Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 8 News List

US must embrace our referendum

By Li Thian-hok 李天福

In response to intense criticism from the Bush administration, the government has modified the two topics of the March 20 referendum, focusing on the desirability of acquiring anti-missile weapons and pursuing negotiations with China.

While somewhat mollified by the "flexibility" in the new language, a senior Bush administration official is wary that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) finds it necessary to hold a referendum on issues with obvious answers. The suspicion persists that the referendum is a campaign tactic designed primarily to enhance Chen's chances for reelection.

Such views, however, show that the Bush team is ill-informed on Taiwan's politics and is not sufficiently attuned to the country's precarious situation, facing not only China's growing threats of military aggression but also seditious forces closer to home. These forces comprise the pro-China alliance of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP), the pro-capitulation media and some influential businessmen with heavy investment in China.

The proposed referendum is not just a symbolic opinion poll that will produce no visible effect on public policy. At this juncture in Taiwan's history the referendum is indispensable if the nation is to maintain the status quo, that is, its de facto independent status, free of Chinese control.

The KMT-PFP candidates never gracefully accepted defeat in the presidential election of 2000. The alliance has obstructed virtually every legislative proposal the DPP government has made. The people are fed up with unending partisan squabbles and government paralysis.

The Referendum Law (公民投票法) enables the electorate to break the stalemate in the Legislative Yuan on vital issues. It also functions as an insurance policy to protect Taiwan's sovereignty. Once this historic referendum takes place, the law can be modified so that no change in the status quo can ever be implemented without the assent of the majority of the citizenry, regardless of which political party is in power.

While the military balance is steadily and rapidly shifting in favor of China, many people in Taiwan, including government officials, academics, the media and the general public seem oblivious to the impending danger. The referendum is a wake-up call to make people realize the need to bolster national security and prepare people psychologically for the potential use of force or other coercive measures by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Referendums provide the mechanism for the people to directly express their choice on important issues. It can deepen democracy by addressing deficiencies in the legislative and executive structures. If used judiciously and preceded by informed debate, referendums can also serve to forge a national consensus and consolidate the national will on such vital issues as the choice between freedom and servitude.

The March referendum may also call the attention of the international community to China's expansionism and its ambition to annex Taiwan by whatever means necessary. It is hoped that all peace-loving democracies will urge China to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and to respect the right of its 23 million people to determine their own future without outside interference, a right enshrined in the UN Charter.

China has long insisted that any dialogue with Taiwan must be preceded by acceptance of its claim that Taiwan is part of it. The March referendum can highlight the fact that it is this unreasonable precondition which prevents any substantive negotiations from taking place.

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