What might have come and gone with little fanfare has instead sparked a chain of events that has accentuated the fundamental differences between authoritarian China and democratic Taiwan.
When The 10 Conditions of Love, the documentary about Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer, screens tomorrow in five cities around the country, it will enjoy attention the film could not have hoped for without the help of China’s relentless campaign against Kadeer.
Pressure — apparently applied through threats to cut Chinese tourism — that spooked Kaohsiung into reconsidering whether to include the film in next month’s Kaohsiung Film Festival, was an affront to Taiwanese values and destined to backfire. China, it seems — from its leaders to its ultranationalist hackers — learned nothing from a bungled attempt at censorship targeting the Melbourne International Film Festival last month.
But Kaohsiung’s reaction to the pressure — removing the film from the festival by rescheduling it — was equally offensive. The public outcry over its decision served as a sharp reminder to Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) that certain compromises will not be tolerated.
Chen’s administration has shown itself capable of engaging the Chinese to meet Kaohsiung’s needs, but it must remember that compromising free speech would never be in the city’s, or nation’s, best interest.
Tomorrow, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the screenings will send a message to Beijing and the Chinese public alike: Censorship has no place in self-respecting countries.
After the shameful behavior of the central government, which has barred Kadeer from visiting Taiwan, that message remains equally meaningful at home.
Kaohsiung has backtracked on its decision, placing the film back in the festival after screening it prematurely last week. The city’s stand for free speech, while belated, is appreciated.
In contrast, the central government seems less likely to back down and let Kadeer visit in December. While both Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and Executive Yuan Spokesman Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said the government would not protest the screening of The 10 Conditions of Love out of respect for democratic freedoms, their concern for free speech apparently ends there. Kadeer will not be allowed to state in person the message she conveys in the film.
“We are a country that has independent sovereignty and freedom of speech,” Su said on Kaohsiung’s screening of the documentary.
The government’s actions belie its professed support for these principles. Its rejection of Kadeer was not the first indication that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is willing to yield to Beijing on matters concerning Xinjiang.
A statement by the National Immigration Agency in July that Dolkun Isa, the secretary-general of the World Uyghur Congress, would not be allowed into Taiwan was disconcerting. As Isa had no plans at the time to visit, however, it was difficult to test the agency’s resolve on the matter. The refusal to allow Kadeer’s visit confirms that Isa would likely have been denied entry.
The question now is whether the government will be embarrassed by public criticism into showing some backbone. If not, the matter may not stop at barring dissidents from entry. Earlier this month, Isa was invited to a forum in South Korea organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, then promptly detained on arrival. It is hoped that activities such as this in Taiwan will not fall victim to pressure as well.