The constitutional amendments made in 1997 may be the most important as far as democratization is concerned. The partial suspension of the Taiwan Provincial Government, which was supposed to be a localization measure, eventually led to the mergers and upgrading of the five larger municipalities, the effects of which cannot yet be clearly judged. As the legislature’s power to approve or veto the president’s nomination for premier was abolished, the Constitution became a more presidential system, laying the groundwork for the following political turmoil.
Two political concepts that were often quoted at the time but heard less frequently since are: “consolidation of democracy” and “society in crisis.” However, democracy and human rights have regressed a long way during the six years of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) time in office. Although more people have come to identify themselves as Taiwanese, the increasing influence of China has injected a new element of crisis into society.
Although the “China factor” is a major cause of the the current situation, there are other aspects to consider:
First, the “China factor” is mainly a matter of Beijing’s political ambitions wrapped up in economic clothing. The industrial practice of taking orders in Taiwan and making the goods in China has generated fictitious GDP figures and the same economic predicament remains when companies do their manufacturing in Southeast Asia.
Second, cross-strait issues are in essence one link in the global political and economic structure. This interrelationship is demonstrated by the way in which German dependence on Russian natural gas has indirectly influenced Western countries’ attitudes to the crisis in Crimea.
Sad to say, Taiwan has very little status in the international legal order. What it does have depends on the US’ Taiwan Relations Act and other de facto international forces. The nation may be even less visible than Crimea on the global scene, and its government has never formally stated its position in the international community by declaring the sovereignty of the Republic of China or Taiwan. On the contrary, it has put the noose of the so-called “1992 consensus” around its own neck and is prepared to tell China to kick the stool out from under its feet.
This touches on a key concept. Although the “China factor” has a forceful effect due to Beijing’s political power and economic influence, the current situation is a very real crisis. If external influences are overemphasized, it will be easy to blame others while overlooking the many internal factors that have influenced the crises.
Ma’s narcissistic determination to establish a legacy in cross-strait relations may well turn the means and procedures to which he resorts in order to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) into a series of nightmares that generate crises in Taiwan. Popular mobilizations in opposition to the cross-strait trade in services agreement and the confrontation between the government and opposition parties, are only the starting point of this wave of confrontations. Even if Ma’s government succeeds in pushing through legislative approval for the service trade agreement, who knows how many promises Ma will have to make and how many more maneuvers he will have to pull before he gets to meet Xi? Such a meeting would have potential ramifications in terms of negotiations, and its results would certainly be a catastrophe for Taiwan.
Major faults in the nation’s system of constitutional government allow Ma to feel secure even though his approval rate has fallen to about 10 percent. Furthermore, the Cabinet — consisting of Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) and other ministers nominated by Ma — has handled many issues extraordinarily badly, including the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City, abuse of military recruits, political struggles, phone-tapping, forced demolitions, workers made redundant by factory closures, electronic toll collection, free economic pilot zones and school curriculum guidelines. The Cabinet has performed dismally amid his weak public support. However, they still rush through any policy it is imagined will improve the economy.
The government’s carrot-and-stick approach to getting legislators to give express approval to the cross-strait service trade agreement is just the first signal. The next item on Ma’s agenda is the proposed law governing free economic pilot zones, which could well prove catastrophic for the economy.
However, the most worrying question is whether the Cabinet will announce that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant has passed its safety tests and then proceed to install fuel rods and have the plant start operations. A rational view is that the plant should definitely not be completed. Strangely, the Ma-Jiang regime is determined to make sure that the plant does start operating. That is because establishing atomic power has become an essential element in Ma, Jiang and the conservative movements concern for its legacy. Their lordships refuse to recognize the reasonable judgements made by ordinary people on the basis of their wisdom and knowledge and only want to wallow in self-deception. That is the philosophical analysis one would make based on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but now it may really turn out to be the root cause of a Taiwan crisis.
The purpose of this analysis is to point out that while globalization, the “China factor” and international politics may have generated quite tough structural difficulties, the nation’s crisis is being brought about by internal factors and the actions of politicians and citizens. Conversely, how a crisis can be prevented deepening depends mostly on Taiwanese.
The current confrontation over the service trade agreement is a litmus test. People have raised a thousand doubts about it: The opaque way in which the agreement was drawn up, the dearth of public information about it, the lack of courage to assess its possible impacts, the questionable aspects of its terms, the controversial nature of the items it covers, the unbalanced deregulation of various sectors.
However the standard reply is that the legislature can deliberate on the agreement, but it cannot amend it. Does this not fly in the face of democracy? Does it not show that Beijing’s wish is Ma’s command? That is why it is so important for the legislature not just to screen the service treatment clause-by-clause, and do it meticulously, but also to enact a law about oversight of cross-strait agreements. These steps must be taken to safeguard democracy and prevent a crisis.
It does not look very likely that the Ma-Jiang regime can wake up from the stubbornness that power has engendered in its leaders. Therefore, apart from telling the opposition parties not to slack off in the legislature and to steadfastly oppose the express approval of the trade services agreement, civic groups are determined to continue speaking out and resisting in all kinds of ways.
Everyone should understand clearly that the “majority violence” being used to push the service trade agreement through the legislature is by no means the end point. It is much more likely to be the starting point that will lead to a series of crisis-inducing policies being forced through, including the commissioning of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and arranging a meeting between Ma and Xi with political statements being made about cross-strait relations.
If action is not taken now and people wait until Taiwan is hit by one crisis after another, it will be too late to do anything about it.
Yen Chueh-an is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Law.
Translated by Julian Clegg