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Strait Talk: The full interview

Sunday, February 22, 2004

TIME's full interview with Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian

Presiden Chen

TIME: Thank you for giving us your time. We believe you are very busy these days. I read in the newspapers today that the LA Times interviewed you last Friday. So why don't we start with some of the questions that were raised in that interview? Is the island of Taiwan an independent sovereign country?

Chen: Of course, Taiwan is a country. Undoubtedly, Taiwan is an independent sovereign country. I think, apart from a very few, most Taiwanese people firmly believe that Taiwan is an independent sovereign country. Therefore, we should not hold any doubt or question as to whether Taiwan is a country - an independent sovereign country.

TIME: So are you rejecting any idea of the "one China" principle?

Chen: The so-called "one China" principle, or its eight characters in Chinese, equates with "peaceful unification and the 'one country, two systems' formula," with the "one country, two systems" formula as its core emphasis. Therefore, the "one China" principle is the "one country, two systems" formula. We cannot accept the "one country, two systems" formula; therefore, we cannot accept the "one China" principle. The so-called "one country, two systems" formula calls for the People's Republic of China to represent "one China," under which two systems will be operating in one country, similar to the Hong Kong model.

Under the "one country, two systems" formula, Hong Kong is a special administrative region, a local government of China. And Hong Kong is certainly not a country. However, Taiwan is different from Hong Kong. We cannot possibly accept the "one country, two systems" formula and become a local government of the People's Republic of China. Nor can we possibly become a local province or a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.

Back in 1999, a year before the 2000 presidential election, the Democratic Progressive Party passed a resolution regarding Taiwan's future, firmly stating that Taiwan is an independent sovereign country, which, according to the current Constitution, bears the national designation of the Republic of China. It has no jurisdiction over the People's Republic of China, nor does the PRC exercise any effective jurisdiction over the Republic of China.

In the resolution regarding Taiwan's future, we raised seven points. One of them is to reject the so-called "one China" principle. We must reject the "one China" claim.

TIME: Mr. President, do you accept the idea of eventual unification with China?

Chen: I had stated very clearly in my inaugural speech on May 20, 2000, that leaders across the Strait should use their wisdom and creativity while adhering to the principles of democracy and parity to work together to deal with the question of a future one China, based on the existing foundations.

TIME: Mr. President, that does not answer the question. It is the policy of the KMT to believe in eventual unification. What is the DPP's policy? Do you believe in eventual unification or not?

Chen: I have not yet finished my response to your question, and I am not evading your question, either. The KMT, the current opposition party, supports the policy of unification with China. Their policy is to promote cross-strait reunification. However, the DPP holds a different idea. My belief, my basic thinking of cross-strait relations throughout the 20 years of my political career has been that, since ancient times, a unified state or situation over a long period of time in the world will eventually give way to separation. Likewise, a long period of separation is bound to lead to unification again some day. Therefore, a country may be divided into a number of countries, while many countries may also unite into one. Take the European countries, for example. Many countries exist in Europe today, but in the future, they may become one unified country.

Moreover, there can be many ethnic groups within one country, and one ethnic group could also extend into many countries. For example, the former West and East Germanys are now united into one country. Before unification, they were separate countries and they were both members of the United Nations. Currently, there are two separate, independent countries across the Taiwan Strait, neither of which has jurisdiction over the other. But who knows if these two separate countries might become one over time? We do not exclude any possibilities for the future. But it is very clear that currently the status quo and the reality is that Taiwan is an independent sovereign country, and obviously neither the PRC nor the ROC exercises effective jurisdiction over the other.

TIME: How is that different from a declaration of independence, as you pledged not to do in your "Five No's"?

Chen: Taiwan has already been an independent sovereign country. Currently, Taiwan is already a country, an independent sovereign country. There is of course no question of declaring independence, because it is already a country. This is reality. This is the status quo. There is no doubt. It is not to be questioned whether you admit it or recognize it or not. It is an existing fact. Taiwan has all the attributes of a country. There is no question.

TIME: Mr. President, is the "independent sovereign country" that you just said now different from or contradictory to the "Five No's" in your inaugural speech?

Chen: I said very clearly in my May 20th inaugural speech. According to the Constitution, it is my duty and my responsibility as the leader of the country to defend the sovereignty, dignity, and security of my country and seek the highest welfare for my people. So in my "Five No's" pledge, I said that I would not declare Taiwan's independence. But that does not equate with negating the status quo and the current status of Taiwan as an independent sovereign country. There is no need for an official declaration, because this is an existing fact and is not contradictory.

TIME: O.K. But in the past, your predecessor, for example, was not as blunt as you are now in saying that Taiwan is a sovereign independent country. Do you believe that the status of Taiwan needs to be made clearer or stronger now, because China is getting bigger and stronger? Are you trying to make Taiwan's status clearer and stronger?

