I recently met up with an old friend and we discussed what the future might hold for Taiwan. My friend is an academic, but she is also a long-time participant in social movements, making her something of an old hand at politics.
Our point of contention was whether the Referendum Act (公民投票法) should be amended to allow referendums on independence for Taiwan.
She was in favor in favor of it, while I was against it.
I said that if we allow referendums on independence, we will also have to allow referendums on unification — which would be too risky.
She said: “What are you worried about? Don’t you have confidence in Taiwanese?”
I said that it was not a matter of confidence, but of whether we were going to walk straight into a trap that could create a shortcut for China to annex Taiwan without a fight.
She was quite shocked, so I said: “Listen and I will explain it for you.”
First of all, I said, there are two kinds of referendum — constitutional amendment referendums and Referendum Act referendums.
Constitutional amendment referendums are not restricted in scope, but it is very difficult to hold one. The changes have to go through a constitutional amendment procedure in the Legislative Yuan and even then, they can only be passed if the public finally approves them in a national referendum.
Votes under the Referendum Act can only be about ordinary policy issues.
Referendums on unification or independence are on a constitutional level and are not allowed under the Referendum Act.
However, Referendum Act votes are relatively easy to hold. Amendments made to the Referendum Act at the end of last year lowered the threshold. Now, a proposal passes if more votes are cast in favor than against and the number of “yes” votes is more than one-quarter of the total number of eligible voters.
In other words, a national referendum can pass with about 5 million votes in favor. To put it in perspective, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) received 6.89 million votes in 2012 when he was re-elected for a second term.
I am not against holding a constitutional amendment referendum to decide about unification or independence, but I am against holding a Referendum Act referendum for either purpose.
The reason is because the legislature acts as a gatekeeper for any constitutional amendment referendum, allowing legislators to thoroughly debate the issue and express the will of the people that they represent.
In contrast, the threshold for a Referendum Act referendum is lower. It could only go one way or the other, with no room for debate or adjustment. It is just too risky.
My friend said: “Do not worry. You should trust the public.”
I said that I could not help being worried, because the public voted twice for Ma to be president and he is in favor of unification.
If you elect the wrong president, you can choose a different one at the next election four years later and if people vote the wrong way in a policy referendum, the decision can still be overturned in the future.
However, if we ever used the Referendum Act to hold a referendum on unification or independence, it would be a one-off, life-or-death decision: If by any chance people voted for unification and Taiwan got annexed by China, once we were in, we could never get out again.
She said that the public would not support a referendum in favor of unification.
I said that a referendum on unification could be variously packaged, such as asking whether voters support the so-called “1992 consensus,” “one China with different interpretations,” peaceful unification or the idea that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the same family.”
I asked her: “Combined with threats and inducements, fake news spread by China’s ‘Internet army’ and manipulation by China-friendly media, do you really think that such a referendum could not get passed? And if it did get passed, what sort of message do you think that would send to the international community? Would that not be a disaster?”
She asked how else the public could express its desire for independence.
I replied that Taiwan presently is independent and what we need to express is the public’s opposition to unification.
What the government should do is strengthen Taiwan’s national defense; strengthen relations between the US, Japan and Taiwan; refuse to recognize the “1992 consensus”; and take countermeasures whenever there is any sign in the international community of anything that could change Taiwan’s independent status.
As to the general public, what it can do is to organize various actions to express its opposition to annexation.
One thing that we should not do is amend the Referendum Act, because that could open a Pandora’s box that China could use to force Taiwan into unification.
Jason Liu is a presidential advisor and a retired university professor.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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