Friday, November 01, 2013

Twenty-three million invisible men and women

Even well meaning and informed experts often ignore the single most important element in the cross-strait equation — the Taiwanese

Call it a coincidence. Today I revisited, after nearly 20 years, Ralph Ellison’s masterful novel Invisible Man. A few hours later I came upon an article in The Diplomat that, while making a solid case as to why peaceful unification between Taiwan and China is in unattainable dream, committed the same mistake that almost every journalist, government official and ordinary person almost invariably make when it comes to Taiwan: the author wrote off Taiwan’s 23 million people.

Far too often, experts, pundits and government officials treat Taiwan as a mere pawn on a chessboard (“Taiwan as a way to keep China within the first island chain”), a means to an end (“a gateway to China,” or “an example in democratization for China”), or simply something to be given away in exchange for something else (“hand Taiwan over to China so that Beijing will be a better partner on North Korea”). In all of this — and it happens often — Taiwanese are altogether ignored, as if they had no will of their own or say over their destiny.

Now Kerry Brown’s piece in The Diplomat today commits no such infraction and hits the nail on the head by arguing that the greatest obstacle to unification lies in Beijing (I would argue that this is the second-greatest obstacle, but more later), whose increasingly authoritarian system simply cannot work with Taiwan’s democracy (he likens the experiment to trying to mate horses with bears).

But then Brown stumbles when he attempts to project scenarios where, he asserts, unification would more likely come about. “A reformed polity in China that was more pluralistic, open, based on the rule of law and accountable, whether the Communist Party is at the heart of it or not, would pose much harder questions to opponents of unification in Taiwan,” he writes.

This is the author’s assumption and, if I may be so blunt, it is an unproven one. Similarity of political systems, values, languages, culture certainly facilitate exchanges, but by no means do they guarantee willingness for any form of political union. Based on this premise, we would immediately conclude that if the U.S. democratized (I couldn’t help it; after all, as the great Canadian bard Leonard Cohen once said, democracy is coming to the U.S.A.), somehow Canada would agree to become part of it. Nationalism is a river than runs far deeper, and after more than 100 years-plus of separate existence, we simply don’t know whether Taiwanese would agree to become part of China. My informed bet is that they wouldn’t, for reasons similar to those that differentiate Americans from British, New Zealanders from Australians, or Belgians from French. Hell, the Czechs and Slovaks dissolved Czechoslovakia in 1993 after the country had once again become democratic! 

Which leads me to my next point: Rather than make guesses, why don’t we ask the Taiwanese themselves? What opinion polls already tell us is that even among the small percentage who support unification, many only do so on the condition that China democratizes. This, however, doesn’t mean that those who favor independence would support it any less following a dramatic change in the nature of China’s political system.

I’m not entirely sure that Brown is interested in any of this, though, as he then concludes his article with the following: “If there is a genuine chance of Beijing winning the historic prize of unification it is on conditions of political reform along the lines of Taiwan. President Ma in Taipei,” he writes, “should simply look Beijing in the eye and say, ‘Come on, I dare you to change, and if you do, then the historic prize is in your grasp.’”

First of all, Taiwan isn’t a prize to be won by anyone. And secondly, even as president, Ma has no right to make such a decision on behalf of Taiwan’s 23 million souls. It is their country, and its destiny lies in their grasp, not in Ma’s, and certainly not in Beijing’s — unless, that is, they themselves decide to abandon that right. (Photo by the author)

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