Jian Junbo’s article “Taiwan’s ‘opportunist’ president alters tack,” published in Asia Times Online on Aug. 11, unwittingly provides a solid argument against the unification of Taiwan and China, as it clearly demonstrates how the otherwise educated Chinese elite like Mr. Jian, an assistant professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, completely fails to understand what Taiwanese think and what democracy is all about. In that respect, this is a useful article, in terms of serving as an eye-opener for those in Taiwan who support unification or believe that the younger of generation of Chinese, which has seen more of the world, is becoming more democratic.
Ironically, many Taiwanese would agree with Mr. Jian’s opening statement, that President Ma Ying-jeou is an “opportunist” who “appears to lack foresight and strategy, with hesitation and self-contradiction manifest in his mainland policy.” They would do so, however, for altogether divergent reasons, as we shall see later.
For now, let us take a close look at the pledge Ma is alleged to have made and the reasons why, from Mr. Jian’s perspective, Ma is contradicting himself. Jian argues that “fresh in the people’s minds” — this would be in November last year — Ma made a “solemn pledge” to “uphold the ‘one China’ principle stipulated in the [Republic of China] constitution.” What Ma actually “pledged” was to abide by the constitution — which was amended in 1991 and reads that cross-strait relations are a “state-to-state” or “special state-to-state” relationship — and the so-called “1992 consensus” for the SEF-ARATS talks, which refers to “one China, separate interpretations” or alternatively “one China, respective interpretations.”
We should remember that the “1992 consensus” was crafted (be a small group of individuals rather than through a democratic process) so that the Taiwanese leadership would have room to maneuver, and provided the very flexibility that Mr. Jian now perceives as “opportunism” and contradictory. It also implies recognition, on Taiwan’s side, that China will not sit down for talks unless Taipei refers to “one China.” In other words, the term is being forced on Taipei as a precondition for talks. What it does not mean, however, is that Taiwanese accept that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China (a tiny minority does). This is an important distinction that Mr. Jian fails to make.
Mr. Jian then accuses Ma of saying that Beijing should recognize the realities across the Taiwan Strait, that there is the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or “two Chinas.” What gall, on Ma’s part, to state what is, indeed, a reality! (To get even closer to reality, we’d have to say that there is, indeed, only one China, and that is the PRC, while that concept called the ROC is in fact Taiwan, a sovereign country across the Taiwan Strait.)
All this, added to Jian’s allegation that Ma told visiting Dutch parliamentarians on Aug. 2 that he doesn’t intend to hold any political talks with Beijing, is evidence, in the author’s mind, that Ma “is a person who cannot adhere to one principle from beginning to end. Based on a number of speeches and interviews Ma has given, there is no indication that Ma does not intend, at some point, to discuss political issues with Beijing. As has already been clearly explained by his administration, however, and as has been the case since the secret cross-strait talks and SEF-ARATS meetings began in the early 1990s, Taipei prefers to negotiate on less contentious issues first and to keep difficult political matters for last. But Jian has no time for this. Ma is an “opportunist” who is “dizzy” with his cross-strait successes, which are making him speak “thoughtlessly” (meaning “irrationally,” the same kind of accusations that have so often been leveled at supporters of Taiwanese independence, as opposed to the “rationalism” of those who support unification).
Ma’s wavering and failure to adhere to his “pledge,” in Jian’s view, indicates that he does not support “one China,” which in Beijing’s paranoid view is tantamount to supporting independence. The author also sees evidence of a Ma volte-face in his request that Beijing remove the 1,500 short-range missiles it aims at Taiwan before any talks on a peace accord can be held. Jian writes that Beijing has “no problem in practice with removing those missiles … as long as Taipei formally agrees to stop and even fight any form of support for Taiwan’s independence.”
Jian conveniently forgets that Ma has also pledged not to declare or support independence for Taiwan. Anyone who has even but a superficial understanding of the Ma administration would know that there is no chance that it will support, let alone assist, the Taiwanese independence movement. However, as it is an elected government in a democracy, it simply cannot engage in the “stopping” and “fighting” of TI supporters Jian would ostensibly see as evidence of Ma’s commitment to “one China.” Taiwan isn’t China, where brute force and police-state measures are used to fight, stop and silence dissidents.
