Amidst the attention on the fatal TransAsia crash in Taipei earlier this month, National Security Council (NSC) Secretary-General King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), long considered President Ma Ying-jeou’s right hand man, quietly announced his resignation from public office. Earlier in January, the head of the National Development Council Kuan Chung-min (管中閔), a respected economic adviser and a proponent for free trade, also left his post.
King cited health reasons as the main reason for resigning. Despite being known for competing in triathlons, King has had heart surgery and will reportedly undergo another round of surgeries after his resignation.
However, King’s unexpected resignation is seen by many as an indication of just how crippled and isolated President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration has become. The cabinet was reshuffled after the KMT suffered a devastating election loss in last November’s local polls, which led to the ouster of then premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺). The choice of Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國), the transportation minister, as Jiang’s replacement had the public wondering if Ma simply ran out of fresh candidates willing to take the job.
More importantly, King Pu-tsung’s resignation is even more significant, as he has been instrumental to much of Ma’s political career. Since 1985, King has worked under Ma in various government posts, and in 1998 King orchestrated Ma’s successful campaign for Taipei mayor. As mayor, Ma appointed King to head up the Department of Information, and later as vice mayor.
In 2008, King was again asked to head up Ma’s election campaign, this time for the presidency. Four years later, King became the campaign manager for Ma’s 2012 reelection bid. Most recently, he was appointed the representative to the US (the de facto ambassador), and then the head of the National Security Council.
Taiwan’s president cannot legally manage the affairs of the state, which is the responsibility of the premier. But the president still controls important state functions through the National Security Council, which serves the president directly and convenes the premier, vice premier, and the ministers of foreign affairs, national defense, finance, the interior, and top military generals. In effect, the National Security Council Secretary-General is akin to the president’s chief of staff.
King was appointed NSC Secretary-General in March last year during the height of the Sunflower Movement, when students protested against a services trade pact with China. Trade liberalization with China had long been a central piece to Ma’s economic and China policies, and has come to define his six-and-a-half years in office. King came into office with the hopes to steer Ma’s policies forward, and win public approval. Nevertheless, cross straits policies remain a sore point for the ruling KMT party.
Furthermore, the KMT-friendly United Daily News in an editorial on February 7 reiterated the common sentiment that President Ma’s administration is a clique that excludes dissent, and does not know how to persuade the public. A Taiwan Indicator Survey Research report on February 12 shows only 16% of those surveyed are satisfied with President Ma’s administration.
After King and Kuan, two high profile politicians with crucial cross-straits relations portfolios, leave the government, Ma’s administration is expected to accomplish very little while Ma’s term winds down to next year’s presidential election. According to an editorial in the South China Morning Post, both the KMT and the opposition DPP are now downplaying any China-related issues. The editorial asks, however, that as Taiwan’s presidential campaigns heat up, Chinese president Xi Jinping visits the US, and South Korea finalizes its Free Trade Agreement with China, whether Taiwan’s government can afford to ignore upcoming political and economic challenges.
(Feature photo of King Pu-tsung at an interview with Voice of America, in 2013.)