Chen: A simple way to describe the status quo of Taiwan is this: First the Republic of China was on mainland China, then the Republic of China came to Taiwan, then the Republic of China was on Taiwan, and now the Republic of China is Taiwan.

TIME: Are you suggesting now that Taiwan is no longer part of the mainland?

Chen: Taiwan has never been part of mainland China. Mainland China is mainland China. Taiwan is Taiwan. Taiwan is part of the Republic of China, but not a part of mainland China. I don't think there should be any confusion in this. Taiwan has never changed. Taiwan has always been here in this place. Taiwan has always existed. It's just that the Republic of China before 1949 was on mainland China, then it came to Taiwan. It existed on Taiwan, and now it is Taiwan. We dare not imagine and should not imagine that the territory of the ROC extends to cover Outer Mongolia or mainland China, because Outer Mongolia is the Republic of Mongolia now and mainland China is governed by the People's Republic of China. This is history; this is fact; and this is the status quo.

TIME: You seem to be seeking greater clarity on Taiwan's status now, while we all know that it's ambiguity that helps secure peace in the strait. Why are you now seeking greater clarity on the verge of an election?

Chen: I think, for the DPP, our stance has always been very clear. We have never been ambiguous. It was the KMT or the previous government that was being ambiguous about Taiwan's status. The past administration from the beginning sought to re-conquer the mainland. They wanted to recover the mainland and have refused to give it up. Even now the KMT still insists on the policy of eventual unification. I think this is very unrealistic. By holding on to such ambiguity, they are deceiving themselves and deceiving others. The ambiguity held by the KMT regime is a sharp contrast to the strategic clarity of the People's Republic of China. They have been very clear in their policy towards Taiwan, that is, to annex and absorb Taiwan, to take back Taiwan, for it to become a local government, to become a part of China. This is not ambiguous. In light of this clear strategy, if we ourselves continue with such ambiguity and continue to deceive ourselves and deceive others, it can only lead to disaster for Taiwan.

China talks of one China; the previous KMT administration also talked of one China. With both sides of the Taiwan Strait singing the same tune of one China, the result was that Taiwan was isolated in the international community, giving China ever better excuses for its attempt to absorb Taiwan, to make Taiwan into a second Hong Kong, and greatly confusing the international community. Because of the past administration's goal of unification under the advocacy of one China, it is very difficult for Taiwan to clearly explain wherein its sovereignty lies. Without Taiwan's sovereignty, it is no wonder that the international community is confused about whether Taiwan is a nation or not, and even thinks that Taiwan is not a nation because of the insistence by past governments on both sides of the Strait on the "one China" principle. Internationally, the so-called one China usually refers to the People's Republic of China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. This is a grave that Taiwan has dug for itself. What we have to understand, therefore, is that to continue with such ambiguous strategy, in which Taiwan has no sovereignty, will lead us to our greatest crisis.

TIME: But some things you say and some things you do provoke Beijing. Is that wise or necessary?

Chen: I think that even if Taiwan were to surrender, they [the PRC] would still say that we are not sincere enough. We must walk our own way, walk the right way, and walk the way that we ought to walk. We must not continue to deceive ourselves or deceive others; otherwise, how are we going to educate our next generation, how are we going to make the world understand the differences between Taiwan and China. One ironic thing is that, although the People's Republic of China has never recognized the existence of the Republic of China, it is nevertheless afraid that the ROC will change its official name. Is this not self-contradictory? What China most fears is Taiwan's democracy. Taiwan's democracy poses the biggest threat and challenge to China. Therefore, they oppose Taiwan's democracy, and oppose Taiwan's referendum.

TIME: Mr. President. If you win the election on March 20th, will it be your objective to change Taiwan's name in the next four years?

Chen: I have already said: In my inaugural speech in 2000, I made the "Five No's" pledge. It is not possible that I said one thing in 2000, and then, in the inaugural speech following my reelection in 2004, say something different. On many occasions, I have stressed that we must maintain the status quo, maintain the status quo of Taiwan's sovereignty, maintain the status quo of Taiwan's democratic development, maintain the status quo of Taiwan's economic prosperity, and maintain the status quo of peace across the Taiwan Strait. Not only do we want to maintain Taiwan's status quo, but also to avoid and prevent Taiwan's status quo from being changed unilaterally. Therefore, if I win the reelection bid and continue promoting the process of constitutional reform, we will maintain the status quo. And we will carry out constitutional reforms on the basis of not changing the status quo.

TIME: Taiwan's safety depends quite a lot on protection of the US. With your referendum, are you going too far for the Bush administration?

Chen: The US has said many times that it does not oppose Taiwan's referendum. The US has expressed their opinions and concerns about the March 20th Peace Referendum, which we appreciate. What concerns the US is whether or not Taiwan's status quo would be changed unilaterally, including change of the status quo through a referendum. I would take this opportunity to tell the whole world that Taiwan's status quo will definitely not be changed, nor will we allow it to be changed unilaterally. And the status quo will not be changed through any means, including referendum. Holding the peace referendum this coming March will allow us to maintain Taiwan's status quo and avoid the status quo being unilaterally changed. Therefore, we will not change the status quo now, nor will we change the status quo in the next four years of my next term as the president. However, if Beijing authorities intend to unilaterally change the status quo of Taiwan, then the 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to say "no."

