It is widely considered that significant progress was made in cross-strait relations last year. The progress is mainly expressed in terms of the two rounds of meetings held between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his Chinese counterpart, Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), and the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).
In accordance with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) principle of “economy first, politics later,” the ECFA was negotiated and signed without any reference to political issues. This principle serves to avoid politically sensitive issues and make the negotiation easier.
However, it does not hide the fact that Ma’s administration lacks a clear political blueprint for the cross-strait relationship. It is much like former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) slogan “let a group of people get rich first,” which failed to say anything about the rest of the people.
What comes after economics remains worryingly unclear.
It is obvious that the most critical problems of the cross-strait relationship do not lie in the realm of economics, but rather in politics. China’s ultimate goal is to annex Taiwan, which is a political goal. What Taiwan, or a great many Taiwanese, have been striving for is independence, which is also a political goal. However, with the goals of both sides being unrealistic at this point in time, it requires wisdom and foresight to make compromises and break the deadlock.
Politics is always complex. However, to approach the cross-strait relationship from a political perspective, one must first ask what is the single biggest obstacle that keeps Taiwanese from joining China?
If I were to give only one answer, I would say that it is the lack of shared values held by people in Taiwan and China. Taiwan is a democracy, whereas China is still an authoritarian country. It’s never easy for people living in a democracy to accept an undemocratic country.
The “one country, two system” model currently practiced in Hong Kong could hardly find favor with Taiwanese, especially after they have witnessed the decline of political freedom in Hong Kong.
In an opinion poll on cross-strait relations conducted by the United Daily News last year, 51 percent of respondents said that they prefer to maintain the status quo. Within this group, 54 percent said they favored the status quo because they do not have a good impression of China’s government and 47 percent said they support things remaining the same because they don’t have a good impression of Chinese people.
Would the answers be different if China were a democratic country where democratic values are respected and people bear civic responsibilities and exercise their political rights? I am sure it would be.
However, the reality is that China and Taiwan are so different that they resemble two countries. Chinese economist Yang Xiaokai (楊小凱) points out that the differences between China and Taiwan are even larger than those between the UK and the US. He used three criteria to reach this conclusion:
First is the use of dictionaries. While the US and Britain still use one dictionary with minor variations, China’s simplified Chinese characters make this impossible.
The second criterion is the similarity of political and legal systems. This point needs no explanation.
The third criterion is common feelings about political events. People in the US and the UK still feel the same way on a lot of events, especially when it comes to fundamental political values. However, in the case of China and Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are of little interest to Taiwanese, while the 228 Incident is unknown to most Chinese.
Even though the Internet is supposed to facilitate the flow of information, Netizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait do not follow the same issues.
Without a doubt, a set of common values is an essential foundation for any substantive progress in cross-strait relations. Currently, Taiwanese are reluctant to unify with China, not because China is not rich enough. In fact, China’s superior economy might even create greater distance between the two sides.
What appeals to Chinese about Taiwan is no longer its economy. Rather, Taiwan’s most important asset drawing enormous admiration from Chinese, is its democracy — a democracy that was peacefully developed by a people speaking the same language with the same cultural legacy.
Instead of putting politics aside, keeping its distance and adopting an inward-looking or insular attitude, what Taiwan needs to do now is to work at spreading its own democratic values and pushing for political reform in China.
This cannot be achieved overnight, but should be part of the agenda of both the government and private sector in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan has good reasons to push such values and is in a legitimate position to do so.
Joseph Zhou is a political science graduate student at the University of Kansas.
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