President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has shown that he can talk about democracy, freedom and human rights. He just cannot live up to those ideals.
At an annual commemoration marking the anniversary of the death of Taiwanese democracy pioneer Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), he praised Chiang as “a great man of Taiwan” and pledged to continue Chiang’s efforts to pursue a democratic Taiwan.
At events celebrating World Freedom Day, he promised to protect freedom and democracy and said that Taiwan had come a long way and that “democracy is something we have to cherish, and a very important experience we can share with other emerging democracies in the rest of the world.”
In a speech marking international Human Rights Day, he trumpeted a message about rights.
Even though he has dramatically toned down his rhetoric about the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre since taking office in 2008, Ma earlier this month said he sees “the protection of human rights as an established worldwide trend” and that he “earnestly hopes the universal values of human rights can take root in the Chinese nation.”
So, if Ma values democracy as much as he claims, why has he declined to meet with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), who arrived on Sunday for an 18-day visit?
Defenders may argue that Ma is free to decline a meeting with Chen because he has “other things to take into consideration.”
True. However, consider the democratic boost that it would give Ma — a head of state repeatedly pledging to transform Taiwan into a “human rights-oriented nation” — in meeting a Chinese human rights activist who is risking his life fighting against Beijing’s oppression.
It is obvious that it is not this sort of thing, nor his democratic credentials, that defenders mean when they refer to the things Ma must take into consideration.
To the world, Taiwan’s image as a defender of democracy and freedom of speech has been damaged — once again — by Ma’s refusal to meet Chen, though this is not the first time he has sidestepped a chance to prove — to Taiwanese and the world — that his talk about defending democracy is more than just words.
In November last year, the government once again denied the Dalai Lama a visa, a move Ma defended by citing “inappropriate timing.” As Taipei mayor in 2001, Ma said Taipei “always welcomes the Dalai Lama,” yet in September 2009, when the exiled spiritual leader visited southern Taiwan — at the invitation of Democratic Progressive Party mayors and county commissioners — one month after Typhoon Morakot devastated parts of the region, Ma declined to meet him.
There was also his administration’s refusal to issue Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer a visa in 2009 on grounds that she was “closely associated with a terrorist group.”
Ma is free and easy when it comes to flowery tributes and speaking about upholding the nation’s democratic values and protecting human rights, but he has repeatedly and consistently failed to back up his words with action.
His refusal to meet with human rights advocates demonized by Chinese authorities shows that Ma is either afraid of upsetting Beijing, or he does not understand what democracy and human rights are really about. He appears to have become a living embodiment of a Potemkin village.