Not a time for a nation of sheep

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Fri, Mar 13, 2009 - Page 8

Since dialogue between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was initiated following President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) taking office in May, Beijing has made no secret of its ultimate intentions regarding Taiwan. In speech after speech, the Chinese leadership — including President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) — has been surprisingly transparent about the fact that cross-strait talks and various agreements are a means to an end, the stepping stones toward the great goal of “reunification.”

It is puzzling, therefore, that the Ma administration would continue to argue that an ECFA and other pacts with China are nonpolitical and will not undermine the sovereignty of the nation. And yet, despite the unequivocal signals from Beijing, this is what the administration keeps harping about, vaunting the economic benefits of closer ties with China and the alleged security benefits attendant to cross-strait dialogue.

It’s as if the KMT were unable to hear what Hu, Wen and others have been saying all along. The writing’s on the wall — it doesn’t even need deciphering.

The CCP, which faces daunting social challenges under normal circumstances and exacerbated ones during times of economic crisis, will resort to nationalism to breathe new life into its legitimacy with the Chinese. Resurrecting pride with massive military parades is part of that strategy. Another spoke is the long-held promise of “reunification” with Taiwan, “the principal item of unfinished territorial business,” as David Lampton writes in his book The Three Faces of Chinese Power.

For the CCP — and by extension the Chinese nation — Taiwan is the last remnant of centuries of humiliation at Western and Japanese hands, the remaining symbol of colonialism standing in the way of true glory. Simply put, it is an issue of face and of bringing the breakaway province back into the motherly fold. Conveniently, in this time of great uncertainty and potential instability, the CCP is able, for the first time since 1949, to tell its domestic audience that the long-awaited “reunification” might be at hand.

It certainly helps that, through tight control of information, China can censor news of opposition in Taiwan to such agreements or to the direction they appear to be taking the country. As a result, not only can the CCP herald a new era in cross-strait dialogue, it can also portray the talks as non-contentious, as between two groups whose objectives are the same and views are homogenous. Beijing can tell its people that all is well on the Taiwan front, that “reunification” is at hand, that they can forget their worries, dissatisfaction with the CCP as the great Chinese nation will soon be one again. Very few topics feed the flames of Chinese nationalism more than the question of Taiwan.

Given the paucity of non-censored information they have access to, or the risks entailed in seeking more credible sources, Chinese can be forgiven for believing the propaganda or for not realizing that Taiwanese do not all look favorably on Ma’s approaches to China.

In fact, as a consequence of its lack of experience with democratic processes, we could perhaps even forgive the CCP for failing to understand how, in a democracy, legitimacy and decision-making are not top-down phenomena, but rather bottom-up ones, and that what the state says is not carved in stone.

Conversely, in democratic Taiwan access to information is such that anyone who wishes to do so can access what the CCP leadership is saying about cross-strait talks and agreements, and its objectives for the future. Not only can the speeches made by CCP cadres regarding “reunification” be heard and read, but it is even possible to keep count of the number of missiles that the Chinese military is aiming at Taiwan — a number that, despite “peace” talks, continues to grow.

For Taiwanese, who have access to all the information in the world, to stand by like sheep while their government plays with fire with agreements that not only lack oversight but whose ultimate objective may be misinterpreted by their Chinese counterparts, defies comprehension.

There is no denying that the current economic situation is taking center stage in people’s lives, that massive job losses and dwindling fortunes are threatening people’s livelihoods. This notwithstanding, Taiwan’s middle class has been dangerously apathetic when it comes to Ma’s experiment with China and the little opposition that has emerged has been largely relegated to academic circles, the elite, which can easily be portrayed as being out of touch with ordinary Taiwanese.

Part of this comes from the KMT’s skilful use of media outlets under its control or influence, which have portrayed talks with China as a panacea while skewering former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) over allegations of fraud. With the same stroke, it has successfully sidelined the Democratic Progressive Party, which has had difficulty getting traction with Taiwanese and has been regularly ignored by the government and the media.

Those who voted for the KMT last March, meanwhile, have not been getting the full picture. Ironically, by limiting themselves to a pan-blue media that preaches to the converted, and unhampered by the voice of a strong, credible opposition, they may be as blind as their Chinese counterparts when it comes to disagreements with Ma’s China policy (in all fairness, pan-green viewers and readers also tend to be myopic in their choice of media).

If the elite is perched too high in its ivory tower, and if the opposition party has been too discredited by allegations of corruption against Chen to mobilize the population and awaken pan-blue voters to the dangers that await around the corner, someone, somewhere, will have to take over and take the fight to the Ma administration.

For if this is allowed to proceed unchecked, Taiwanese could wake up one day and find themselves in a situation where their worries about a sagging economy or falling stocks are nothing more than a minor headache compared with the new challenges they face. The question is: Does this nation seek to react when it might be too late, or will it seek to be proactive and parry the blows as they come?

The Ma administration has displayed worrying signs of incompetence, while within the KMT there are a number of unaccountable individuals with close ties to Beijing whose motives bode ill for the future of Taiwan. This is a dangerous mix that competent CCP members are sure to exploit to the fullest and with total disregard for the views of ordinary Taiwanese.

The time has arrived for the Taiwanese middle class to awaken from its slumber and take the destiny of their country in their own hands. There is no room for rampant defeatism or the sense of powerlessness that seems to have installed itself like cosmic dust on the shoulders of Taiwanese. Real leaders, anger, a fighting spirit — this is what the situation calls for and only Taiwanese can find the means to breach the pan-green, pan-blue divide and get the message across.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.