That the Taiwan Strait problem remains a central issue as we move toward a major election is simply conceptually banal and socially ruinous. The notion that an issue that lies beyond the direct policy control of any Taiwanese political party or statesman should dictate all domestic politics and electoral outcomes makes no real sense.
Furthermore, the dominance of this one issue plays inevitably into the hands of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It reduces political choice, curtails political debate over major social issues, stifles political education, trivializes the votes of new, young electors and turns Taiwanese politics into a game of rhetoric.
As the presidential and legislative elections in January are likely to show in a most appalling manner, the principal function of the repeated game of words that is the “Strait issue” is to enervate politics in Taiwan to such an extent as to silence real debate. It also denies to the very marrow the accomplishments of the democracy movement in Taiwan, which grew bravely from the 1960s and flourished briefly for two political terms, before declining astonishingly in 2008 in an election dominated by issues beyond the command of either of the principal protagonists.
Taiwan is a place of smoke and mirrors located at the minor terminus of a continuously rehearsed and re-invented “China problem.” It is surely not any longer radical to argue that this nervous focus on a problem that has no obvious or distinct end solution in sight, was precisely what maintained martial law in place under the KMT until 1987.
As predicated in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the KMT used the excuse of the outside enemy to implement and maintain a state-capitalist dictatorship in Taiwan. There seems to be no serious argument against this summary of events.
How might we illustrate the conditions that create political enervation in modern Taiwan and the need to remove such conditions?
First is the lack of effective political choice through strictures on the range of issues debated. This occurs when electors do not have a full, explicit and debated agenda from the main parties upon which to then base their voting behavior. Politics then becomes convergent, with only small differences in rhetoric concerning the “China problem” or perhaps “corruption,” just as the larger political issues of welfare, health, schooling or housing are lost in the clouds of confusion.
Second, political education cannot really be taught in classrooms devoted to civics, the Constitution or international agreements. This is worthy enough of course, but real political education, especially for youngsters and new voters, takes place in the media and through meaningful public debate, and by participating in democracy within local communities. Mature debate over issues of real concern to youngsters and young couples, to do with the quality of urban life, the public education offered to their children, or the social security available to their parents or grandparents, inevitably catches the attention and creates lasting commitments out of seemingly passing issues.
Third, try to ensure that the choices available to new voters are neither trivial nor trivialized, replacing the present situation where voters let their parents decide for them, or do not vote, and rarely discuss national politics in student forums, clubs, associations and social networks.
Fourth, the game of rhetoric is weakened and less entertaining when the electorate begins to thirst for substantial plans addressing issues of crucial importance to their lives and prospects. Many lackluster politicians will continue to play the game, but their audiences will rapidly decline or become more difficult to target.
Is there evidence that any of these four enervating processes are being weakened or replaced in Taiwan today? Is there an underlying political excitement among the electorate at the prospect of a battle over policies that would focus on big issues and promote enthusiastic responses?
I suggest that there is no strong evidence that would support an affirmative answer to either of these questions.
Yet we do know that a thriving democracy should be made daily noisome from the debates and quarrels raised as a matter of course by such major issues. If introduced as the normal stuff of social life, these are issues that will infuse vitality and youthful energy into Taiwanese politics.
It should be noted that I am not arguing that “Taiwanese” nationality or the possibility of national independence and international recognition are themselves in anyway trivial or less than intimately connected with Chinese political dominance, US global security issues or global indifference. Any democrat who loves or respects Taiwan will recognize that these are issues that need to be solved and that we in no way live in some sort of a political equilibrium or island bubble.
On the other hand, what I am saying is that these elements can not be addressed in the few months leading up to elections, whether in the election scheduled for January or in future elections. In addition, they can not be solved or much altered by either the public rhetoric of ambitious presidential candidates or the policy statements of political parties in Taiwan.
Can any aspiring candidate in the next few months really come up with a mechanism for decoupling Taiwanese status from, say, Chinese global ambitions or US global visions? Can they influence either of the latter? I think not.
In say the next two years, can one political party do measurably more than the other to bring the issue of Taiwanese sovereign independence before major global institutions and forums? Has either party even addressed such questions explicitly or provided a public platform for debating them extensively, directly and honestly? Again, I think not.
