote in the 110-year history of the party. Ma defeated Wang Jin-pyung, the speaker of Parliament.

Corruption Allegations Against Ma Ying-jeou

In November 2006, Ma was questioned by prosecutors over his alleged misuse of a special expenses account as Taipei mayor. This occurred after Chen Shui-Bian was being investigated for corruption, and many KMT supporters believed that this prosecution was politically motivated. At the same time, rumors surfaced that former party chairman Lien Chen would run in the presidential election of 2008. The incident may have affected the clean image of Ma and his political future. The next day, Ma admitted one of his aides forged receipts to claim Ma's expenses as Taipei mayor, and apologized for the latest political scandal. However, Ma argued that he, like most other government officials, regarded the special expense account as supplemental salary for personal expenses undertaken in the course of official duties and that his use of this account was legal.

In February 2007, Ma was indicted by the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office on charges of allegedly embezzling approximately NT$11 million (US$339,000), regarding the issue of "special expenses" while he was mayor of Taipei. The prosecutor's office said that Ma had allegedly used government funds for personal use, such as paying for one of his daughter's living expenses while studying abroad and paying for his household utilities. Before that, Ma had admitted personal usage and claims that the special funds were simply a part of his salary[48] but had used all funds for public use or public benefit (charity donations). Shortly after the indictment, he submitted his resignation as chairman of the Kuomintang in accordance with party rules which prohibit an indicted person from serving as KMT chairman.

In August 2007, the Taipei District Court found Ma not guilty of corruption. Ma's defense is that he viewed "Special Expenses" as essentially "Special Allowance", originally designed to compensate for mayor's "social spending" without actually raising salary. In 28 December 2007, the Taiwan High Court found Ma again not guilty of graft charges. In April 2008, the Supreme Court cleared Ma of corruption charges, delivering a final ruling in this matter before his inauguration in May 2008. The island's highest court said Ma had neither collected illegal income nor tried to break the law. Ma's secretary, however, was found guilty and faced a year in prison for his own failures in administrative duties.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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