In the 1990s, US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan made a name for himself by describing the booming stock market as “irrational exuberance.” His words of caution proved all too appropriate when the boom subsequently went bust.
These days, we would like to use the same phrase to refer to the widespread misconception that the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is leading to a reduction of tension between Taiwan and China. This misconception is widely subscribed to by governments and observers in the US and Western Europe.
But it remains a misconception, because these observers have not thought through the possible dynamics of the situation, given insufficient attention to the basic contradictions and root causes of the problem.
At issue is how should Taiwan approach its rapprochement with China.
First, we must examine what mandate the electorate gave Ma in the March election. Ma ran on a platform that included improving the economy, not changing the status quo that says that Taiwan is a free and democratic nation (albeit under the “Republic of China” name), and a Taiwan-centric approach based on the principle that the Taiwanese have the sole right to determine their future.
“Improving relations with China” was certainly a theme in his campaign, but opinion polls just before and after the elections show that the economy was the major driver, far outpacing all other factors. Ma played into these concerns handily by promising that opening up to China would improve the economy. All this earned him a landslide election and a post-election popularity rating of close to 80 percent.
However, after that it was all downhill, and opinion polls last month showed Ma’s popularity rating somewhere around 25 percent. What are the reasons for this unparalleled downturn? The following three factors played interlocking roles:
Intoxicated by his election victory, Ma rushed headlong into an unconditional rapprochement with China, without any attempt at reaching an internal consensus with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the process he neglected to safeguard basic principles of democracy, sovereignty and reciprocity — granting concessions to China without getting anything in return.
Instead of going up — as Ma had so rosily promised with his 6-3-3 campaign (6 percent economic growth, less than 3 percent unemployment and US$30,000 per capita income) — the economy went into a nosedive. While this was — at least in part — caused by the onslaught of the international economic recession, the much-vaunted economic team headed by Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) seemed to be totally at a loss on how to react.
Rather than making good on the promise of the Taiwan-centric approach of the campaign, once in power, the Ma administration shed its sheep’s skin and started to undo achievements made under former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration, such as reverting back to the “Republic of China” title on stamps, business cards of ministries and overseas representative offices.
In addition, the arrests and detentions of approximately a dozen present and former DPP officials, and their unfair and politically biased treatment at the hands of the flawed judicial system, brought back memories of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) martial law system that prevailed from the 1940 through the 1980s.
This, together with the excessive use of force by police during the visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), resulting in large numbers of civilian injuries and severe infringements of freedom of expression — galvanized many who had been instrumental in Taiwan’s transition to democracy.
Thus, the wrong-headed policies of the Ma administration and the thoughtless way in which they were implemented have generated tensions rather than reducing them. Yes, the people are in favor of reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and yes, the agreements signed are widely supported, but Taiwanese do not want to move in that direction at any cost, and certainly not at the expense of their hard-won democracy and fragile sovereignty.
A solution can only be found if the government in Taiwan — irrespective of whether it is KMT or DPP — first arrives at a broad-based consensus on how to move forward in its relations with China. Taiwan’s democracy is something relatively new and any party in power needs to move cautiously, ensuring that no wide divergence in the internal positions exists before advancing.
Last but not least, it also depends on how China positions itself: Iif it continues to play the power game and intends to force Taiwan into the fold whether it wants to or not, then the prospects for a peaceful resolution are grim.
On the other hand, if it accepts Taiwan as a friendly neighbor and grants it international space and recognition, then rational as well as international exuberance would be well justified.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication based in Washington.
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