Can either major party today honestly say that it has fulfilled its declared intentions on the various issues surrounding Taiwan’s national status made during and since 2008? I really do not think so.
So why vote for any party on such a paltry basis?
The way to escape enervation is to do stuff. To plan and take on a four-year term within the full economic and social gamut of innovative policies relating to: institutionalized corruption and coercion in public service; improvements in civil and civic living and facilities for the long-term sick and the increasing numbers of seniors; thoughtful and consistent policies addressing the identity, cultural forms and ecologies, and social needs of those other pre-KMT Taiwanese, the great indigenous groupings of the east and center of the country; rejuvenation of education and research that can generate greater core creativity in technology without abandoning the search for a humanistic culture that is at once naturally Chinese and bewitchingly international.
If a political party thinks it can not do any or all of this in four years, then let it leave the stage or stand up before the public and ask for more time and greater faith, attract the electorate rather than beguile and mystify, convince new voters of the good things possible in the future of Taiwan rather than generate a fearful narrowness of vision that marginalizes the energies and contributions of the modern young.
Rather than look for every escape toward personal improvement in overseas universities, jobs and marriages, a good number of the best young people in this country should want to stay here and bear witness to the progressive changes in a democracy that is no older than they are.
In this more energized social democracy there will be plenty of room to consider and debate the position of Taiwan in the comity of nations. Taiwan is more likely to secure a “friendly recognition of laws and usages” and greater soft power if it shows more to the world of its own democratic self.
This is no simple “solution,” but it might partly address the problem of the seeming global indifference with which we began. It could surely generate a great number of competing forums that would provide a vibrant public sphere within which to mount a sustained national discourse and political economy around notions of identity, good governance, and independence.
In conclusion, the “Strait issue” is operating as a “strait-jacket” on Taiwanese political life. It restrains lively debate and dampens the enthusiasm of many thousands of young new voters. It sets debate in the run-up to elections within narrow bounds, so that all politicians are running fast and noisy, but in unknown directions. It focuses on the elements of our political life that are the least amenable to any significant change by a national vote. It fails to educate or inform the electorate concerning matters of great importance to civil life and thereby reduces democracy to a level well below that which the Taiwanese deserve.
Ian Inkster is a professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College, Kaohsiung.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has created a dilemma that could soon cause him to be hoisted with his own petard, bringing his leadership of China to an end. His threatening rhetoric over the unification of Taiwan with China, in which he has said, “we are willing to draw blood if necessary,” has placed Xi in a corner. Xi is portrayed as a strong world leader, yet he has created a scenario for himself that most likely would have an unfavorable outcome. With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled to convene this month, Xi cannot
The 77th session of the UN General Assembly opened on Sept. 13. More than 10 overseas Taiwanese organizations had submitted a petition to the UN secretary-general, protesting that 23.5 million Taiwanese are excluded from representation. As president of the Taiwan United Nations Alliance, I also submitted a letter to the UN, saying that Taiwanese should have the right to be represented under the name of Taiwan. The government has been asking its allies to support Taiwan’s entry into the UN, but under its official name, the Republic of China (ROC). Doing so would have involved the right to represent China, with
I was privileged to meet with many of Taiwan’s leaders and leading thinkers during a study tour visit in August. One theme I heard several times during that trip was that bad relations between the United States and China benefit Taiwan. At first thought, I empathize with the argument. After all, there is a troubling record of America’s leaders negotiating with Beijing over the heads of Taiwan’s leaders. For example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned Taiwan to China after World War II. President Richard Nixon surprised Taiwan leaders with his 1972 trip to China. President Jimmy Carter unilaterally chose to normalize
Washington’s “one China” policy has not changed and the US does not take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty issue, a US Department of State spokesperson has said. He said that this has been the principle of US policy toward Taiwan since 1979, and the policy has remained in effect. He also said that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has privately made this clear to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅). The US’ “one China” policy and China’s “one China” principle recognize China as the “representative of China.” The two diverge on the issue of Taiwan: Beijing asserts sovereignty