When it comes to rampant hypocrisy, it doesn’t get much worse than the Bush Administration’s recent sell-out of the people of Taiwan. At the same time that the Bush Administration is claiming to be a champion of democracy and democratization in Iraq and the Middle East, the president has slapped down a country that has been making historic strides away from a millenium’s-old totalitarian culture and polity and creating a vibrant democracy: the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan.
Not too many years ago, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China would have been hard to distinguish. The former was run with an iron hand by first Chiang Kai-shek and then his son, backed by a vicious Nationalist army of occupation that crushed the slightest sign of opposition from the island’s native Taiwanese. More recently, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, had mellowed and began introducing democratic reforms, ultimately legalizing opposition parties.
Today, the country has vigorously contested parliamentary elections, the president, Chen Shui-bian, is the head of a pro-Taiwan independence party, the Democratic Progressives, and the country is hands down among the freest in Asia, if not the freest.
China, meanwhile, while growing in economic and military power, remains under the stifling control of a repressive Stalinist government that brooks no political opposition, that stays in power through the repressive workings of a police state that numbers its uniformed minions in the millions, and that continues to harass and lock up those who try to promote freedom of trade unions, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, or who tries to organize a political party outside of the Communist Party. In truth, the Chinese political system has little to do with Marxism these days, and much more closely resembles fascism as it was long practiced in countries of Latin America or Europe.
Taiwan’s peculiar problem is that it has never really fully separated, or has been able to fully separate from China. When Chiang Kai-shek realized that his corrupt and demoralized Nationalist army was about to be completely defeated on the mainland by Mao Tse-tung’s People’s Liberation Army in the late 1940s, he made arrangements to flee with his most loyal troops and a large number of China’s ruling elite to the island of Taiwan, recently freed from decades of Japanese colonial rule (Japan called the island Formosa).
For years afterwards, both the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, under the Communists, and the Republic of China on Taiwan, maintained the fiction that they were the only China. The Beijing government called Taiwan a renegade province, while the Nationalists on the island pretended that they were the government of all of China.
The U.S., which had backed Chiang’s army against the Communist revolutionaries, initially endorsed the Nationalist claim that they were the real Chinese government–a fiction that endured until Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made their famous trips to China and finally recognized the Communist regime in Beijing.
But ever since then, the U.S.–and particularly the right wing of both parties–has backed the government and people of Taiwan, making it clear to China that it would not permit a military attack on the island.
This situation has prevailed down to the present.
China has continued to insist that it wants reunification, and on occasion has threatened military action, most recently in 1997, when the Chinese military launched guided missiles into the shipping lanes to and from the ports on the northern and southern ends of Taiwan. At that time, President Clinton responded by sending U.S. Navy subs and aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait, a 100-mile-wide waterway that separates Taiwan from the Asian mainland, making it clear that the U.S. would intervene if China attempted to attack.
The current crisis has seen a much different response however.
Facing an election in March, Taiwan’s President Chen has been promoting the idea of an island-wide referendum in 2004. The issue: not independence from China, but simply whether to call on China to stop pointing missiles at Taiwan.
That might seem a pretty reasonable–and benign–request for the people of Taiwan to make through the ballot box. Indeed it’s a lot less belligerent than the threat of World War III that President John Kennedy made to Cuba and the Soviet Union when the USSR began placing missiles in Cuba pointed at this country.
But our avowedly pro-democracy president George Bush–the man who purports to be so enamored of freedom that he was willing, in promoting it, to invade a country and commit 150,000 U.S. troops to a war whose end no one can predict–was having none of it. With China’s new premier Wen Jiabao (a Communist proponent of dictatorial rule) standing at his side, Bush warned President Chen not to push the referendum idea or to try to change the status quo.
Referendums, it seems, are appropriate for Californians, not for Taiwanese or Chinese.
It was a major slapdown of Taiwan’s democrats and in fact, represents a big change in the status quo itself.
Self-determination is a fundamental right of all people, and the people of Taiwan, who have not been a part of China for many, many generations, have a right to determine their own destiny, including the right to decide that they prefer independence to forced subjugation to and incorporation into a fascist regime and country.
One would think, to hear our president talk about the joys of freedom and democracy, that this is something the White House and the ruling Republican Party could get behind, but no. They and their corporate sponsors are so busy making money in China and shifting American jobs to the Chinese mainland, that they don’t want any problems from an island of 23 million people.
The irony is that with any luck, Taiwan could represent the real future for China. While it’s hard to imagine at the moment, Taiwan could well be the model for China’s eventual transition to a free and democratic society. For thousands of years, China has been a feudal society run by emperors. Almost alone among the great civilizations of the world, it has had no experience with bourgeois democracy (the few years in which Republican China experimented with a parliament can hardly count, as the government was thoroughly corrupt and the country was in the grip of civil war the whole time, and Hong Kong, where a majority of the legislative council represents business interests, and where the chief executive is appointed, hardly rates as a democracy). The only real model of Chinese democracy, then, has been on Taiwan.
If and when the sclerotic Communist regime in Beijing finally collapses, that island model is going to become enormously important in the struggle to build a new, modern China– which explains why Beijing’s rulers are so intent on snuffing it.
One can only hope that the Bush regime will not help China’s current rulers extinguish this experiment, though the president’s latest action is a bad sign.
DAVE LINDORFF, who majored in Chinese in college, has spent six years as a journalist in Hong Kong and China, and will be a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan during the first half of 2004.