During the past years, Taiwan has been considered a model for democratization in Asia: in spite of the continuing threat by China, it was able to make the transition from an authoritorian one-party regime under the Kuomintang from the 1940s through the early 1990s, to a fully blossoming democracy today. The election of President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP in March 2000 is generally viewed as the culmination of this transition.
However, since March 2000 it has also become abundantly clear that Taiwan is not there yet. The main issue is the confusing and often vitriolic debate about Taiwan's status. The debate is made even more confusing by the sometimes wishy-washy statements of President Chen himself. In some cases he is firm, for example in rejecting the "One China" dictum of the PRC and in emphasizing that Taiwan is a sovereign nation, but at other times he seems to contradict himself, e.g. by discussing "political integration" with China. In the first article below, Mr. Li Thian-hok takes Mr. Chen to task on this issue.
The second issue, is the fact that democratic practices are not deeply ingrained yet in the political system on the island. The primary example is the refusal of the old Kuomintang and PFP-leadership to accept the newly-elected DPP leadership as the legitimate, democratically-elected government. The past three years have seen an inordinate amount of obstruction by these two parties against the DPP government. They were helped to no small extent by the fact that much of the bureaucracy maintained its loyalty to the former rulers. In the second article below, Mr. Nat Bellocchi, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, discusses the possibility that Taiwan's democracy might still fail.
By Li Thian-Hok, a prominent member of the Taiwanese-American community. This article first appeared in the Taipei Times of 11 February 2003. Reprinted with permission.
On 22 January 2003, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) of Philadelphia published a memorandum detailing "A conversation with Chen Shui-bian" by Harvey Sicherman, President of FPRI.
In the Q&A, President Chen asserts that "The Republic of China (ROC) is a sovereign state.... The ROC effectively exercises jurisdiction over the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu -- a fact no one can deny." "Taiwan is not a part of, a local government of, or a province of any country." "We want to emphasize to the international community that, as a sovereign state, the ROC cannot be downgraded, treated as a local government, or marginalized by anyone."
In these statements, Chen is emphasizing Taiwan's current political status, that it is the government of Taiwan, not the People's Republic of China (PRC), which effectively governs Taiwan, Penghu and the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Chen is countering the PRC claim that Taiwan is part of China, or a renegade province of China, since the PRC does not at present exercise, nor has at any time ever exercised, control over Taiwan or the Penghu islands. What Beijing means is that Taiwan should be a part of China.
On August 3 of last year, President Chen declared to overseas Taiwanese attending the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations conference in Tokyo that each side of the Taiwan Strait was a sovereign state, causing alarm in some quarters of Washington. Actually Chen was merely describing the current political status of Taiwan, the fact that Taiwan is a de facto independent country, not subject to the effective control of the People's Republic.
None of these statements by Chen Shui-bian is in conflict with his other statements in regards to Taiwan's future status. Former President Lee Teng-hui has criticized President Chen for his lack of vision for Taiwan's future. In fact, President Chen has clearly enunciated his vision for Taiwan in his December 31, 2000 address: "Bridging the New Century." Because "the people of Taiwan and China share the same blood, culture and historical background...," Chen has appealed to the leaders in China to "take cross-strait economic, trade, and cultural integration as a starting point for gradually building mutual trust..." and "then jointly seek a new framework for permanent peace and political integration between the two sides."
Although Chen has not publicly explained what is meant by "political integration," it is clear Chen aims to give up Taiwan's de facto independent status in exchange for peace and a high degree of autonomy, perhaps an improved variant of the "One Country, Two Systems" model. Beijing has already promised that after unification Taiwan can keep its armed forces and that no PRC officials will be sent to Taiwan. So despite the sad experience of Hong Kong, where the promise of fifty years of democracy is already in shambles, Chen Shui-bian's DPP government shares with Beijing a common vision of a prosperous future "One China."
Chen Shui-bian betrays his ignorance of Taiwan's unique history when he says Taiwan and China share the same ethnicity and historical background. Due to his Sino-centric education, Chen does not fully appreciate the rich and diverse culture of Taiwan, which encompasses the culture and values not only of China but also of the aborigines, Japan, America and Europe. Chen's world view is narrowly focused on China. This is why Chen is anxious to "normalize relations with China," and to pursue direct trade, transportation and communication links with China, even though such links would further damage Taiwan's economy and jeopardize Taiwan's national security.
A Taiwan president who is determined to preserve Taiwan's sovereignty and hard-won democracy would insist as preconditions for negotiation of the direct links, that China must first renounce the use of force against Taiwan under international supervision, cease its military exercises in preparation for military action against Taiwan, and withdraw its short and medium range missiles targeted on Taiwan.
