Facing non-democratic choices

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Mon, Aug 08, 2011 - Page 8

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.

However, when it comes to deciding Taiwan’s future as a nation-state, the choice isn’t democratic, as it is regulated by external threats and intimidation. Not only have those threats not disappeared with Taiwan’s democratic consolidation, the situation has grown worse as China’s military has rapidly modernized, while the credibility of US military support for Taiwan has dwindled and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself has for the most part stalled.

On the question of a people’s right to determine its own future, there is nothing democratic in being given the choice between “peaceful convergence” with authoritarian China — strongly encouraged by Washington and the proponents of accommodation — and the threat of war. When Beijing, the KMT and, if perhaps more subtly, some US officials warn that voting for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) threatens to undermine stability in the Taiwan Strait, they make a mockery of Taiwan’s “democratic miracle,” whose achievement some like to take credit for. If only for the sake of intellectual honesty, advocates of such forced accommodation should abandon all claims to supporting democracy.

In that context, the China policy adopted by the Ma administration is not so much the result of democratic agreement with and within society, but rather a symptom of the bracketed choices forced upon the country. Taiwan — the real Taiwan, its people — might not agree with the content of Ma’s cross-strait policy, but what choice do they have, when the alternatives, however more palatable they might be to them, are rendered impossible by external pressure and the threat of military invasion?

Democracy, with all its imperfections, should be about the art of the possible, the quest for the best possible outcome and not solely a mechanism by which to choose the least bad option.

Everybody knows, or ought to know, that in the present situation the word “peaceful” is a pack of lies. There is nothing peaceful in being forced against your will to accommodate a murderous, controlling and paranoid regime that does not recognize your existence.

So limited has the choice of Taiwanese on the matter become, however, that the latter option, repulsive as it may be, has become the lesser of two evils, at least if we believe the rhetoric that a vote for the DPP is somehow a vote for war. Taiwan over the years has been forced into a corner by a complicit and narrow-minded international community and is now compelled to pick from a narrow set of only bad choices. This hardly fits the definition of democracy.

The truth is, the great majority of Taiwanese do not want convergence with China, at least not a China that continues to be ruled by the increasingly repressive Chinese Communist Party. Those who claim the contrary, the so-called experts who “know” what Taiwanese “want” from a safe distance, are simply highlighting the fact that they are utterly disconnected from the realities on the ground.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.