Since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came to power in 2008, he has signed a total of 18 agreements — the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) among them — with China.
As soon as he started his second term last year, Beijing began pressurizing his government to enter into political talks.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials responsible for Taiwan affairs changed tack after the newly instated fifth generation of leaders took office after the last year’s CCP 18th National Congress: They said they will now look for support among the general Taiwanese public for cross-strait political dialogue.
Ma responded to this by saying that there was no need for such talks at present, and that the focus should remain on following up on the ECFA.
The Chinese point was this: If Taiwanese government officials are not going to engage in political dialogue, we will turn to ordinary citizens, and try to get them to push it for us.
President Ma’s point was this: I am not willing to enter into dialogue of a political nature with you, but I still want to engage you on economic and trade issues.
However, if the debate is to be instigated among the general public, the question arises: Are there any issues that should be avoided?
Over the past few years, cross-strait talks have focused primarily on economics and trade, and human rights issues have hardly played a role.
The Ma administration has been reluctant to discuss human rights with Beijing, and has been playing the game by Beijing’s rules for the entire duration.
The government, then, is content to put human rights issues to the side while talks on the ECFA are developed further.
This does not bode well for the future. Human rights issues will continue to be sidelined within cross-strait relations if relations are to continue under the tacit understanding of the so-called “1992 consensus.”
There is no need to look that far back for examples.
Last year, Falun Gong practitioner Bruce Chung (鍾鼎邦) was arrested in China by Chinese security forces, in what was a clear abuse of human rights.
The Taiwanese government was powerless to do anything about it.
Chung’s family sought help elsewhere, both in Taiwan and abroad, and Taiwan’s civil society made its objections to the arrest known.
In the end, Chung was allowed to return to Taiwan.
Last year, Taiwan signed an investor agreement with China and despite calls from the public for guarantees of individual freedoms, what resulted were guarantees weaker than those currently being observed in China.
Now that increasing numbers of Taiwanese are choosing to do business, pursue studies, or settle in China, the issues surrounding their rights are becoming increasingly complex.
What role is the Taiwanese government to play in guaranteeing the rights of its citizens, and how is it to address any human rights abuses that arise from the actions of the Chinese government or of cross-strait capital interests?
Is Ma going to continue to doff his cap and look to Beijing for charity and understanding?
The last few decades have cost Taiwanese dearly in their struggle to free themselves of despots and authoritarian rule, and protecting the open society should not be taken lightly.
It is precisely because we have yet to reach our goal, and that the path is still beset with obstacles and frustrations, that we need to treasure the small, incremental, fragile victories that we have achieved.
At the same time, in China, there are countless social activists and people trying to protect human rights being arrested, detained, beaten or killed simply for asking that the laws of the nation be observed.
Taiwanese continue to fight against human rights abuses in their own country, but why do they shy away from saying to the Chinese government, “please enforce the human rights as advocated in your own constitution, and stop the political persecution.”
Why do Taiwanese politicians hold their tongues the minute they land in China, and refuse to broach the subjects of democracy or human rights?
Taiwan Democracy Watch has recently published a book, entitled The Manifesto of the Free (自由人宣言), which discusses the need for both China and Taiwan to strive toward human rights guarantees; for the civil society in both countries to pro-actively engage in exchanges on human rights issues; for the governments of both countries to make a clear commitment to including human rights issues on the agenda, alongside economic and trade issues.
It also discusses the need for both sides to, at the appropriate juncture, sign a human rights charter; and the belief that, until there have been substantial improvements in the human rights situation in China, and until there has been progress in making the political system there more democratic, the two sides should not engage in any talks of a political nature.
Unlike political parties, civic groups are not burdened with the need to weigh up political considerations, and neither are they held hostage to the logic of political short-termism.
They are free to say what they feel needs to be said.
Civic groups can look to the long term, to seek out a path that will lead to permanent peace between China and Taiwan.
What we would like to see is for empty concepts, such as the “1992 consensus” and “one China,” to be replaced by a consensus on human rights.
This consensus should first be debated in the wider society, and when it has been agreed upon, for short and mid-term goals to be clearly and concisely articulated.
When these ideas have been given concrete form, they can be introduced into the political and legislative process in Taiwan, and then we can instigate a dialogue on human rights in cross-strait negotiations.
Based on the principle of equality and fairness, Taiwanese authorities should also investigate human rights abuse cases involving Chinese citizens in Taiwan, such as human rights conditions in detention centers.
We should also apply universal human rights standards to Chinese spouses, married to Taiwanese, who want to apply for Republic of China citizenship.
The basic attitude informing the next phase of cross-strait talks should be as follows: no political talks without human rights; if political talks are to be had, we must first address the issue of human rights.
To the world, Taiwan should declare that there will be no talks on anything unless there is first a consensus on human rights.
And finally, we are not to allow Beijing to define what “human rights” are supposed to mean.
Wu Jieh-min is an associate research fellow in the Institute of Sociology at the Academia Sinica; Hsu Wei-chun is convener of Taiwan Democracy Watch and assistant professor of law in the department of law and economics at Chung Yuan Christian University.
Translated by Paul Cooper