When Chen Shui-bian avers that Taiwan is a sovereign state, he is merely referring to Taiwan's current, effective control of its territory. He does not mean that Taiwan is a fully independent, sovereign nation. In his inaugural speech, Chen promised that during his term in office Taiwan will not declare formal independence, change its state name, codify the two states theory, hold a plebiscite to determine Taiwan's future or alter the National Unification Guidelines. All five actions he waived unilaterally fall within the authority of a sovereign state. By forfeiting these powers, Chen has diminished and marginalized Taiwan's status as a fully independent sovereign state, without consulting the wishes of the Taiwanese people.
It is most unfortunate that in the global contest between the forces of freedom and repression, Chen's DPP government appears inexorably headed toward a political union with the repressive People's Republic. However, Chen Shui-bian has been consistent in his statements on the status of Taiwan. The key to avoiding confusion is to distinguish between his description of Taiwan's present political status and his vision of a future "One China."
By Nat Bellocchi, former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. This article first appeared in the Taipei Times on 2 January 2003. Reprinted with permission.
Much of the world has become aware that Taiwan is a democracy. The collateral benefit, aside from the freedom of Taiwan's 23 million people, has been the potential for that democracy to set an example that would spread to its giant neighbor the PRC. For me, it was a privilege to have been involved in a small way while this virtual revolution blossomed and transformed the country's political system. It was like a breath of fresh air as freedom flourished and the future looked so bright for Taiwan.
But in only a decade, while the nation's democratic traditions are still maturing, changes across the Strait are bringing a challenge that have the potential to reverse that revolution. If democracy were allowed to fail in Taiwan, the damage would be devastating, not only to Taiwan, but to all of East Asia. Where the present changes in cross-strait relations are leading remains unclear to everyone. The best of economists and political scientists project their views of the future in terms of their own specialty, but separately. When it comes to analyzing the cross-strait situation, the question of how the changing economic relationship will affect political relations, or vice-versa, brings the wisest in both fields of study to demur on stating an opinion.
In Taiwan, it is not only unclear where future developments will go, but it is unclear where Taiwan wants them to go. The challenges Taiwan faces are awesome. To meet them will take an unusual demonstration of strength in leadership, a patriotism among the people that is still developing and a political will to bring consensus on the critical subject of sovereignty that has not been evident in this new democracy.
Taiwan today faces an economy that must make a fundamental restructuring within a very short period of time or be marginalized; a Chinese economy that is growing rapidly and offers many opportunities, while at the same time representing a threat to Taiwan's existence as an independent entity; a China that is able to influence much of the rest of the world to support its objective on Taiwan's sovereignty; a domestic political atmosphere that is losing the trust of the voters and damaging credibility in the political system; and ineffective communication between government and the people.
That may be a harsh assessment, but it is in no way partisan as both the ruling and opposition parties are responsible. I recently asked a friend who follows events in the Koreas and other Asian countries how he saw the difference between presidential elections in South Korea and the Taipei and Kaohsiung mayoral and city council races. He thought South Korean election campaigns were very tough, but in Taiwan they were "down and dirty." I interpret that to mean more than money politics. It was also the difference in the degree to which the people and the politicians they elected place patriotism and national sovereignty above the "quick buck" and partisan advantage.
Given the internal political priorities that seem to dominate the national agenda and the slow pace in addressing the internal and external challenges that Taiwan faces, it is not unreasonable to ponder the question: What if democracy fails in Taiwan?
Domestically, with an eye to their own personal economic problems, some of the people of Taiwan may come to believe that being under a special administrative region of China may be no worse than experiencing economic hardship under the status quo. It could look like trading one uncertainty for another. They could develop a perception that their freedom is not at stake that democracy could be maintained. But is democracy sustainable under the sovereignty of a nation that opposes it? Not likely.
But what if a majority expresses at least an acceptance of some type of unification, dressed up with a more desirable-sounding nomenclature and the promises of special privileges? It may be that there would be considerable opposition to such a decision, but, given the relative absence of a sense of patriotism, the differences over Taiwan's national status, the temptations represented by China's growing economy and the continuous political standoff, which hinders progress, any opposition that would stand against it may prove not to be very effective.
Then there is the likely external impact on such a decision. This factor does not seem to get much public attention in Taiwan. When it does, it usually is in terms of the US, with its security interests throughout all of East Asia in jeopardy, coming to help to prevent an unwanted unification with China. But democracy in Taiwan has brought a different dimension to this scenario. While there has been a clear strengthening of US-Taiwan security relations, so has there been a greater emphasis on the people's democratic right to decide Taiwan's relationship with China.
