During a videoconference with academics and officials at Stanford University in California on Tuesday last week, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan and students coming here to study will witness freedom in Taiwan, and will become seeds for Chinese democracy when they return to China, which will be beneficial to the promotion of human rights in that nation.
Many members of the pan-green camp have also linked Chinese tourists and students in Taiwan with the spreading of freedom and democracy in China. While this idea may seem correct, it is actually wrong, because it treats a possibility of something happening as something that has in fact already taken place.
While contact may bring about change, and while lack of contact could mean that there will be no change at all, the variables that are key to deciding policy are the effects of that contact, the type of contact that is effective and the time that passes before change occurs.
If increasing the number of Chinese students or tourists who have been to Taiwan can bring about democratic reform in China, then perhaps we should ask just how much democratic reform has taken place in China as a result of Taiwanese businesspeople plying their trade there for decades.
Also, over the past 30 years many Chinese students have studied in the US, which raises the question whether China has become more democratic as a result of those people returning home, or if there are now more political restrictions in China.
If we view furthering democracy and human rights as an important mission in our dealings with Beijing, then we should actively support those individuals or groups that are promoting democracy and human rights inside China.
We should also include democracy, human rights and the rule of law in our agenda for dialogue with China, and we should make visits to human rights activists there an essential part of official visits to China, actively supporting them when they are oppressed and helping their families with their living expenses.
We should also pay special attention to meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and apart from focusing on the issue of human rights, we could make a list of China’s political prisoners and then use that as a standard for assessing democracy there.
What is important is that we support and assist human rights activists and independent academics working in China, for, after all, these people are key to furthering Chinese democracy.
Since the link between Chinese students or tourists and furthering democracy in China is not prominent, we should focus on what goals we hope to reach by attracting Chinese students and tourists. Having clear goals is key on this front.
We should not talk about how our policies for admitting Chinese students to study in Taiwan are intended to increase democracy in China, on the one hand, while on the other we ignore imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), use various reasons to keep Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer from visiting Taiwan and stop Falun Gong practitioners from protesting during visits by senior Chinese officials.
If we really believe that promoting democracy in China is beneficial to Taiwan and cross-strait relations, then we should start by helping those who are working inside China to promote democracy.
Lai I-chung is an executive committee member of the Taiwan Thinktank.
Translated by Drew Cameron