The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of today is not the same as the KMT of the 1950s and 1960s, even if some officials in its uppermost ranks clearly long for this to be so.
This means that the party is limited to some extent in its ability to influence proceedings throughout systems of government and oversight mechanisms. Although checks and balances can be weakened to the detriment of higher democratic standards, the interests that would line up to oppose this drift might be more subtle and more numerous than mainstream political forces recognize or would admit to.
What is clear, however, is that the drift has begun. Unexpectedly, the reaction from overseas observers and experts has put the issue on the table of Cabinet ministers and the president much earlier than more sober KMT strategists might have hoped.
From now on, pro-China members of the KMT will know that any attack on civil liberties, legal rights and political freedoms will be recorded, reported and potentially criticized in a manner likely to embarrass and offend. Embarrassed will be those officials who insist that they are not merely doing the bidding of KMT headquarters. Offended will be advocates of “unification,” who resent the reality that foreign individuals, groups and governments have a stake in Taiwan resisting Chinese autocracy.
When it comes to international opinion from people with a personal or institutional connection to Taiwan, an easy majority supports Taiwan’s ability to determine its own affairs, and not China’s agenda of ingratiation, intimidation and violence.
The sequence of events is quite predictable. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders determine that there is a consistent pattern of inappropriate governance or other misuse of power. Letters and reports are written, politicians are lobbied and media outlets report and dissect the resulting debate. These labors set the stage for intervention by governments of influence or their envoys, most of whom act quite conservatively until a battery of facts is available.
Taiwan has now reached the unfortunate point of being on the watch list for rights groups, and not just those interested in the fate of a former president.
The impact of this attention cannot be underestimated in a country that tends to define intellectual excellence and authoritativeness in terms of what other countries say and do. The hastily composed reactions of the Judicial Yuan and the minister of justice to a recent open letter from experts on Taiwan and China on the erosion of justice is a case in point.
Thus, if the government elects to continue moving in a direction compatible with integration with China — generating the decay of human and legal rights, the compromising of national security, the emasculation of the military and the narrowing of the gap between state and party power — the inescapable net result would be concern and criticism from around the world and an acute loss of face.
But if the government moves back toward steadfast protection of self-determination while enhancing trade and financial ties with China, then it would receive applause from all involved — except China, of course.
The choice may seem simplistic, but these are the poles between which the government and a KMT leadership overly bound by nostalgia must choose.