On Tuesday, newly elected Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) suggested that Taiwan ditch the so-called “1992 consensus” — referring to a tacit understanding between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese government, in which both acknowledge that there is “one China,” but each side has its own interpretation of what that means — and move toward a new “2015 consensus,” developing a new approach toward cross-strait exchanges based on the “four mutuals” — mutual knowledge, mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual cooperation.
As became quite apparent during his unconventional election campaign, Ko is an out-of-the-box thinker who eschews traditions and tries to find new approaches and new ways to resolve old problems. His approach was apparently liked by many Taipei residents, as he was elected by a landslide majority, winning 57.2 percent of the vote against 40.8 percent for KMT scion and Taipei mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文).
Now, there are few issues that are as deeply entrenched in traditional thinking as the issue of cross-strait relations. For decades, the terms were dictated by the dichotomy between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China: On one hand a repressive regime in Beijing that wanted to “reunify China” by annexing Taiwan. On the other hand an authoritarian KMT regime that wanted to “recover the mainland.”
This changed in the early 1990s, when under then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) there were cautious feelers put out in the direction of some sort of rapprochement. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) attempted to continue the rapprochement, but at the same time asserted Taiwan’s identity and separateness. This did not sit well with Beijing, leading to the downturn in relations.
The election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) brought another twist: He accepted the “1992 consensus” and went into full-fledged rapprochement with China, at the expense of freedom and democracy in Taiwan. His push for further economic integration with China led to a pushback by Taiwanese who feared economic overdependence would lead to unwanted political integration.
So where do we stand now? The “1992 consensus” is a fiction: Even Lee — who was president in 1992 — said there was never a consensus in 1992. The question then becomes: Is it a useful fiction?
The Ma administration obviously believes it is essential to cross-strait relations: Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) immediately lambasted Ko, saying that the “1992 consensus” is the basis for the “progress” made since Ma came to power in 2008.
However, one has to ask: What “progress” has been made? Yes, there has been an absence of direct hostilities, and Ma has pushed for close economic (and political?) integration with China.
However, in the meantime China has built up its military power with the obvious purpose of forcing Taiwan into its fold. Taiwan has hardly been able to gain more international space: The “achievements” of gaining observer status in the WHO and “guest” at the International Civil Aviation Organization convention were more form than substance. So, the fiction is not very useful, and we need to find alternative approaches.
Real progress can only be made if Taiwan, with the help of the international community, can move toward a new consensus in which China has a better understanding of what Taiwanese want, and if it respects the wishes of Taiwanese for a free, democratic and sovereign state. That is precisely the essence of Ko’s “2015 consensus.”