Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Most Precious Democracy

I am constantly surprised by the position that many Taiwanese people my age and younger have taken on the Taiwan Strait issue. On many occasions when we start talking about whether Taiwan should strive for independence or eventually reintegrate China I am met with the argument that it would be better for the Taiwanese economy if the two Chinas were politically reunited. There is this perception—fed by the media, mostly—that the Taiwanese economy hasn’t been doing well since the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) came to power in 2000.

It’s one thing to think that the economy is ailing, and it is true that during the 1990s Taiwan, one of the small dragons, had fared better. But a close look at the numbers—a GDP growth of 3.8 percent for 2005 (Canada’s is 2.9 percent) and a 4.1 percent unemployment rate (6.8 percent in Canada) and, at about $260 billion, one of the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves—reveals that in spite of the slowdown, Taiwan’s numbers ought to be the envy of many other countries. What compounds the perception of many Taiwanese that unification with China would be a positive development are the stratospheric economic data that are being fed the world by Beijing (unprecedented two-digit growth rates and so on). The problem with those numbers is that they are quite likely exaggerated. Furthermore, China has a very serious distribution problem, which means that the majority of Chinese could hope to benefit from such numbers, even if they were real. Conversely, if China did distribute its wealth in a matter which would permit it to ameliorate its social services, those very same rates would inevitably go down. Failing to invest in its infrastructure (other than building skyscrapers and superhighways that no one uses), the supposed great wealth that is being generated does not result in better living standards for ordinary Chinese. Outside Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and a few other big cities, there lies the “other” China, one where poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are rampant.

But this is just economic matters. More importantly, surely, are the great differences in political freedoms between Taiwan and China. And yet, strangely enough, this is a topic that very rarely is raised by the Taiwanese friends I talk with. I don’t know if that is the result of our reading different publications, but alarmingly most Taiwanese of my generation and those that came after it seem unaware of the pitiful state of affairs in China, where human rights activists are routinely being jailed, reporters and writers forced to revise their comments or also be imprisoned. It is illegal, for example, for sources to leak information on issues of national security—the definition of which is so large and fluid that almost anything, from the outbreak of a disease to how the government deals with a natural catastrophe, can be considered as such and result in prosecution. By the thousands, Chinese are being forced out of their homes so that useless construction projects can continue. Some of those who tried to save their homes have been beaten by police, and news sites reporting on this have been forcefully shut down.

Even more striking is the gradual transformation of Hong Kong, which since its reunification with China—and despite its special status—has also been transformed by the powers that be in Beijing. Surely, if there is something that should serve as a warning to the Taiwanese who are in favor of reunification with China, with HK-like special status or not, the former British territory should be it. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to register. Despite the cries of alarm from various rights groups in Hong Kong, many Taiwanese do not seem to be aware that laws protecting civil liberties are being changed and that the authorities are slowly obtaining powers of intrusiveness that would make anyone in a democracy pause.

Sadly, I do not think young Taiwanese fully understand or appreciate the tremendous value of democracy—a gift that perhaps they take for granted. In their minds, the economy trumps rights and anyway, China is bound to open up and become a better place. Perhaps that is true, but recent signs point in the opposite direction, and this in spite of increased scrutiny as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing approach. Diplomats from all over the world are being lied to when Beijing—which is also the pollution capital of the world, by the way—tells them foreign reporters will be given unlimited access throughout the games and subsequently. The state media is becoming more powerful, at the great detriment of any independent outlet, which are now faced with a choice between censorship or closure and jail.

Yesterday, Taiwan’s 14th attempt to gain representation for its 23 million citizens at the United Nations once again met with failure, thanks to opposition from China. Given its economic weight, Beijing is able to co-opt, charm and bully states that otherwise would be in favor of recognizing Taiwan. In the process, China manages to pluck recognition of and political support for the democratic island. A quick look at the ongoing peaceful and orderly sit-in led by former DPP Chairman Shih Ming-teh (施明德) to unseat President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) should make the Taiwanese appreciative of their right to do so, to go out on the street and protest. A similar event in China would most assuredly have been met with violence and widespread arrests.

Finally, if all the above isn’t sufficient to convince the Taiwanese that reunification with China for economic benefit isn’t necessarily a good thing, they should consider the odd-800 missiles that Beijing currently has pointing at Taiwan, to which number about 100 new missiles are added every year. Who in his right mind would want to run into the arms of a distant cousin under the threat of physical arm should he fail to do so? Beyond Beijing’s political pressure on potential allies of Taiwan, beyond its meddling in the Taiwanese democratic process, it is the threat of military force, the anti-democratic compelling of a people through the threat of and the planning for use of force (a crime against peace as per Article 6(a) of the United Nations Charter), that should convince every Taiwanese that they stand to lose so much by reuniting with a country that very obviously has no democratic aspirations.

Surely, there must be ways to do business with China without one having to sell his soul in the process.

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