The Taiwanese public has been generally supportive of presidents in the past, even when times were tough. Thanks to their anti-Chinese communist stance, former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) had the full confidence of the general public, despite the martial law government and White Terror atrocities they oversaw. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was re-elected with a large majority, despite triggering the 1996 Taiwan Missile Crisis after he angered the administration of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) with comments made during an interview in the US. And former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was strongly reprimanded internationally when he offended the US and provoked China. The legacy of these past presidents will be judged in the fullness of time, and different people will have their own views on the matter depending on their biases and prejudices. However, all these past leaders have one thing in common — nobody could accuse them of colluding with foreign states or outside powers to harm their own people or country. Everybody would agree that, in this regard at least, all these leaders basically fulfilled their constitutional duties.
How should constitutional duties be defined? Presidents represent their country to others. In terms of foreign relations, presidents have the constitutional power to conclude treaties and agreements, to declare war and to make peace. Where is the red line drawn, specifically when it comes to signing agreements and bringing about peace? The Council of Grand Justices’ Interpretation No. 627 is very clear on what is called state secrets privilege — that the president has the right to decide not to make public any information regarding national security, national defense or diplomatic relations that the president believes might influence national security or the national interest if made public, and to ensure that it remains confidential. Put another way, if a president’s actions in themselves do not involve concerns that would impact national security or the national interest, then the president has no right to keep them from being made public. Further, according to Article 52 of the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, the president is liable to criminal prosecution if charged with having committed an act of rebellion or treason. Clearly, it is imperative to uphold the principle of an adequate degree of transparency to comply with the tenets of democracy, even in the most sensitive of international dealings.
The question is whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has given the public the same sense of security that the aforementioned presidents were able to do. We shall set this aside for the moment, as it perhaps involves a political value judgement.
However, on a purely legal level, all the recent talk of whether “Mr Ma” can attend the APEC annual leaders’ meeting in person, in his capacity as the leader of an APEC member economy, is already skirting a little close to the bottom line allowable in the law. The general public should warn the authorities to immediately amend their ways, refrain from sailing too close to the wind in this way and to return to what mainstream public opinion wants them to do.
The Presidential Office has said much that has been met with widespread suspicion. It has intimated, for example, that the government is committed to working toward the goal of Ma personally attending the APEC meeting in his capacity as the leader of an APEC member economy, that the conditions have to be ripe for the national leaders of Taiwan and China to meet, that at present the conditions for him to do so are not yet ripe and that more needs to be done to create the necessary conditions.
Now compare this to the “directives” recently announced by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: For Taiwan to arrange to have Ma attend the APEC meeting in person, it must proceed in line with APEC memoranda of understanding and in line with precedent. In other words, any arrangements to bring about a meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) have to meet three conditions. First, they must comply with the precedent set in the 1993 APEC economic member leaders’ meeting in Seattle, with Taiwan being represented under the name Chinese Taipei. Second, Ma will have to appear not as the president of the ROC, but as the economic leader of an APEC member economy. Third, the Taiwanese representative must first secure Beijing’s consent.
And now that “Mr Ma” has already publicly made quite apparent his intention to create the requisite conditions, the ROC itself is in peril, with the time set at the unofficial APEC leaders’ meeting to be hosted by China next year.
The reason is that when China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are all represented at the meeting, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be the name of a country, but Chinese Taipei will not. In APEC, Xi is the president of his country, but Ma will just be the leader of the APEC economic member known as Chinese Taipei.
In the past, a Taiwanese president would seek to make the most of the meeting being held in a third country. However, as soon as the location for the meeting moves to China, he forgoes the redemption offered by dint of being in an international forum. In China, Beijing can interpret the situation as it pleases. In other words, is it not the case that the minute Ma sets foot in China, the ROC ceases to exist, replaced by Chinese Taipei?
The name Chinese Taipei is nothing new, it has been with us a long time, but the government could account for it as just being a reality of engaging with the international community, without Taiwan actually accepting it. However, what if, for example, the president has been making deals behind closed doors, conspiring with Beijing to “create the requisite conditions?” Then he is not only conceding it as reality, he is — in the action of going to China in person — accepting a lowering of status, and all for a photo opportunity, shaking Xi’s hand.
The other day, the Presidential Office explained that the conditions are not ripe, but that Ma, like Lee and Chen before him, is striving toward being able to attend the APEC meeting in person. Previous leaders would never have gone to China in the way Ma intends to do, in any capacity, not just as far back as Chen and Lee, but all the way to Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek. Is it that they did not have the opportunity to go? They certainly could have done so had they really wanted. So why did they not? Why does Ma not refuse to go? How will the 23 million Taiwanese react to how this will potentially develop? And how can they say “no” to Ma in a way that will make any difference?
Translated by Paul Cooper