Why the Sky Did not Fall at Tsai's Inauguration

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Wednesday June 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The recent inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen, as the 14th president of Taiwan went off without a hitch. This marked the third transition of power since the Taiwanese people had democratically begun electing their president in 1996 and there was no question, it was peaceful.

Taiwan has come a long way since its people threw off the one-party state baggage that had been foisted on them at the end of World War II. However, as true as this is, the inauguration also provided the nation a good opportunity to do a reality check and make a comparison between their democracy and China, their one-party state neighbor, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

For sure, despite the smoothness of the transition of power, numerous ironies were in the air. First, Taiwan only has official diplomatic relations with 22 countries; surprisingly, however, over 700 foreign visitors representing 59 different countries spent time, effort and money to attend and to help celebrate Tsai's inauguration. Why were so many "unofficial countries" joining the celebration?

In addition, just before the inauguration, and probably with pressure from the People's Republic of China (PRC), the World Health Organization (WHO) had sent its annual invitation to the World Health Assembly. But this time it made the specific point of reminding, Taiwan, that WHO had a nebulous "one China" policy.

Despite this, and much to the presumed consternation of the PRC, not one of the 59 attending countries, many of which had their own "one China" policy asked the PRC for permission to come. One could say the question never even entered their minds.

This irony was made stronger by the fact that for months before the inauguration, numerous pundits had been expostulating on how what Tsai Ing-wen would say in her inaugural address was fraught with danger.

Like Chicken Little, the outgoing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was part of this; it spread dire warnings that the sky would definitely fall if Tsai did not use the its fabricated magical term, "1992 Consensus" nor repeat the vague canard of "one China," a canard for which only China's interpretation counted in explanation.

Nonetheless, Tsai did not mention the "1992 consensus" or "one China" and surprisingly the sky did not fall as many had either predicted or hoped that it would.

Instead Tsai mentioned the name Taiwan nation repeatedly; she did it so much that it left little doubt that she was talking about the implied name of the country she was in, a country where the people elect their leader. For this reason, the one-party state on the other side of the Taiwan Strait did not join in the celebrations. Taiwan's democracy was obviously not measuring up to what its hegemonic dream of a red-chambered world was and this immediately drew a negative evaluation.

In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, business went on as usual. Students went to school; people went to work and many others watched events on television. Most if not all did not seem to worry that the sky would fall no matter what Tsai said.

For the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which had consistently advocated that Tsai mention its proposed magical words '1992 Consensus' to keep the sky in place, disappointment was evident. The KMT has still not figured out the changes taking place in Taiwan and that the people of Taiwan were saying: "We voted you out in November 2014 and in January 2016, because you delivered the wrong message and practices."

For the PRC, at bedrock, it was also clearly a matter of discourse between a democracy and a one-party state. To the PRC, the Taiwanese were saying, "When we vote, we vote for what we see is best for our country; we don't look for outsiders approval or disapproval; that is what democracy is all about."

However, there was more. Tsai made particular mention of working with fellow democracies such as long time ally, the United States but working more in particular with close neighbor Japan. In support, Japan had sent a large delegation of over 250 people who seemed to like the green sky that they saw developing over Taiwan. This left little doubt that Japan's democracy is closely linked to a healthy democracy on Taiwan.

The impact of these events then carried over to Hong Kong, where both sides watch democratic developments in each other. The PRC's simple 1997 promise to let Hong Kong have free democratic elections of its mayor in twenty years has just about expired; that left little trust in one-party states and their promises. Instead of hope for free mayoral elections, the people of Hong Kong were now facing more repression; even their freedom of speech was threatened as illustrated by the arrest of Hong Kong booksellers not advocating the right message.

In China, the many minions who were protesting Taiwan's "insolence," either purposely ignored or were unsure of the proper way to talk about their own past. The 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution came and went and there was little celebration. There was not even mourning for all those that died and the horror that this had wrought on the country as China's one-party state solidified.

Discourse in the one-party state had been stymied for the affair left the Politburo with little claim as to what justified its reason to rule. The people had not elected the present-day leaders, and the claim of the leaders to have fought in the Cultural Revolution on any side also had little merit.

Back in Taiwan at the end of the day, the citizens can now freely evaluate what was the fuss all about? Life in Taiwan has gone on. The cries of Chicken Little proved to be nothing; and stronger ties with Japan, the close neighbor of Taiwan had developed. That would be invaluable in case of any future attack on Taiwan.

Finally, the question of interest in a one-party state never came up. If it did, Taiwan's response would have been, "Been there, done that; thanks but no thanks. Our democracy was won from the KMT with blood, sweat and tears, so is there any reason to think that a new one-party state would be any more desirable?"

And as for the pundits, well they had a different problem; they may have to search for a new catch phrase to replace 1992 Consensus.