Sat, Nov 29, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Rights progress strengthens hand

By Roy Werner

China's attempts to isolate Taiwan have failed in the most important arena: human rights and democracy. Thus, Vice Minister Wang Zaixi's (王在希) war comments. Ironically, China has in the past argued that [domestic] human rights issues are best addressed through "dialogue rather than confrontation." Beijing is learning, as its response to the massive Hong Kong demonstrations earlier this year shows.

Challenges abound: can China's new fourth generation of leaders apply that wisdom about dialogue to cross-strait policies? Conversely, can President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) avoid overreaching on constitutional reform, adhere to his "five noes" and thus avoid anxieties by both the US and China?

There is a new spirit of confidence in Taiwan, arising from the unprecedented recognition and international space created by a governance system emphasizing human rights. Chen's prestigious award from the International League for Human Rights has delivered to Taiwan long-overdue recognition. As noted in New York City that night by several speakers, the example of Chen and Taiwan offers hope, the most precious of intangibles, to countries in transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

It is a long hard journey from the abstract Universal Declaration of Human Rights to practical civil and political rights in a specific place. Chen now joins global icons like former South African president Nelson Mandela, former UN secretary general U Thant, humanist Elie Wiesel, while elevating Taiwan in global attention. Favorable media play and attention from people of conscience are now focused on Taiwan's impressive record on human rights.

China, sadly, still fails to understand its economic leverage with Taiwan, relying instead on overt military coercion. We do not know how much of this is a result of internal politics in dealing with the People's Liberation Army. Ideally, collective prosperity will ultimately lead to a peaceful resolution.

China uses trade and politics to deny Taiwan diplomatic space. But, instead of triggering a war between China and Taiwan, the Chen presidency, especially if Chen wins a second term, presents China with an evolutionary model that merits treatment as an equal negotiating partner. The estrangement that arose naturally from the Chinese civil war should have ebbed with the fall from power of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after 51 years of governing Taiwan. Perhaps it will yet.

Taiwan's leadership understands that Taiwan cannot declare independence now given both Chinese overt pressure and American diplomatic desires. Thus, the proposed new constitution is alleged to be consistent with Chen's pledge of no declaration of independence so long as China avoids an overt attack.

But, just as the determined and powerless opposition leader fought repressive KMT tactics in Taiwan, Chen will also seek to advance the government mechanisms to prepare for the future, including increasing cross-strait economic integration. In a democracy, we ought not to expect anything less from a political leader. If China, however, delays negotiating with a second-term Chen, Chinese short-sightedness may be rued by future Chinese.

Indeed, Taiwan's long delay in dealing with Europe -- until the early 1980s -- illustrates the lost opportunities of time lags. Of course these relations are unofficial, but trade is booming, and visitors, cultural exchanges and representative offices are widespread on both sides.

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