In terms of US interests, the potential problem of security in East Asia is the most important, but, at least for the medium term, American military strength will continue to prevail. But a Taiwan that voluntarily decided to become a part of China would not likely be prevented from doing so, and in addition to the problem of security in the region, another, perhaps just as significant problem would be the backward step of democracy.
For China's leadership, gaining Taiwan would, without question, bolster their political strength domestically. But more important, it would strengthen, perhaps irretrievably, the PRC leadership's insistence that democracy is not appropriate to Asia. The impact of that in Taiwan, and in other countries in the region that have moved toward democracy, would be disastrous. Freedom would have taken a major step backward. Despite its small size and its undefined status in the international community, what Taiwan does matters in a much larger, international arena.
How much better it would be if politicians businessmen and people throughout the island would come to accept the responsibility of making democracy work in Taiwan.
The results of a public opinion poll released in early December 2002 showed that more than 50 percent of the people in Taiwan prefer independence to unification or prefer to stick with the status quo. The poll was conducted by the Cabinet's Research, Development and Evaluation Commission.
According to the survey, about 32 percent of the people polled said that Taiwan independence is better for the nation's interest than unification with China. Nearly 20 percent said they preferred the status quo, which is by many in Taiwan seen as de facto independence. Approximately 21 percent said that unification with China would be better for the nation's interest than independence, a drop from 28 percent in a similar poll last year. This leaves some 27 percent undecided.
A separate opinion poll conducted in December by the Mainland Affairs Council showed a similar shift in favor of independence and away from unification. Chin Heng-wei, a political observer and editor-in-chief of Contemporary Monthly magazine, said that the surveys send a clear message. "There are more and more people who prefer Taiwan independence to unification with China nowadays," Chin said. "The 2004 presidential election will become a referendum for Taiwan's future if the issue of independence or unification becomes the main theme of the campaign."
Chin, who regarded those preferring the status quo as "mild supporters of independence," said that the commision's latest poll actually showed that 52 percent of the people support the idea of independence, while only some 21 percent prefer unification. Below is a commentary from the Taipei Times on the issue:
This editorial first appeared in the Taipei Times on 5 December 2002. Reprinted with permission
The latest opinion poll by the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission shows more people are heading toward supporting independence. According to the opinion poll, there are more people who support independence (32.3 percent) than those who support unification (21.8 percent) or the status quo (19.7 percent).
Never before have so many people supported independence. Moreover, its percentage of support has grown from the 29.6 percent in the commission's survey in 2000, while the percentages of support for status quo and unification have declined from 21.5 percent and 26.6 percent, respectively.
It must be pointed out that the percentage of supporters for unification has undergone a significant decline more than 5 percent since 2000. This figure cannot be brushed aside, since it has exceeded the usual 3 percent margin of error. The question then becomes what is prompting this gradual shift.
One reason may be that, while Taiwan's democracy may be suffering from some troubling growing pains over the past years, democracy is nevertheless becoming increasingly indispensable to the people now that they have come to know the feeling of being one's own master.
It is becoming more and more unthinkable for them that, until democratization, they lived a life in which they remained silent under one-party autocracy, despite the fact that the nation had a robust economy at the time. For all the apparent opportunities to strike rich in the lucrative Chinese market these days, it is even more unimaginable that they would have to return to that kind of life under Chinese rule in the event of unification.
A no less important reason for this shift is perhaps China's high-handed tactics in dealing with Taiwan over the years. On Tuesday, China's ambassador to the US, Yang Jiechi, shamelessly claimed that Chinese missile deployment targeting Taiwan is an issue of "national security" that deserves US understanding and support.
What kind of national security concern can Taiwan possibly pose to China when Taipei is "allowed" only to purchase defensive arms and when it has its hands full trying to stay alive under Chinese threats? Yang was quoted as saying "It is [Taiwan's] actions that are actually causing instability."
On Nov. 26, an official from China's Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhou Mingwei, had the audacity to say "logically speaking we can teach them [the Taiwanese] a lesson, but we haven't done so." These are just two examples of the kind of abusive and demeaning language from China that people in Taiwan must put up with on a regular basis. How can they not feel resentful?
Also playing a role is perhaps the unprecedented friendliness of the US government toward Taiwan and international condemnation against Chinese missile threats.
Finally, perhaps more people are finally realizing that reality is closing in on them, and that it is simply naive to think that the status quo can be maintained indefinitely.
With China growing stronger everyday in terms of economic, military and political prowess, today's status quo is already different from that of a few years ago. Under the circumstances, people must take a stance over the question of independence versus unification.
If the people are indeed opting for independence over unification, can the world and China respect the people's right to self-determination?
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