INTERVIEW: Democracy Watch speaks on ‘Declaration’

A group of Taiwanese academics at Taiwan Democracy Watch recently published a manifesto titled ‘A Declaration of Free Men,’ aimed at reframing cross-strait relations, which it said have prized economic prosperity above everything else and have been monopolized by egotistical politicians on both sides of the Strait. Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology associate research fellow Wu Jieh-min, one of the manifesto’s drafters, commented on the manifesto in an interview with ‘Liberty Times’ (sister newspaper of the ‘Taipei Times’) reporter Tzou Jiing-wen and called on the public to protect their democratic way of life by employing the ‘weapon of human rights’

Sun, May 12, 2013 - Page 3

Liberty Times (LT): What prompted Democracy Watch members to issue the “Declaration of Free Men” (自由人宣言), and why now?

Wu Jieh-min (吳介民): The reasons are simple. We want to emancipate cross-strait exchanges from the shackle of monopoly by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which have been using such exchanges as a platform to distribute benefits to privileged politicians and businesspeople. We seek to create a new framework for cross-strait exchanges from the viewpoint of the people, the governed.

The Chinese government has gradually forced President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration into a corner and has begun to suggest that both sides enter a political dialogue. However, under the constraint of the so-called “1992 consensus,” China is not likely to give Taiwan any options except for the one including “ultimate unification.”

Over the years, only KMT and CCP representatives have been allowed to sit at the cross-strait negotiating table, where they have inked 18 accords and satisfied the interests of only privileged government officials and businesspeople. The people have been excluded from the process and denied chances to supervise the process and voice their opinions.

At a time when the Chinese government is apparently speeding up its pace in marching toward its ultimate goal [unification] — particularly after Ma took office for his second term last year — and when China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and its favored organizations are keeping up pressure on Taipei to move to cross-strait political talks, we have felt the urgency to find a solution from the framework of civil society.

We understand that some parts [of the declaration] could be somewhat idealistic, but since we are not politicians, we are not fettered by the political games of elections.

The manifesto has taken a giant leap in cross-strait relations by demanding that discussions on “the people,” “human rights” and “the sovereignty of the people” be included in the scope of cross-strait rapprochement. We urge both sides of the Taiwan Strait to work to improve their human rights conditions and sign a human rights charter, and oppose any form of cross-strait political engagement until these two conditions are fulfilled.

In other words, what the declaration is trying to achieve is to mark a battle line for ideological movements, in which the most powerful weapons are human rights and the sovereignty of the people.

Human rights may be the weapon of the weak, but they are also a “demon-revealing mirror” for authoritarians and those who support such regimes.

Since what we are promoting are ideological movements, we don’t look for short-term outcomes, but a gradual awakening of the spirit of the people as a whole.

LT: Publication of the declaration has sparked discussion and elicited varied responses, including negative comments by some media outlets that it is an exemplification of “democratic triumphalism” and “human rights triumphalism.” What are your opinions on this?

Wu: Taiwan is only geographically separated by a body of water from China, a rising regime whose rulers have silenced [Chinese Nobel laureate] Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), — an advocate of Chinese democracy and constitutional government — sentenced him to jail and put his wife, Liu Xia (劉霞), under house arrest.

Foreign journalists were beaten by unknown men after trying to visit Liu Xia, who, despite being a brave soul, was seen crying and trembling uncontrollably in a YouTube video [of her first interview since being detained.]

It is also this very regime that had imprisoned human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) and tried to prevent him from telling the truth.

After Chen’s release, Beijing has poured tens of millions of yuan each year into efforts to place his entire family under house arrest and bar them from contact with the outside world, all in the name of “maintaining social stability.”

The persecution of Chen’s family continued even after the activist escaped house detention and fled to the US. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Chinese petitioners have been treated as criminals, thrown into black jails and [forcibly] admitted to psychiatric facilities.

As we speak, this regime that claims our nation as its own has enacted the “Anti-Secession” Law [a controversial act in 2005 that legalized the use of “non-peaceful” means to stop Taiwan’s independence], has 2,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan and is intruding in our nation with its currency.

Nevertheless, all we ask of Beijing is to treat its people better and guarantee the personal freedom of Taiwanese businesspeople and students in China. Are these requests too arrogant?

We, standing on the weaker side of the long-standing political standoff, are only beseeching it to restrain its “strong desire to devour.” Who is really the arrogant one here, Beijing or us?

While we are on the topic of “democratic triumphalism,” we do appreciate friendly reminders from our friends on the other side of the Strait, such as [exiled Chinese democracy activist] Wang Dan (王丹).

Democratic dialogue between two societies is a process of mutual understanding between two [groups of people that have] different ways of living and varied kinds of revolutionary spirits.

Countless numbers of revered civil rights activists have dedicated their lives to fighting for freedom in China.

Therefore, we must carry out cross-strait exchanges with a modest mindset by recognizing each side of the Strait as a separate entity, for it is a process of mutual learning, not a rivalry of who should advise who.

The declaration incorporates some of the demands from Charter 08 [a manifesto drafted and signed by Chinese intellectuals in 2008 calling for reform of China’s human rights] into its “early harvest human rights list,” which is our way of expressing respect for democratic movements in China.

LT: Some media outlets also ridiculed the “Declaration of Free Men” by comparing it to the Tao Te Ching [道德經, an ancient Chinese collection of spiritual discourses.] What are your views on this?

