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Taiwan’s finest hour

Friday, March 14, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

Curiously, no one on Taiwan [and certainly no Communist spokesman on the Mainland] would say so, but historians someday may say that March 2008 was the little island’s finest hour. That, of course, depends. As that old cliché goes, history is written by the victors. And we are a long way from the last lines being written about that small corner of the world.

Taiwan may be playing a unique role. For in the long and brilliant annals of Chinese history one thing has always been missing: anything approaching the democratic spirit and very little about the rights of individuals to shape their own destiny. Whatever else Confucianism is, the predominant philosophy of China for more than 1500 years, its many ceremonies and rules don’t make many allowances for what is enshrined in the Indo-Euro-American world as freedom. It’s is no accident that the ideogram used in most of the Sinitic countries for “freedom” would better be translated into Western languages as ‘licentious”.

So one could and probably should put a great deal of stock in the presidential elections coming up March 22 in Taiwan.

Not that they aren’t going to be messy as they usually are in democratic countries.

Messy in the sense that the big ideas about the future and how Taiwan should tackle it are going to be caught up in petty politics and personalities in their narrowest sense. But as in every election in countries that choose to try to make their future through the will of the people, however misguided that is from time to time, the Taiwanese are facing a mixture of cosmic and mundane problems. [Looking south, we have just seen how another struggling Asian democracy has virtually overturned a 50-year-old regime in Malaysia looking for new and difficult answers through elections to the horrendous problems of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic state.]

It goes with the territory, as they say. It’s no surprise; either, that The Los Angeles Times from its lofty moral perch calls the outgoing Taipei Administration “The Legacy of Lost Hopes in Taiwan”. [It isn’t only George W. Bush who is constantly being denigrated by the media mavin!]

Finest hour? Yes, because a free people are going to try to decide their destiny through the ballot box and through consensus. That hasn’t happened in the long history of the Chinese people, certainly not under the brutal totalitarians who took over the Mainland in 1949. No one can or should minimize those decisions.

And the odds are not all that good.

Perhaps the least important in the nature of today’s world politics would seem to be that the Taiwanese are being asked to vote on two referenda at the same time they elect a new chief executive. In fact, neither of the referenda are meaningful beyond Greater China – the complex world of Chinese who live not only on the Mainland and in Taiwan but in a diaspora in Southeast Asia and around the world.

The question posed is at the same time a strategic and a tactical ploy, but maybe getting at the heart of the Island’s present existence. It consults the 25 million or so residents on the Island on how they view themselves: whether they should apply to the United Nations for admission under the name of “Taiwan” is the issue. A spokesman for the outgoing Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] which proposes that, likened the referendum to an "amulet" that could protect Taiwan.

Their political rivals, the Kuomintang Party [Nationalists or KMT] – whose political and often family forbears ruled on the Mainland under Chiang Kai-shek before they lost the Civil War in 1949 and tens of thousands fled to Taiwan – proposes another referendum. It asks to work for admission to the UN under the old Republic of China [ROC]. In fact, the KMT and its partisans would like the whole referendum issue to just go away and have only thrown that bone out because they think it might be a vote-getter against the more “nationalistic” DPP. [How could that possibly happen in a parliamentary democracy, you say?]

Both, of course, know — along with the voters — that Beijing would use its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council, if it came to that, to block the entry of the Island under any name. It has repeatedly.

Furthermore, Beijing has used everything from the threat of force to bribery to exclude Taiwan from most of the UN specialized agencies, including even the World Health Organization – not the economic ones because Taiwan punches above its weight as a major world economic player. [That’s at a time when Beijing’s own health facilities or lack thereof have threatened the world with pandemics!] Real growth in GDP has averaged about 8 percent during the past three decades. Exports have grown even faster and since World War II, provided the impetus for industrialization. Inflation and unemployment are low; the trade surplus substantial; and foreign reserves are the world's fourth largest. Agriculture contributes 3 percent to GDP, down from 35 percent in 1952, and the service sector makes up 73 percent of the economy. Moreover, Taiwan's economy, unlike that of Japan or South Korea, largely consists of small and medium-sized businesses with one in seven people an owner. Is it any wonder that many have seen Taiwan as the “model”, not only its economy but its political progress toward democracy, as a hope for the Mainland!

But Beijing makes any recognition by governments around the world of the Taipei regime whatever its name a cause for pressure and condemnation. For the Mainland Communists, Taiwan/ROC is “a renegade province” of the People’s Republic of China that ought to merge with their regime and its 1.3 billion people. And just to make its point, it has repeatedly refused to renounce force in coming to a settlement with Taipei and has massed hundreds of missiles on the coast opposite the Island as a show of force it may one day employ. That is, if the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the law on the American Congress’ books pledging to defend Taiwan against force doesn’t stand in the way.