TIME: Mr. President, Beijing sometimes refers to you as a separatist. Do you agree with that definition? Is that an accurate description of your views?

Chen: I understand it very clearly that they dislike me, and I'm not surprised that they call me names. As the leader of this country, it is my duty to defend and safeguard Taiwan. I cannot betray Taiwan; I cannot betray the people of Taiwan, nor can I betray my own conscience.

The Hands-in-hands Across Taiwan rally to be held on February 28, as well as the Peace Referendum on March 20, are intended to defend and safeguard Taiwan. As the national leader of this country, I must stand with the 23 million people of Taiwan. It is impossible for me to stand with Beijing authorities. If they call me a separatist just because I choose not to stand with the Beijing authorities, then that is their business. As long as the 23 million people of Taiwan understand my strong love for this land of Taiwan, and understand that I will always embrace the true masters of this land, the 23 million people of Taiwan, then I think they will continue to support me. As long as the people of Taiwan do not refer to me as a separatist, then it will be fine.

TIME: Now that you've been president for three years, who are the political leaders that inspire you?

Chen: I think that the people are the best mirror for reflection and self-examination, and I draw my greatest inspiration from the people. They are my spirit. Of course, I'd also like to say that I draw much inspiration from former US president John F. Kennedy. He's not just the idol of my son; I myself believe that I also have much to learn from him. This is particularly true of President Kennedy during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he led the US through the crisis and brought world peace. I still recall a speech delivered by President Kennedy in June 1963, about six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, at American University in Washington, D.C. He elaborated on what is true peace: True peace is not the peace of enslavement, nor a dead peace. True peace comes when all people can live meaningful lives.

President Kennedy also said that true peace is not just peace for the Americans, but peace for all humankind. And it is not just peace for our generation, but lasting peace for many generations.

And so the Peace Referendum that we're promoting for March 20th is not just for peace in Taiwan and peace across the strait. It is not just for peace in our generation, but also for lasting, permanent peace for peoples across the Strait.

TIME: Mr. President, the nationalism movement is most definitely on the rise in Taiwan, and to me it seems that it's a movement that rejects all cultural, social and political ties with China. It almost identifies itself with being anti-China or anti-Chinese. Is this a move that you believe is healthy for Taiwan?

Chen: Taiwan is a democratic country with a rich diversity of views. When different groups or different individuals hold alternate views and ideas as to which direction this country should go, we should respect them. I don't think the nationalism movement started just recently. It has existed for over half a century. Regarding the issue of Taiwan's international status, some hold the view that it is undecided, and therefore some groups of people will seek official independence for Taiwan and a declaration of independence. But we hold the view that whether we are called Taiwan or the Republic of China, we are already an independent sovereign country. Therefore, it is not necessary to declare independence. The fundamental attitude and stance of this government is to maintain and defend the status quo. However, we cannot deny that some are not satisfied with the status quo, and they hold different opinions. We must tolerate and respect such opinions. As I am now the President, I must bear the responsibility and be accountable.

TIME: If you lose the election and the KMT takes the government, how bad would that be for Taiwan?

Chen: I don't think there is such a possibility. I will be re-elected. We will not allow the "black gold" politics to return. The people of Taiwan will choose a candidate that has a clear position and clear ideas. They will choose a candidate who will truly protect Taiwan and who will always stand with the 23 million people of Taiwan. I hope that Time magazine will have confidence in me. I recall that back in 1994, before I was elected mayor of Taipei, I was selected by your respectable magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I also recall that on the election day back on March 18, 2000, before the results were announced, your magazine conducted an interview at our campaign headquarters. A few hours after the interview was conducted, the results were announced and I was elected President, so your interview was not conducted in vain. I am a person that writes history and creates new chapters in history. I believe that on March 20, 2004, I will again write history.

TIME: If you can imagine for a moment that the KMT candidates are elected to govern Taiwan, would the deepening sense of Taiwanese identity and consciousness that began with former president Lee Teng-hui be cut short or influenced as a result?

Chen: We have already walked this far down the road of Taiwan's democracy. We cannot turn back now. Some say that we pursue "de-Sinification." Actually, it would be more precise to say that we are unwilling to strip Taiwan of its nationhood. From Lee Teng-hui to myself, former president Lee Teng-hui belonged to the KMT, whereas I am a member of the DPP, but he passed the baton to me. Taiwan's road to democracy is clearly a road that runs counter to stripping Taiwan of its nationhood. This is a trend and a mainstream value in Taiwan society. It is not something that anyone can change or oppose. It is also the main reason why I will win the election on March 20.