Supporting Taiwan’s Hard-won Democracy

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Wednesday, January 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Having spent the past three decades in Taiwan, I’ve watched firsthand the innumerable obstacles it overcame in shedding the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) one-party state to become a vibrant democracy. Within that time, I also had to listen to a fair share of panda-huggers, useful idiots, and parachute journalists commenting on what they felt Taiwan should or should not do visa- vis that democracy and its main problem, “China.”

The struggle of those decades have presented a core reality that cannot be ignored.

First, Taiwan is a democracy, and it follows the rule of law to protect that democracy. Because of this, Lee Teng-hui gracefully stepped down in 2000. He had been a KMT-appointed president and then the first president elected by the people. After him, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chen Shui-bian stepped down after his two four-year terms as president. Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT did the same and President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP is to follow suit. Do you see the pattern? All abide by the limits of the Constitution. None tried to cling to power. Each retired.

Contrast that with recent developments in the nearby one-party states of Russia and China. Vladimir Putin has served as president and/or prime minister of Russia since 1999 making him the longest serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. When and if he will step down is uncertain.

Similarly Chinese president Xi Jinping is into a third unprecedented five-year term. He has been in power since 2013. He shows little inclination of stepping down.

Forget claims or excuses that Russia and China are “Marxist republics;” they are simply one-party capitalistic states with dictators who would not surrender power.

Why? It may be hubris, which makes them either think that they alone are best suited to rule, or it might be the reality of having left a trail of enemies bent on retribution. What is more surprising is that such nations have difficulty finding a second competent person to become the new leader.

Why after all their struggles, would any Taiwanese want to be under such a system?

Next, there is the matter of honesty. In Taiwan, a much-bandied phrase is the “1992 consensus.” This fabricated consensus never happened. Lee, who was Taiwan’s president at that time easily denied it. So why do some keep trying to resurrect and perpetuate it as if it is the only means by which Taiwan can talk to China, its rapacious neighbor on the other side of the Taiwan Strait?

Any negotiations based on that lie, would never bear good fruit, especially since the lie justifies China’s claim to Taiwan. Taiwan did not free itself from four decades of KMT lies that defended martial law and White Terror to simply submit to a new lie.

In short, anyone who preaches the need for the “1992 consensus” is a charlatan. Therefore, presidential candidates should be asked: How each would handle the false, rapacious claims of the bully next door as China constantly disturbs the peace in the Taiwan Strait as it infringes on Taiwan’s airspace. Further, it is China which similarly wants to make the South China Sea its mare nostrum.

Negotiations should never begin by letting the camel get its nose inside the tent.

Next is the matter of trust. Should not China be called out on its “Hong Kong promise?” Hong Kong was promised full democracy twenty years after the 1997 handover. Need one ask Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai how that has gone?

So what beliefs do Taiwan’s current candidates for the presidency and and vice-presidency bring to the table as regards these matters?

I propose three basic questions as a type of litmus test.

First, would you go to war to defend Taiwan’s democracy? Second, would you call China out for its undemocratic treatment of Hong Kong and its disruptive aggression in the South China Sea? Third how would you handle the long overdue matter of many of Taiwan’s sealed Stasi-like secret police files dating back to the 1980s and beyond and which still cry for justice?

On the KMT team, of New Taipei City mayor Hou You-yi and vice-presidential candidate and Broadcasting Corp. of China chairman Jaw Shaw-kong, I speculate that they would indeed have trouble answering these questions. Hou has run a major city, but he has the blood of Freedom Era Weekly magazine publisher Deng Nan-jing on his resume. Where does he stand on the “1992 consensus” and transitional justice?

His partner Jaw is worse. Being pro-unification, he formed the New Party in 1992 when Taiwanese began to elect their legislators for the first time.

Can a leopard change its spots? What made Jaw come in from the pro-unification cold? As vicepresident, Jaw would only be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Then there is the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) with Chairman Ko Wen-je and his running mate TPP legislator and vice-presidential candidate Cynthia Wu. As mayor of Taipei for eight years, Ko has experience but I struggle to find any stellar achievements from that period.

Ko seems to represent the Peter Principle of rising to the level of one’s incompetence. His alleged dealings with China on organ transplants leave unanswered questions and accusations. How would he handle these new challenges, especially after he has earned the nickname of “chameleon” by claiming to be neither blue nor white, but deep green at heart. Could he call out China or would he turn red in dealing with Beijing?

Finally of course there is the DPP team. Its presidential candidate, Vice-president William Lai has experience as the nation’s vice president, as a legislator and a mayor. Those are good credentials and his stance on Taiwan’s democracy is evident enough.

His vice presidential pick, Hsiao Bi-khim, was a legislator and served as the nation’s unofficial ambassador to the US, Taiwan’s main ally. She is well acquainted with Taiwan’s internal and external situation. Both avoid needlessly provoking China. Need one say more?

China’s threats are eve- present. Xi now spins the narrative to say that the “Taiwan question” cannot be put off forever. China’s economy is suffering, he might indeed need a distraction to justify his unprecedented clinging to power.

The next four years will be crucial for Taiwan in the current post-COVID-19 world. It is time for Taiwanese to be clear-headed. Who will best support their hard-won democracy?