Fri, Mar 13, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Not a time for a nation of sheep

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

Since dialogue between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was initiated following President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) taking office in May, Beijing has made no secret of its ultimate intentions regarding Taiwan. In speech after speech, the Chinese leadership — including President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) — has been surprisingly transparent about the fact that cross-strait talks and various agreements are a means to an end, the stepping stones toward the great goal of “reunification.”

It is puzzling, therefore, that the Ma administration would continue to argue that an ECFA and other pacts with China are nonpolitical and will not undermine the sovereignty of the nation. And yet, despite the unequivocal signals from Beijing, this is what the administration keeps harping about, vaunting the economic benefits of closer ties with China and the alleged security benefits attendant to cross-strait dialogue.

It’s as if the KMT were unable to hear what Hu, Wen and others have been saying all along. The writing’s on the wall — it doesn’t even need deciphering.

The CCP, which faces daunting social challenges under normal circumstances and exacerbated ones during times of economic crisis, will resort to nationalism to breathe new life into its legitimacy with the Chinese. Resurrecting pride with massive military parades is part of that strategy. Another spoke is the long-held promise of “reunification” with Taiwan, “the principal item of unfinished territorial business,” as David Lampton writes in his book The Three Faces of Chinese Power.

For the CCP — and by extension the Chinese nation — Taiwan is the last remnant of centuries of humiliation at Western and Japanese hands, the remaining symbol of colonialism standing in the way of true glory. Simply put, it is an issue of face and of bringing the breakaway province back into the motherly fold. Conveniently, in this time of great uncertainty and potential instability, the CCP is able, for the first time since 1949, to tell its domestic audience that the long-awaited “reunification” might be at hand.

It certainly helps that, through tight control of information, China can censor news of opposition in Taiwan to such agreements or to the direction they appear to be taking the country. As a result, not only can the CCP herald a new era in cross-strait dialogue, it can also portray the talks as non-contentious, as between two groups whose objectives are the same and views are homogenous. Beijing can tell its people that all is well on the Taiwan front, that “reunification” is at hand, that they can forget their worries, dissatisfaction with the CCP as the great Chinese nation will soon be one again. Very few topics feed the flames of Chinese nationalism more than the question of Taiwan.

Given the paucity of non-censored information they have access to, or the risks entailed in seeking more credible sources, Chinese can be forgiven for believing the propaganda or for not realizing that Taiwanese do not all look favorably on Ma’s approaches to China.

In fact, as a consequence of its lack of experience with democratic processes, we could perhaps even forgive the CCP for failing to understand how, in a democracy, legitimacy and decision-making are not top-down phenomena, but rather bottom-up ones, and that what the state says is not carved in stone.

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