President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has often said that rapprochement with Beijing would, over time, have a salutary effect on the political situation in China, a theory predicated on the assumption that democracy can be transferred by osmosis.
Although this strategy is worth considering, it also imposes responsibilities on the actor seeking to change the other party. Among them is the need to use carrots and sticks in equal measure.
It is one thing for countries to look the other way when all they seek are lucrative deals with China. Reprehensible as this may be, a narrow, self--interest-first approach to China dovetails perfectly with Beijing’s loathing for foreign meddling in its domestic affairs. In most cases, both parties are perfectly happy to operate under this arrangement.
For some years now, academics and government officials have claimed that market capitalism would force China to democratize, even if this only occurred over time.
However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Chinese Communist Party has managed to embrace capitalism while keeping its hand firmly on the levers of power. What this means, therefore, is that democratizing requires a more sustained and multifaceted approach.
The Ma administration’s strategy could be just that, as it presumes to be in a position to “improve” China. In other words, while other governments can easily separate business from politics, Ma’s strategy of engagement calls, in theory, for a more refined approach.
However, Taipei has so far failed to comment on Beijing’s poor human rights record, with engagement continuing apace even when China broke the tacit rules that underpin Ma’s strategy.
This year alone, Chinese goons have beaten up rights activists and Beijing has ignored the mistreatment of foreign reporters by hooligans, been caught up in a high-profile espionage case against Taiwan and continued to undermine freedom of the press around the world.
While dissidents waste away in jail and national security secrets are smuggled into Chinese hands, senior Chinese officials — some of whom are documented human rights abusers against Falun Gong members, among others — are wined and dined by Ma’s officials as they seed Taiwan with Chinese money to win over “hearts and minds.”
It is hard to take claims by Ma’s circle that it has the rights of Taiwanese and Chinese at heart seriously when the likes of former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) buddies up with provincial repressors-in-chief like Liaoning Governor Chen Zhenggao (陳政高). To be fair, it is equally difficult to swallow the rhetoric of local Democratic Progressive Party politicians who, while claiming to defend Taiwanese democracy against Chinese rapacity, are also rolling out the red carpet for envoys such as Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), who will visit later this week.
Trade and investment alone will not bring about political liberalization in China. Such a goal will only be achieved by a refusal to compromise on core values. Otherwise, engagement will transform democracies, which by their very nature are malleable, while autocratic China becomes stronger.
For distant countries with few cultural ties to China (and whose territory is not claimed by Beijing), the cost of transformation may appear marginal. However, for Taiwan, human rights and liberty are pieces in a zero-sum game against an opponent that refuses to give even one inch. Compromising, therefore, holds dire consequences for the future of Taiwan as a free society.