Int'l Herald Tribune

Let's not forget what China is

Taiwan and the West

Saturday, January 31, 2004

By Wu'er Kaixi

TAIPEI--- As a Chinese national exiled for advocating democratic reforms in my homeland, I find French President Jacques Chirac's condemnation of a referendum proposal by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to be a betrayal of trust. By calling a plebiscite scheduled for March 20 - the day of Taiwan's presidential elections - a "grave error," Chirac has issued the strongest warning yet that the international community is on China's side when it comes to determining Taiwan's future.

Naïvely, I had hoped for better of France, which has become the latest in a roll call of democracies - the United States included - that appear ready to abandon Taiwan's right to democratic freedoms if that is how Beijing says it must be.

In 1989, along with other student leaders, I led a popular movement for democratic reform in China. It is estimated that about 100 million people countrywide participated. On June 4, that movement was violently suppressed in Tiananmen Square and on Chang'an Avenue; hundreds are believed to have been killed. I was lucky enough to escape into exile and to be given refuge in Paris.

Nearly 15 years on, I have journeyed in exile from France to Taiwan, where I now live. Chirac's remarks thus have a particular resonance for me.

In the long years that I have been on China's "most wanted" list, I have been granted asylum in three democracies - the other is the United States - and in the past month I have seen two of them turn against the third, Taiwan. The Taiwan question is, of course, vexing. It is in everybody's interest that the status quo be maintained and that war not break out across the Taiwan Strait. But the so-called status quo is also vexing. For China, the Taiwan problem demands but one solution, and by any means, including the last resort it used on us in Tiananmen Square: bloodshed. Meanwhile, the people of Taiwan seek to determine their own future.

This is not a status quo, but a standoff. Taiwan, which has made its own way in the world for more than half a century, and which has shaken off the shackles of martial law and evolved into the kind of model democracy the United States claims all nation-states should aspire to be, is under the threat of the gun. And this presents the United States, and now France - the homeland of democracy - with a challenge that neither seems ready to acknowledge.

I remind them, then, of Article 2 of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, written by the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and approved by the French National Assembly in 1789: "The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression."

In particular, I remind them of the first and the last of these rights: the right to "liberty" and the right to "resistance to oppression." In 1989, the world recognized that the people of China stood up for those rights in Tiananmen Square and were punished for doing so. I and others who managed to escape were given refuge, and for a brief period the international community paused and reappraised its relationship with a regime that was prepared to put down a peaceful people's movement with troops and tanks.

Where has that reappraisal brought us? Sadly, it seems nowhere. Since the Tiananmen bloodshed, we have seen a parade of foreign leaders and multinational corporations feting China's leaders, as if somehow things have changed for the better. Nothing has changed. If anything, China's leaders have learned their lesson, and have a tighter grip on power today than they did then. And doubters need only look to Taiwan, and recently also to Hong Kong - where on Jan. 1, 500,000 people took to the streets for greater democratic freedoms.

Realpolitik demands that we be practical on the Taiwan issue; but it should also demand that we not delude ourselves about China. In 1989, Beijing chose military action over open dialogue with a peaceful people's movement; today it tells us that a popular vote in Taiwan risks invasion. I fear now, when I see the leaders of the United States and France reprimanding Taiwan, that the ideals that those countries were founded on, that my countrymen shed blood for in Tiananmen, and that Taiwan now challenges with a popular vote, have become disposable. I ask Chirac, if that fear is ungrounded, then who is committing the "grave error"?

The writer, a former Tiananmen student leader, lives in exile in Taiwan.