Furthermore, voting for “Taiwan” throws down the gauntlet to the Mainland. Whereas the other approach, equally ineffective, that is, continuing to call itself ROC but as it has done for some time, renouncing any claims it once made to be the government of all Chinese, is seen in Beijing as continuing the idea of “rejoining” the Mainland. That would be sooner on Beijing’s part, rather than later – and maybe never — if waiting for democracy on the Mainland is the criteria on the part of the Islanders. It’s clear that most Islanders would just like to maintain the status quo, de facto independence. But Beijing may not give them that option as the years roll by. On the other hand, Washington just wants quiet on the Taiwan Strait. And President George W. Bush, once a fervent advocate of Taiwan, made that clear, standing next to Communist President Hu Jintao in Washington on the Mainland leader’s visit there. Both Beijing and Washington were in lock step in opposing the referenda, if for different reasons.

Adding even more irony, is the galloping economic relations between the Island and the Mainland. Their bilateral trade increased by a third last year. There may be as much as $100 billion in Taiwanese investment on the Mainland, much of it accompanied by a transfer of technology and management crucial to Beijing’s export-led economic strategy. And there are some half million or more Taiwan citizens working on the Mainland in these companies as the skilled industrial craftsmen and managers the Mainland still does not have.

All this has worried Chen Shui-bian Chen, 57, the outgoing president, the first opposition candidate to win election after decades of rule by the Nationalists [a good part of it under martial law]. Chen, who won the office twice, says it may be giving the Mainland leverage over Taiwan. His second term accorded in the elections of 2004 was as unpredicted as his DPP’s first victory in 2000. He won in no small part, not only because of sympathy for a controversial attempt on his life, but because Beijing huffed and puffed and threatened a military takeover on the eve of the elections, even throwing missiles at the seas surrounding the Island. As happens sometimes with free peoples, the Islanders simply voted in Chen, the man Beijing regarded as their nemesis.

But time has taken its toll. Chen goes out viewed by many as corrupt and authoritarian. His excuse [have we heard this elsewhere?] is that he faced an increasingly polarized public, uncooperative legislature and biased bureaucracy. And used to once double digit growth rates of its Asian neighbors – the proud example of what extensive American government-to-government aid and open markets could do for a “developing country” – the economy is sagging. Chen has warned [again it has a familiar ring] that too many jobs are moving to the Mainland, ported there by local businessmen who say they cannot function or make profits in the globalized economy without the use of the Mainland’s cheap labor, subsidized currency and the glamour of having been produced in “the world’s factory”.

The election itself pits Kuomintang party candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who seemed on election eve to be widening his lead, over rival Frank Hsieh of the outgoing ruling DPP. The DPP had already suffered a big defeat when it lost the parliamentary and local elections earlier this year. But “divided government” has existed for a good part of Chen’s second administration, underscoring the old Churchillian axiom about the faults of democracy but better than anything else the politicians have invented.

In the final hours, Hsieh stepped up his attacks on Ma, warning that the Hong Kong-born politician would sell out the island to Beijing, an allegation flatly rejected by Ma and the KMT, of course. The fact that Beijing has laid out the red carpet for Ma on visits to the Mainland – even though they have learned to keep quiet – is another club handed the DPP. Ma has centered his campaign on economic issues, pledging to revive the island's economy, and to agree to long postponed direct links to the Mainland which now, for the most part, have to go through Hong Kong.

In a last minute gambit, Ma has even pledged that his government would ante up for Taiwan’s defenses by allocating as much as 3 percent of the GDP to defense. Some $18 billion in discounted arms sales offered originally by the U.S. to prop up the Island’s defenses to held ward off any aggression from the Mainland has been stalled for years — in no small part by opposition from the KMT but also from even some DPP politicians. The high price of defending the Island with state-of-the-art weaponry is a hard bone to swallow for all the democratically elected legislators. [Heard that before?]

Ironically, the Islanders generally believe they have a few months respite while Beijing gears up for the Olympics in August. They know that Mainland China is on its best behavior – or at least as good as it can be given the nature of the regime – lest it unleash a campaign of agitation for a boycott of what some Hollywood stars have called “the genocide games”, linking it to Beijing’s support of the Sudanese government’s murderous activities in its own country.

So Taiwan is going to have that best of holidays for a democracy, fair elections to try to determine its fate. Like all of the world’s beleaguered free regimes, there are no guarantees. But for the moment, it is something to celebrate – not only for the Islanders but for their co-libertarians around the world.

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