Wu: The declaration is comprised of our guiding principles [on human rights], [short, medium and long-term] objectives for both sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as concrete measures for them to achieve the goals.

We aim to prod our government and political parties to march toward these objectives while having the nation’s representatives place those issues on the cross-strait negotiating table.

These goals are by no means empty talk.

Those who intentionally disregard the substantial measures we put forward in the manifesto, adopt a careless attitude and sneer at our innovative thinking are cynics.

By cloaking their defeatism as “pragmatism,” these media outlets are merely championing hegemony and demanding that the people [of Taiwan] succumb to [China’s might] and embrace its preferred ways for cross-strait engagement.

It is easy to deride idealism and take cheap shots, but it is hard to devise alternative measures.

We have never claimed the “Declaration of Free Men” to be flawless, but at least we have made the effort to put forward a new ideology.

We expect to see in this society more people who possess the sort of integrity advocated by French novelist Albert Camus in his work The Plague, and who could propose other possibilities to help Taiwan overcome its political predicaments.

Camus said only people who have integrity could fight off “the plague.”

We believe that integrity exists in every person who does their duty to society, no matter how small.

Also, we hope to see more people who are empathetic to Chinese citizens [not the Chinese regime] and sympathetic to the values of freedom, democracy and human rights to join our discussion board.

LT: During the social dialogue [promoted by the declaration], there has been a side debate over whether “Taiwanese independence” has lost its marketability. What are your opinions?

Wu: Some media outlets have tried to capitalize on the manifesto to manipulate the issue of “Taiwanese independence’s loss of marketability,” and use this twisted assumption to dismiss the declaration.

When discussing the debatable topics of Taiwan independence and unification [of Taiwan and China], the worthier question should be: Is there a market for unification?

In China, government officials are busy sending their children overseas, applying for foreign citizenship, purchasing real estate in abroad and living lavish lifestyles with money extorted from common people. It is these officials, who themselves don’t even want to be Chinese, are wrapping their hands around our necks, trying to browbeat us into becoming one of them.

Does anyone find such a nation attractive? That is a question our media should be asking China.

Now, do democracy and human rights have a market in Taiwan? Are they marketable in China?

The democratic political system we enjoy today in Taiwan is the fruit of countless sacrifices and the devotion of many generations of Taiwanese over the past decades. Yet, this system is still delicate and imperfect. The nation’s democracy still needs to be further deepened and entrenched.

Because of the painful price our forebears paid to achieve democracy, we are able to see more clearly the fragile nature of this universal value and China’s apparent efforts to encroach on our nation by buying people off and the necessity of safeguarding our hard-earned democratic way of life.

We must not back down from our obligation to defend our “social openness.”

Over the past decade, people from China have been watching closely every election carried out in this nation. Why? Because they live in a country where democracy and direct elections don’t yet exist and by showing a great interest in Taiwan’s elections, they are actually launching an “unspoken protest” against their one-party government and venting their frustration.

Chinese students were present at several recent social movements in Taiwan, such as those against nuclear energy, forced relocation [of city residents], and media monopoly, as well as the large-scale demonstrations staged by workers and labor unions on May 1.

They participated because they know all too well that democracy is more than just voting and wanted to join us in reflecting on the deficiencies of democratic systems.

The underlying truth is: China remains a nation where people are deprived of the right to freely choose for themselves, yearn for political rights and are calling for the power of their government to be limited.

Now tell me, are human rights and democracy marketable values in China?

Recently, a 10-year-old Chinese girl named Chang Anni (張安妮) was barred from attending school after her father [Chinese civil rights activist Chang Lin (張林)] continued to organize social movements after being released from prison.

Chinese environmentalist Tan Zuoren (譚作人) was sentenced to [five years in] prison on a charge of “inciting subversion of state power” and is still behind bars only because he had planned to issue a report on school buildings that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Meanwhile, Chen Guangcheng’s scheduled visit to Taiwan [in June] has resulted in his family in Shandong Province being harassed and threatened by unknown men for several consecutive days.

What do you think are the reasons for these people continuing to come forward to fight against totalitarianism while their families and themselves are in such predicaments?

We know why China is so afraid to touch on human rights issues in cross-strait negotiations, but we must ask: What exactly do Taiwanese dread about the topic?

LT: What messages do you want the [Taiwanese] government to receive from the declaration?

Wu: Past cross-strait negotiations have prioritized economic and trade exchanges and ignored human rights issues.

The Ma administration has been disinclined to bring up human rights-related topics with Beijing and has been submissively playing by China’s rules for the “cross-strait game.”

The arrest of Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioner Chung Ting-pang (鍾鼎邦) by China’s National Security Bureau last year highlighted Beijing’s rampant practice of extra-judicial detention, as well as the Taiwanese government’s impotence in protecting its people.

At present, scores of Taiwanese are doing business, working and studying in China, whose rulers can arbitrarily brand religious beliefs as “cults” and law enforcement officers harass local house churches.

Can we afford to not discuss human rights with such a country?

It is for Taiwanese to decide whether they want to sit by while China’s poor human rights standards take a toll on our nation, or instead take the initiative and pick up “the weapon of the weak” to defend our democratic way of life.

Translated by staff writer Stacy Hsu