Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) has quietly withdrawn a proposal to include Chinese students in the National Health Insurance (NHI) program, after the suggestion was fiercely criticized by pan-green supporters. Since then, apart from the Ministry of Education, which says it intends to include Chinese students in the insurance program, Taiwan Democracy Watch has also expressed its support for the proposal.
The controversy over the proposal is a reflection of the tendency among pan-green supporters to equate the China factor with the China threat. This equation narrows the pan-greens’ scope for gaining an objective understanding of the China factor, and it limits their space and potential for formulating rational policies with regard to China.
The China factor is an integral part of the worldwide political and economic system, and it is a result of both globalization and China’s rising power and influence. Consequently, there are some points that need to be clearly understood when considering the China factor and formulating China policy.
First, the China factor is not just a matter of “that China over on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.” It is a factor that has long since been beside and among us. Wherever you look in Taiwan, you can see made-in-China goods and Chinese tourists, and these are only the most obvious aspects. Taiwan today relies on China for about 60 percent of its exports, so a lot of the New Taiwan dollars that it earns and spends are generated from the Chinese yuan.
Second, the China factor is, for the most part, not just a cross-strait factor. For example, hordes of Chinese students go to study in the US and Chinese academics are teaching in US universities. These are not cross-strait factors, but they do have an influence on Taiwan. Similarly, the state of China’s society and economy has an influence on the global prices of grain, oil and other commodities, and of course these prices also affect prices in Taiwan.
And third, the China factor often involves huge interests and opportunities. This is an undeniable objective reality all around the world. Over the past two decades, China has been the workshop of the world, and now it is gradually becoming a market for the whole world too.
The leaders of the pan-green camp can hardly be unaware of these points, but they seem to lack a setup for communication that could turn these opinions into political energy. Consequently, whenever the pan-greens run into an issue related to the China factor, it is immediately turned into talk of some kind of China threat, and people then start thinking about ways to defend Taiwan against that threat.
The pan-greens would do well to consider adjusting their thinking and behavior.
First, China policies cannot just be policies in response to China. They should be adjusted to be policies in response to the China factor.
Second, China policies should not be thought about entirely within the confines of cross-strait policies. The game plan for thinking about cross-strait policies is largely a matter of sovereign units — China, Taiwan, the US, Japan and so on. This aspect must not be left out, and indeed it cannot be omitted. However, questions such as whether Taiwan should offer scholarships to attract outstanding Chinese students or whether it should employ Chinese sports coaches on high salaries should not be dragged into the realm of cross-strait policies, taking the China threat as the top consideration that trumps everything else.
The opinions expressed recently among pan-green supporters against including Chinese students in the NHI program still involve liberal doses of the China threat theory. It is understandable that some people should have such worries, but their anxiety also gets in the way of thinking about the issue from other angles.
Third, defensive thinking about a China threat should be at least partially replaced with analysis of a China risk. This does not just mean that people should take a more positive view of the real framework in which benefits exist alongside dangers. It also means that one should always be aware that while the China factor has an impact on Taiwan, that impact is not always a threat.
Taiwan’s sovereignty game is one that may not produce a final result for a long time. The pan-green camp needs to accept this condition of the game, which is not favorable to its own aims. In doing so, its supporters will have to learn how to understand and respond to the many other kinds of China factor. The pan-greens cannot keep dodging the issues by always focusing on the China threat, and they should not be so naive as to think that they can handle those issues by separating political questions from economic ones.
Given that Taiwan has already entered into the huge complex of interests associated with China, the DPP, as a party that wants to bear political responsibilities, must try to endow that complex with other meanings. It must point out the risks involved and bring in to play some viewpoints to do with common values. Civil society has for a long time faced the China factor based on such viewpoints as human rights, transparency and democratic oversight. In comparison, the DPP looks hesitant and irresolute.
Politics often involves a subtle handling of “equals signs.” If the DPP goes on equating the China factor with the China threat, it may itself end up being equated with isolationism. If the DPP cannot improve its ability to deal with the China factor by setting up a system for responding to the risks along the lines of human rights and other common values, then the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) approach, which is all about profit, will continue to dominate, and Taiwan’s democracy may gradually be forfeited.
Yen Chueh-an is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Law and a supervisor of Taiwan Democracy Watch.
Translated by Julian Clegg