What this ultimately means for Ma’s “pledge” to abide by the “one China” principle while not supporting independence is that as president in a democracy, he must perform a balancing act. Whether Jian likes it or not, Ma cannot simply ignore legislative and presidential elections and forge ahead with his cross-strait policies. Doing so would be political suicide. In fact, it would risk undermining the very political end Mr. Jian so obviously desires. As such, Ma is forced to cater to various sociopolitical factions — including factions within his own party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). As happens in any democracy, this requirement to cater to, or at minimum appease, factions (political, social, economic, external) with different objectives forces leaders to adopt a more centrist position, which in Taiwan’s case means the “status quo.” It also means saying things that may sound contradictory, or adopting policies that, prima facie, may appear unwise, as was the intensification of cross strait economic exchanges at a time when China was strengthening its military posture, which occurred while the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under president Chen Shui-bian was in power.
Jian continues by writing that “What ‘One China’ means in Beijing’s view is not the PRC, nor of course the ROC, but a nation with independent sovereignty covering both the mainland and Taiwan and a history of 5,000 years. It is based on such a vague definition of ‘one China’ that detente on the strait in the past year has become possible.”
What he omits, however, is that this “one China” would comprise unequal partners, in which the PRC is the predominant force and the ROC a mere subject, which has implications for the desire of Taiwanese to unify with China (not to mention the authoritarian nature of the PRC leadership, or the fact that Taiwan has been ruled separately for at least 114 years).
“As a graduate of Harvard University’s Faculty of Law,” Jian writes, “Ma Ying-jeou must understand clearly that world leaders should not easily be swung by public opinions in society if he is really interested in their best interests. The fact that some Taiwanese are advocating for the island’s independence cannot be a legitimate excuse for Ma Ying-jeou to refuse political dialogue with Beijing or deny ‘one China.’”
In this passage we find Jian unashamedly exposing his total lack of understanding of democracy. In democratic systems, leaders are inevitably swayed by public opinion, and those who refuse to do so are swiftly phased out through electoral retribution. The claim that strong leaders know what is in people’s “best interests,” meanwhile, not only is undemocratic, but derives from a sympathetic view of authoritarianism, which Taiwan thankfully managed to rid itself of after 40 years under such rule. Observations such as “When given the opportunity, [Ma] should use his authority and power to push for cross-strait political mutual trust. Now, since he will soon take the chairmanship of … KMT, he should think less of his own re-election in 2012 and launch a historic meeting with Chinese leader Hu Jintao” also demonstrate Jian’s disregard for democracy.
His comment, meanwhile, that “some Taiwanese are advocating for the island’s independence” is misleading. “Some” gives the impression that there are only a handful, while masking the fact that close to 90 percent of people in Taiwan support neither independence nor unification — in other words, they want the “status quo” to continue.
Facing this, as well as mounting criticism that Ma is going too fast in his cross-strait policies, or that he is making Taiwan dangerously dependent economically on China, Ma is compelled to adopt a more centrist political stance and to proceed more slowly. Furthermore, there are signs that the Ma administration has been less than transparent, and sometimes altogether undemocratic, in its dealings with China, which if proven will further add to domestic pressure. What from across the strait is seen as a slow, wavering and “opportunist” Ma is, on the other side, seen as “selling out” to China and endangering the sovereignty of Taiwan by proceeding too fast and giving too much.
And yet, Jian warns that Ma should focus less on his reelection bid in 2012 (or that of his officials, who are entirely effaced though Jian’s focus on strong authoritarian leadership) and accelerate the pace of negotiations, showcasing the same impatience displayed by Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, who said that talks on unification could not go on indefinitely.
Jian concludes by writing that “If Ma thinks the future of Taiwan should be decided by Taipei and the country’s 23 million Taiwanese, then he must also realize that cross-strait relations are also partly decided by Beijing and China’s 1.3 billion Chinese, not just by Taiwan.”
This is just the kind of friendly reassurances Taiwanese need from their Chinese “compatriots” — if you decide your own future democratically, we’ll use the crushing weight of 1.3 billion Chinese (and its military, we can assume) to bring you back in line, to force you to love us.
Let us hope that Mr. Jian, who is now a visiting scholar in Denmark, learns a thing or two about democracy before he pens his next article pretending to know what’s best for Taiwanese and their leaders.
This response was published in Asia Times Online on Aug. 21.