Books on Taiwan
Update No: 043 - (28/09/07)
With elections looming ever closer on the horizon, political
confrontations and points-scoring-never far beneath the surface-are becoming an
almost daily occurrence. Taiwan faces two elections early next year: the first
for a new parliament (Executive Yuan) to be held in January 2008 and to be
followed two months later by the presidential election.
Most polls show the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to be trailing. The DPP
has been hurt by corruption scandals surrounding the President, Chen Shui-bian,
members of the First Family and other senior party political leaders, including
its presidential aspirant, Mr. Frank Hsieh. The main opposition party, the
Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) has itself become enmeshed in
scandal although its own presidential candidate (and former party leader) Ma
Ying-jeou was recently found not guilty of embezzlement for misusing his
allowance during his term as mayor of Taipei.
Election issues centre around two major themes-China dominates the political
debate while structural reform-of the banking sector and the fiscal deficit- is
the major economic challenge. Not surprisingly, the economic side of the
equation is too complex for the electorate at large. "China" and how
to deal with it therefore commands the greater attention.
In fact on the economic front there is really little to distinguish the two
political camps. Both parties are economic rationalists anyhow. It is only with
regard to China that the two camps are able to draw a clear line of demarcation.
The DPP draws its core support from the native Taiwanese segment of society-by
far the overwhelming majority of the island's population-or rather from those
Chinese who came over during the first wave of Chinese migration to Taiwan
during the 17th and 18th centuries. By contrast the KMT support base is with the
descendants of those who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in the late `1940's
at the end of the Chinese Civil War after WWII. Many of these still maintain
family ties with relatives on the Chinese mainland. They produced the elite that
dominated the administration and the military in China during the period of KMT
rule and their descendants have dominated government service-at least until
recently-on Taiwan as well.
In fact "native Taiwanese" (as distinct from 'aboriginals,' that even
earlier segment of the population that mostly has Malay roots - some are
Polynesian - and who were pushed into the uplands and islands, following the
first mass migration of Chinese settlers), comprise around 90 percent of the
population of the island and it is a measure of just how unpopular the DPP has
become that it has not been able to rally a much greater portion of Taiwan's
population to its cause.
The fact that it has not done so probably has not so much to do with history but
to the heavy-handed approach of President Chen, in dealing with Beijing and the
manner in which he has sought to promote independence for Taiwan. While many
people will privately agree with the measures he has taken-which have included
downplaying the name "China" in the island's affairs and promoting the
use of the name "Taiwan"-most are tried and true capitalists who want
simply to make money and not rock the boat.
The annual ritual of Taiwan applying (again) for membership of the United
Nations has to be seen in this light. This latest bid-the fifteenth attempt to
rejoin the organization from which it was expelled in 1972 when its seat was
taken by the People's Republic of China-ended the same way all other attempts
have gone. It was dismissed on September 19th. This annual exercise has once
again strained relations both with China and with the United States. So why do
Actually there are many reasons; not least of which this year was the need for
President Chen and the DPP to regain the high ground. More of that below. But
the attempts to rejoin the UN go back well beyond the inauguration of the DPP
government (in 2000) and in fact was an initiative started by President Chen's
predecessor (and mentor-although they were on different sides of the political
fence) Lee Teng-hui.
For a start, the annual application focuses the attention of the world (and
particularly the United States), on the manner in which Taiwan has transfigured
itself into a modern, democratic state over the past twenty years and contrasts
starkly with the lack of political freedom on the Chinese mainland. As pointed
out by former US Senate Majority leader, Bob Dole in the Wall Street Journal
recently: Taiwan is the 48th most populous country in the world. Its economy is
the 16th largest. Its gross national product totals $366 billion, or $16,098 per
capita. And with $267 billion in foreign exchange reserves, it is one of the
world's three largest creditor states. Taiwan is therefore poised to be a
significant contributor to the U.N.'s operations and play a constructive role in
the organization if given the opportunity to do so.
On any rational decision-making basis, Taiwan would satisfy all the criteria for
entry to the UN as a modern democratic nation state. UN lawyers argue instead
that the matter was determined back in 1971 when the PRC was given the China
seat in the UN and that "for all intents and purposes Taiwan is an integral
part of the People's Republic of China." Of course, Taiwan never has been
an integral part of the PRC but it is a convenient fiction that matches the
realpolitik of the times.
As we noted above though, this year's application was a little different since
it was not made under the name "Republic of China" as before, but
rather as "Taiwan." The end result was the same of course, an
unceremonious rejection, but the distinction was registered in the public domain
and important in the context of President Chen's determination to work to the
last minute of his presidency, to carve out a separate identity for Taiwan from
that of China.
In the context of the coming elections it was therefore a useful means of
rallying support to the cause. The DPP-organized rallies in Kaohsiung, the
heartland of DPP support, drew more than 100,000 people onto the streets. Both
Beijing and Washington objected of course but in the end could do nothing.
The rally was part of a well-orchestrated strategy to support a planned
referendum early next year on membership in the world body, under the name
Taiwan, rather than the official title of the Republic of China. The referendum,
again opposed by China and the U.S. (China, which overplays the rhetoric, called
it a "serious situation" whatever that may mean). It reinforces the
notion that the people of Taiwan are sovereign and determined to choose their
own destiny, and if passed as expected, would bind any future administration to
the present strategy.
The success of the rally caught the KMT off guard and as one newspaper pointed
out, Mr. Ma was caught flat-footed and torn between supporting the KMT official
position of eventual unification with the mainland, and the fact that the issue
of U.N. membership is a huge vote-getter with the public. In fact, in the face
of the comeback by President Chen as a result of the successful initiative, Ma
held his own rally in support of U.N. membership in Taichung in central Taiwan.
There was a crucial difference however, Mr. Ma supports joining the U.N. as the
"Republic of China," not as "Taiwan," thereby clinging to
the One China doctrine in contrast to the pro-independent view espoused by the
DPP. It turned out to be half the size of the DPP event.
China so far has done nothing beyond the usual rhetoric and with the Olympic
Games almost upon us, is unlikely to do more than splutter. Nor does it need to
do anything. Beijing probably believes rightly that it has the upper hand. Over
the past decade China has emerged to be a key player within the global economy,
and few would dare challenge that ascendancy. Both Beijing and Taipei believe
that time is on their side. For the moment, the leaders in Beijing can sit back
and watch while the two rival parties on Taiwan slug it out for control of the