Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s (陳光誠) visit to Taiwan happened to coincide with the signing of the cross-strait service trade agreement and scenes of fighting between the governing and opposition parties. The timing of the trip was not intended to coincide with the signing, but such scenes were very informative, in that they shed much light on certain repercussions of his visit.
First of all, as a well-known international human rights lawyer, Chen is a symbol of China’s human rights issue wherever he goes. And human rights, or more precisely the problems with the Chinese political model of human rights, is a very sensitive issue in cross-strait relations at the moment, although many seem to be pointedly ignoring it.
The most ridiculous aspect of the signing of the pact is the very different ways in which the two sides approached the talks. Taiwan was using the WTO framework, conducting the negotiations according to the principle of trade equality, while Beijing was focused entirely on how the talks could further its unification agenda.
How the two sides managed to carve out an agreement coming from such fundamentally different positions was quite a feat, but carve one out they did.
It would be naive to think that economic talks so transparently political in their goal would be undertaken as economic negotiations throughout. And indeed, Chen came to Taiwan to speak out on the issue of human rights in China in an open, public forum, hoping to remind Taiwanese that there are no purely economic issues when it comes to cross-strait relations. He wanted to tell Taiwanese that they need to open their eyes to the problems implicit in China’s political model.
The contrast between the low-key official reaction to Chen’s visit and the enthusiastic response of the general public demonstrates once more that, with the current platform for cross-strait interaction, a great deal of the popular will can find expression only through civil society. This implicit contradiction, the existence of which Chen’s visit has served to highlight, is to have repercussions for how Taiwan approaches the development of cross-strait relations in the future.
Chen’s visit to Taiwan also represents the potential further development of interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese civil societies. From this perspective, it makes little difference whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) meets with him: What is important is how Taiwanese civil society responds to his visit.
Admittedly, Chen alone cannot entirely represent Chinese civil society, but what he symbolizes is very clear. That is, behind the apparent power of the Chinese Communist Party, there is an emerging civil society in China that is, even now, gradually growing in strength.
When Chen was still under house arrest in rural Shandong, human rights activists from all over China rallied around him, successfully organizing civil protests to demonstrate their support for his cause. Chen’s epic escape from house arrest showed that civil society is already starting to get its act together.
Has Taiwanese civil society acknowledged this? Does it truly understand what is happening in China? If not, there will be two repercussions for interaction between our respective civil societies.
The first is that we will be at a loss over who to interact with: We will not know what and where the actual constituent parts of civil society are in China.
The second is that holding a pessimistic, perhaps even slightly suspicious, attitude toward the future development of democracy in China has an impact on a preparedness to support the development of civil society there.
Hopefully, Chen’s visit to Taiwan will serve to initiate a new debate within Taiwan about the role of civil society. Has a civil society already emerged in China? If so, where do the strengths of China’s civil society lie? And how are we to proceed if we want to seek interaction between the civil societies of these countries?
Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Translated by Paul Cooper