Sorting the Wheat from Chaff in Taiwan's Elections

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Tuesday July 16, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in the midst of a new lengthy process to select a candidate for next year's presidential elections. They will announce the results after July 15.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, an independent, has also said he will make his decision on whether to run sometime in August, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has its candidate, incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen.

So what should voters do in this interim? They need not passively sit on the sidelines. They can and should be formulating criteria to use in analyzing and selecting their next president.

With this in mind, a basic litmus test that should be passed by all presidential candidates follows what could be called the double D, double I topic rule. Where do they stand on the following criteria: democracy, identity, defense and introspection.

Why question a candidate's belief in democracy? It is an election year so belief in democracy would seem obvious.

However, in Taiwan, this question goes deeper. The importance of preserving democracy is easily lost in all the hoopla that develops as each candidate seeks to gain an attractive "catchy" edge.

Therefore, must be the first plank and the sine qua non in any candidate's platform.

The biggest threat to Taiwan's existence is the ever-present challenge from the People's Republic of China (PRC) across the Taiwan Strait.

The PRC continually denies Taiwan's right to existence and threatens to attack, if it formally declares the independence that it already has.

Since democracy is at the heart of Taiwan's existence, it is a crucial criterion.

Democracy did not come easy to Taiwan. It was won from the KMT's one-party state after a long struggle. Taiwanese should never forget that and the price that past generations paid for it.

Candidates and voters should also realize that democracy and China - or any one-party state for that matter - do not mix.

If this is not obvious, Taiwanese have the constant, ever-present reminder of Hong Kong. The PRC promised full democratic elections to Hong for 50 years; it was part of the transfer agreement with the UK.

Yet China, a massive nation with 1.4 billion people remains afraid of allowing a promised democracy to the comparatively miniscule 7.4 million Hong Kongers.

What threat does this democracy pose? Why does China work to continuously erode Hong Kong's remaining freedoms?

The answers should be obvious.

If Taiwan voters hear any candidates using words or phrases such as "pro-unification," "brotherhood," "one family" etc., in regard to China, they should immediately realize that the candidate has already decided to sell out Taiwan's democracy.

The same applies to candidates who drag out the bogus "1992 consensus" that was invented by former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi in 2000. They reveal a desire to hold on to the alleged dream of unification albeit perhaps with different masters.

This leads to the second point, identity.

Where do candidates stand on Taiwan's identity? Do they see themselves as Taiwanese or Chinese? This is not about cultural roots or ancestry, but about a person's central thought and paradigm of nationhood.

Here Taiwan's history and imagined community are totally different from that of the PRC. In Taiwan, democracy is a key ingredient of its identity; in China it is absent.

Some might try to argue that China pursued democracy in 1911 but that sense of democracy was stillborn and morphed into competing warlords. The warlord period in turn morphed into a gambit of competing megalomaniac leaders who in the name of "freeing the people," were committed to maintaining the dynastic control and structures of the past.

Democracy has never been a realistic part of China's post-1911 development and even now its current President Xi Jinping seeks a permanent emperor like rule.

In contrast, a comprehensive look at Taiwan's history and imagined community quickly demonstrates how its identity and pursuit of democracy remain far different from that of China.

If you scratch beneath the surface in China, it is full of indoctrinated "true believers" whose dream is to restore a past mythic "Ming kingdom" albeit with Manchu Qing borders.

The opening lines of the classic 14th century novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, reveal such a cyclic view of history that trumps any wish for democracy. "The Kingdom long divided must unite, long united must divide. Thus it has ever been."

In place of democracy, this cyclic view fosters preserving a past kingdom while undemocratically engulfing Manchuria and the Manchu conquests of Tibet and Xinjiang.

In such a vision, the "true believers" always see themselves as being on the "uniting side" of the cycle.

In place of democracy, Tibetans are forced to lose their culture, while Uighurs are placed in concentration camps.

These two criteria, democracy and identity expose the basic difference between Taiwan and China. They remain the heart and soul of the widening gap in each nation's central thought and paradigm of nationhood.

In short, Taiwanese do not need an empire, but they require democracy. Chinese, on the other hand, do not need democracy, but they require an empire.

Once Taiwanese understand this historic difference, they then know what to demand of their leaders.

The third criterion of defense naturally follows.

To maintain their democracy, Taiwanese must know who their enemy is and what they need to defend their democracy. All candidates must be examined on this. How firm do they stand on strengthening Taiwan's military?

They must also be challenged further. How strongly do they feel on protecting the nation against the economic and cyber attacks, which threaten the very structures of Taiwan's democracy?

The last mayoral elections in Taiwan, particularly in Kaohsiung, revealed such burgeoning attacks. China's hackers sought to influence the selection of Taiwan's mayors. China wants Taiwanese mayors. Beijing wants Taiwanese mayors who will step to the beat of its drum.

The final word, introspection, might seem out of place; but it also is a crucial criterion in the progress of any democratic nation.

Introspection demands a lot more than knowing one's history and identity. For example, introspection examines how easily democratic Taiwanese can be lulled into a false sense of security. In this state, they are easily tempted by the economic "flesh pots" of China and so, slowly forsake their democracy.

They can also forget the strength of their nation and lose sight of their power.

Eternal vigilance remains the price of freedom. Taiwanese must constantly remind themselves of this reality: Democracy is much more easily lost than it is won.

As the elections approach, citizens will hear all sorts of promises. Some candidates will even tout how working with the enemy could produce a better economy.

However, if Taiwanese understand their democracy, know their identity, are committed to defending it and constantly review their status, they will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff as far as candidates are concerned.