It’s hard to tell whether President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is being naive, cynical or deceitful when it rationalizes ever-increasing engagement with China as part of a strategy to “change” its giant neighbor’s behavior.
Ever since it launched its policy of loosening up restrictions on all things Chinese nearly three years ago, the Ma administration has argued that closer ties between democratic Taiwan and authoritarian China could help foster reform in the latter.
From utterances of “Taiwan’s experience can serve as a reference for the future development of mainland China” during his New Year address on Jan. 1 to “We must continue to carry out exchanges with mainland China in order to have any influence over them ... otherwise, we will not be able to convey to them the meaning behind the values ... of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law that we have in Taiwan” during an interview with Der Spiegel published on Thursday last week, Ma has sold a policy that from the time China first “opened” to the West has failed miserably.
There is no reason to believe that Ma will succeed where countless others have floundered.
In addition to this ill-defined “dialogue” with China and the supposed value of increasing Chinese tourism and investment, Ma has emphasized that allowing Chinese students on Taiwanese campuses — a policy that is expected to begin this fall — will have a similar desired effect on political development in China.
However, this merely repeats the by now discredited idea that engaging China, from allowing it to link to the global free-market economy in joining the WTO in 2001 to encouraging the spread of the Internet there, will inevitably lead to democratization. What most proponents of such engagement have failed (or refused) to realize is that China, while willing to extract the benefits of such engagement, has no intention to liberalize politically, let alone allow the emergence of multiparty democracy.
It hasn’t even tried to make that a secret and over the years several top Chinese Communist Party officials have gone on the record stating that Western-style democracy was incompatible with Chinese society. Still, proponents of engagement conveniently stuck to their song, claiming China was “in transition” and needed more time.
While proponents of an engagement policy counsel patience, Beijing has had no compunction in changing its interlocutors in a matter aptly described by former Forbes and Financial Times editor Eamonn Fingleton as the “Confucianization” of the West. In what has oftentimes been a one-way relationship, the engagers have willingly bent the rules and warped their ethical principles in the name of the relationship, while Beijing has stubbornly stuck to its authoritarian script.
The best example of this is the countless violations of WTO rules by China in the years since it joined the organization. China today is no more capitalist or free-market based than it was prior to joining the WTO; it remains one of the most restrictive markets and is overtly mercantile in its approach to the rest of the world.
If China can resist US, and even global, pressure on matters ranging from trade to human rights to intellectual property rights, how can Taiwan under Ma’s leadership have presumptions of greater chances of success? Has Ma identified foibles in Beijing’s defenses that somehow have eluded the international community for decades? This is highly unlikely, and rather than being naive, Ma is either being cynical or deceitful.