Former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) recent remarks in favor of peaceful exchanges with China have led to media speculation about a political shift and how this would affect the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The fact is Lee’s statement — “you are you and I am me, but you and I are friends, and we must also distinguish between ourselves” — is not new, neither for Lee nor for the DPP.
The National Unification Guidelines (國家統一綱領), formulated under Lee’s presidency and adopted in 1991, laid out a framework for exchanges between Taiwan and China while putting unification off to some time in the distant future. They called for “not endangering each other’s security and stability while in the midst of exchanges and not denying the other’s existence as a political entity while in the midst of effecting reciprocity.”
The DPP adopted this approach in its 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future (台灣前途決議文). The resolution asserted that Taiwan is already “a sovereign and independent country … named the Republic of China under its current Constitution.” On relations with China, the resolution stressed the theme of peaceful reconciliation and non-belligerence, asserting that “based on historical and cultural origins, and for the sake of geopolitical and regional stability and economic interests, both sides should work together toward a future of co-existence, co-prosperity, mutual trust and mutual benefits.”
The strategic reasoning behind both Lee’s remark and the DPP resolution was that, while China would not allow Taiwan to declare independence, it could do nothing to prevent Taiwan from maintaining the status quo and resisting unification. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who succeeded Lee as president, admitted that Taiwan could not change its national title to the Republic of Taiwan, saying: “I can’t fool myself and I can’t fool others — what can’t be done can’t be done.”
This might change, however, if Taiwan’s de facto independent status can be maintained long enough because of two reasons. First, the rise of capitalism in China may bring about other changes, and China may give up its insistence on unification. And second, the development of a distinctive, independent Taiwanese identity could reach a point where it becomes an irreversible trend.
Independence advocates worry that trade and economic links with China will blur the dividing line between the two sides. Beijing thinks that strengthening business links can foster the feeling among people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait that they all belong to one big family. In reality, however, increasing exchanges have produced the opposite result. After all, national identity only comes to the fore through interaction with other nations. If China had not interacted with the West in the 19th century, there would be no Chinese nationalism in its modern form. The same principle applies to cross-strait relations: The more interaction there is, the more Taiwanese are made aware that they are not Chinese, and the more they identify with Taiwan.
Several surveys show that Taiwanese businesspeople working in China do not necessarily become more pro-Chinese. Similarly, many Taiwan residents born in China realize only after going back to China to visit that they have become Taiwanese. Even students at schools for children of Taiwanese in China who have grown up there insist that they are Taiwanese and frequently stress the difference between them and the local people.
The real trend of the last 10 to 20 years has been that the more cross-strait interaction there is, the clearer the line between the two sides becomes. That is why Huang Jiashu (黃家樹), a Taiwan specialist in China, said: “Close exchanges across the Taiwan Strait do not automatically strengthen the idea that both sides of the Strait are one country, still less do they naturally strengthen support for unification.” For the same reason, Lee is not worried about deepening exchanges between Taiwan and China, and he said there was no need to worry about “three, four or five links” across the Strait, as long as they are forged under the umbrella of the WTO.
Several surveys conducted by the Chinese-language United Daily News show that even Mainlanders, who are the least willing of Taiwan’s communities to accept localization, have gradually come to identify with Taiwan. In 1997, a survey found that 56 percent of Mainlanders considered themselves Chinese and only 22 percent considered themselves Taiwanese. But the latest poll this year found that only 24 percent of them thought of themselves as Chinese, while 45 percent called themselves Taiwanese.
In another survey published in the May issue of the Chinese-language Global Views Monthly, people who support independence outnumbered those who favor unification — even among supporters of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Among surveyed KMT supporters, 30.3 percent identified themselves as being in favor of independence, against only 15 percent in favor of unification.
So, if we can just be patient, time is on Taiwan’s side. After all, Taiwan has been independent from China for more than a century. Free of Beijing’s propaganda on a “Greater China” system, a majority of Taiwanese prefer maintaining the current way of life and political system. If we can maintain Taiwan’s status quo for another few decades, how many unification supporters will there be left, and what grounds will China have for promoting unification?
Beijing likes to call this “meandering” or “soft” Taiwanese independence strategy. The advantage of this “soft” strategy is it is an extension of the status quo. It advances Taiwanese independence under the guise of safeguarding Taiwan, making it hard to oppose. A “hard” independence strategy, on the other hand, means a break with the status quo. Such activities are likely to meet with opposition not just from China, but from other countries, too.
Clearly, Lee is talking about a return to the path of “soft” independence. The DPP should now think hard about what strategy it should adopt to avoid losing the prize because of excessive haste.
Liang Wen-chieh is deputy director of New Society for Taiwan.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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