Taiwan is a country in a hurry. Since the momentous transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it has transformed itself into a rambunctious and freewheeling society, where change is happening fast.
The new freedoms gained since the early 1990s have led to transformation and new creativity in the arts, the economy, lifestyle and the political system. This “New Taiwan” also manifests itself in a (re)discovery of the Taiwanese identity and an emphasis on finding its own roots as a multicultural society with many different influences throughout its long and complex history.
Despite all this change, society is still struggling to resolve a number of legacies imposed by five decades of undemocratic one-party rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which came over from China with Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) after 1945.
Taiwanese who suffered injustice during the period of White Terror and martial law are looking for transitional justice; the KMT, which enriched itself during its reign, needs to return its illegally acquired assets; teachers and other civil servants who received sky-high pensions from the government need to be brought to a level playing field; and judges and prosecutors who became instruments of the KMT’s partisan politics need to be brought to justice.
The list also extends to national status, sovereignty and international relations: The KMT’s policies of continuing pretense to represent China have driven Taiwan into international diplomatic isolation. Many in Taiwan feel that their new and democratic country deserves its rightful place as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.
They feel that normalization of relations, both with China and the rest of the world, would be the best way forward. They feel that the anachronistic “Republic of China” Constitution should be replaced by a new constitutional framework reflecting the present-day reality that Taiwan is a sovereign state in its own right.
The 2016 elections brought about a fundamental shift in the political landscape toward the Democratic Progressive Party. The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) laid out an ambitious agenda of reforms and policies designated to strengthen democracy, the economy and enhance Taiwan’s international space. However, Tsai — not wanting to rock the boat in cross-strait relations — did vow to adhere to the “status quo.”
Tsai and her administration did work with the newly elected legislature to pass legislation to right many of the domestic wrongs outlined above. Some of her supporters feel that she should go farther and faster.
On some issues — such as judicial reform — she could indeed move faster, but for most of the other domestic reforms, it is important that the process is a truly bottom-up democratic process of give-and-take, and that takes time. And for that, time is on Taiwan’s side.
On international relations, the Tsai government has taken a very pragmatic and down-to-earth approach: maintaining the diplomatic ties the country has; strengthening the substantive relations with friends and allies, particularly in the West; reaching out to neighbors like Japan and South Korea; and initiating the New Southbound Policy to bolster ties with Southeast Asia.
On national status, sovereignty and the constitutional framework, Tsai and her government have maintained that under the present “status quo,” Taiwan is already a free and democratic nation, albeit still maintaining the formal “Republic of China” title. Any change needs to be decided by Taiwanese through a democratic process.
Some of her supporters also want her to go farther and faster on this. They feel that now is the time to let the world know that cross-strait relations should not be viewed through the dark specter of the old civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party.
They feel that Taiwan’s international isolation should be a thing of the past and that the global community should work toward normal relations with a new and democratic Taiwan.
This will require ingenious diplomacy and out-of-the-box thinking, both by Taiwan and by its international friends and allies. And for that, time is on Taiwan’s side, too — but much work remains to be done.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat and was the editor of Taiwan Communique from 1980 through 2016.
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