Taiwan's Premier Supports Reforms to Constitution
January 28, 2005
By Jason Dean, Staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal
TAIPEI -- Taiwan's newly appointed premier said he believes reforming the island's constitution is necessary, but that it can be accomplished without upsetting relations with neighbor China.
Taiwan's plans for constitutional reform have been a key source of tension across the Taiwan Strait. President Chen Shui-bian has continued to push for revisions despite legislative elections last month that left control of the lawmaking body in the hands of parties that have criticized his proposals. The constitution was adopted in 1946 by Chiang Kai-shek's authoritarian Kuomintang when it still governed mainland China, and Mr. Chen and others argue the document doesn't suit Taiwan's current vibrant democracy.
But China has said repeatedly that it sees any constitutional reforms as a plot to propel Taiwan toward formal independence, something Beijing has threatened to use military force to prevent. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory despite more than five decades of separate rule.
On Friday, Frank Hsieh, whom Mr. Chen named premier this week, voiced his support for revising the constitution, saying flaws -- such as the unclear relationship in the document between Taiwan's legislature and its cabinet, which the premier heads -- need to be fixed to improve government effectiveness.
"Constitutional revision is necessary, because the current constitution has many parts that are inappropriate," Mr. Hsieh, who will take office on Tuesday, told a small gathering of foreign journalists. "Many people assume that after we revise the constitution tensions with China will increase. But I don't think that's necessarily true," he said, adding that a new constitution could actually "make rules for better relations" with China.
Since his appointment to Taiwan's No. 3 leadership job on Tuesday, Mr. Hsieh has stressed his desire to work toward better relations both with China and with the opposition parties that control Taiwan's legislature. The 58-year-old, who earned high approval ratings and a reputation as a pragmatist during his previous stint as mayor of Taiwan's second-biggest city, says he wants his cabinet to be the "negotiation cabinet," in contrast to that of his predecessor, which was known as the "combat cabinet."
Despite Mr. Hsieh's reputation for practicality, many analysts remain skeptical that he will be able to overcome the longstanding bitterness that divides the ruling Democratic Progressive Party from its opponents, or the deep mistrust between Taiwan and China. In his remarks Friday, Mr. Hsieh focused more on issues of tone than on substantive proposals, saying he wants to move Taiwanese politics toward a new "non-zero-sum system" of cooperation.
Mr. Hsieh conceded that Taiwanese officials have sometimes made remarks or proposals that unnecessarily rile China. "We'll do our best to reduce actions or language that needlessly irritate China," he said. Asked about a pre-election proposal by the Chen administration to replace "China" with "Taiwan" in the names of some of the island's government offices and state-owned companies, Mr. Hsieh said he would only support doing so in cases where the current name was causing confusion. The names of Taiwanese companies such as China Steel and China Airlines are legacies of the island's rule under the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, which fled to Taiwan from China in 1949 amid civil war with the Chinese Communists. Beijing has blasted the proposed name changes as another step toward independence.
"If there's no problem, we won't do it. If there is, then we will explain why we need to make the change," Mr. Hsieh said.
The premier-designate pointed to an agreement to allow nonstop charter flights between Taiwan and China during the Chinese Lunar New Year as a "very positive improvement" in cross-strait relations. The flights, scheduled to begin tomorrow, mark a temporary suspension of a 55-year ban on direct transportation between Taiwan and China. But he also warned that an "anti-secession law" aimed at Taiwan that China plans to adopt in March could trigger a popular backlash among the island's people, which could damage relations. Mr. Hsieh said he hopes China will drop plans for the law, a move analysts say is highly unlikely.