One should always be wary of specialists who, from the cushioned comfort of their distant armchairs, make grand telescopic pronouncements about what it is that other countries “want.” Sadly for Taiwan, there is no shortage of such individuals who pretend to know what Taiwanese want.
Without the benefit of being in situ and really getting to know Taiwanese, their dreams, fears and all, it is easy for foreign analysts to personalize policy and to substitute public will for government rhetoric, especially under an administration in Taipei that has left little room for dissenting opinion.
Never — at least not since Taiwan was a nominal democracy — has the falseness of the assumption that a government speaks for its people been so markedly obvious than since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in May 2008. And yet, commenting recently on signs that Taiwan and China were moving toward some type of convergence, esteemed academics, people like Robert Sutter of George Washington University, will confidently tell others that “If Taiwan says ‘This is what we want,’” then the US had no right to object.
What is sorely missing from such facile observations is a refinement of what is meant by “Taiwan” and whether the individuals who purport to speak in its name truly reflect public will. Sutter, and many others like him, makes the mistake of seeing Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as “Taiwan” and its China policy as a representation of the public will.
This, for reasons that will be explored below, is downright myopic and one could only reach such conclusions from a great distance.
Anyone who has spent time with Taiwanese would immediately recognize that there is a great disconnect between the kind of engagement the public is seeking with China and the one promulgated by the Ma administration. In fact, many of the people who voted for Ma in 2008, and who likely will vote for him again in January, have fundamental disagreements with several aspects of his China policy.
Granted, one could logically argue that since Taiwanese democratically put Ma into office and could very likely give him a second four-year term, surely such electoral support must translate into general agreement with his policy. After all, we can assume that no rational voter would vote for someone with whom they fundamentally disagree.
This would be true were it not for the fact that Taiwan has become captive under what could be termed a second wave of authoritarianism. And here let us not engage in the convenient, but for the most part flawed, accusations that Ma and the KMT are secretly engineering a return to the Martial Law era. Rather, this second wave of authoritarian rule stems from the convergence of two forces that are external to Taiwan: China and the US.
How one reaches such a conclusion is very simple. Authoritarianism is the imposition of limitations, often under the threat of punishment, on democratic processes. It is the curtailment of people’s freedom of action and an abridgment of their right to choose their own destiny without fear of violence.
While Taiwan in the late 1980s and 1990s institutionalized democratic processes, it remains that on one fundamental question — that of national identity — the choice never was, and still isn’t, a democratic one. People can elect leaders at the local and national level, elevate and discard legislators and councilors through regular ballots, and do so without fear of retribution.