A constitution — be it codified or not — is an expression of sovereignty that reflects a country’s political principles and its people’s collective values.
For instance, in the case of the US constitution, its preamble begins with the words “We the People,” and it embodies the idea that power rests in the hands of the people.
In the case of Taiwan, under the name “the Republic of China (ROC),” does the Constitution represent who Taiwanese are as a people and a nation?
The answer is negative in the eyes of its critics, who see the existing document — framed 73 years ago in China by representatives selected through political negotiation — as not representative of Taiwanese or Taiwan’s current state.
Among those critics is Taiwan New Constitution Foundation executive director Lin Yi-cheng (林宜正), whose foundation envisions a new constitution for the nation.
Pointing to a survey conducted by the foundation last month that showed 91 percent of people support making the nation a “normal country,” Lin in an interview with the Taipei Times said that the flip side of that reflects the underlying notion that 91 percent of people consider Taiwan not to be a normal country.
“As a Taiwanese citizen, I can elect officials from borough warden to president, as well as [vote in a] plebiscite to decide on policies of national importance. With all the rights I have as a citizen, how do I exercise such rights to steer the nation toward becoming a normal country?” Lin said.
On April 30, the foundation delivered to the Central Election Commission more than 3,000 signatures for each of two proposed referendums — well past the threshold of 1,931 required for a petition to pass its first stage as stipulated in the Referendum Act (公民投票法).
The two referendums ask: “Do you support the president in initiating a constitutional reform process for the country?” and “Do you support the president in pushing for the establishment of a new constitution reflecting the reality of Taiwan?”
The commission has since verified the submitted signatures, and a public hearing is to be held next month at the earliest.
The next phase would require the foundation to collect more than 289,667 signatures for each of its proposed referendums, before they undergo another review by the commission, which would decide whether to put them to a public vote.
The ROC Constitution has been amended seven times since 1996.
In the latest undertaking, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government plans to set up a constitutional amendment committee and prioritize lowering the voting age from 20 to 18.
“Is it enough?” Lin asked. “While it is good that some lawmakers have also talked of strengthening constitutional protection of human rights, it is all piecemeal. For a constitution to be a good constitution, it needs be dealt with as a whole fundamentally, not through a patchwork of fragmented provisions,” Lin said.
“The purview stated by the Constitution, such as individual rights, governmental systems and the essence of the nation, is detached from the present reality and actual need of the people — this is the fundamental issue that plagues Taiwan, the root of Taiwan being an abnormal country,” he said.
The reason Taiwan repeatedly faces hostility and discrimination from the international community has been perfectly illustrated by recent events during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lin said.
Despite Taiwan’s efforts preventing the spread of the virus, it was not invited to the annual World Health Assembly and flights from Taiwan were suspended by the Italian government, which considered Taiwan as part of the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
“The ‘one China’ Constitution is the straitjacket keeping Taiwan restrained,” Lin said, referring to the ROC Constitution, which states that China, called the “Mainland Area,” and Taiwan, called the “Taiwan Area,” are territories of the ROC.
“This description is far removed from reality,” Lin said. “This ‘one China’ Constitution places not only barriers in the way of Taiwan’s opportunity to take part in international organizations, but also runs counter to the current majority opinion in Taiwan.”
“Writing a new constitution befitting Taiwan’s current status is therefore imperative to enabling it to become a normal country,” he added.
However, some say that there is nothing abnormal about the ROC.
They say that the nation’s mistreatment internationally stems not from the ROC Constitution, but from the international political reality that the ROC is not yet strong enough to master the Chinese Communist Party in the “Mainland Area” and claim the title of China.
Responding to this argument, Lin said that Taiwan has no intention of competing with the People’s Republic of China over which nation represents China.
“What Taiwan needs is a new identity internationally to free itself from time and again getting caught up in contention over the sole legitimate government representing China,” he said, adding that it is an opportune moment, as changes in the international situation have made Taiwan pivotal in the Asia-Pacific region.
Establishing a “Republic of Taiwan,” writing a new constitution and putting the matters to a referendum for Taiwanese to decide are enshrined in the DPP’s charter.
The governing party’s track record in honoring its charter has been questioned, because despite rectification of the nation’s name being enshrined in the document, it decided against mobilizing its party members to support a 2018 referendum initiated by civic groups that sought to rename the national team for the now-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan.”
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), of the DPP, in her inauguration speech for her second term on May 20 said that her administration “will continue to handle cross-strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (臺灣地區與大陸地區人民關係條例).”
Asked whether that would lessen his expectation that the DPP would support the foundation’s proposed referendums, Lin said it is understandable, as the government has many things on its plate.
“The foundation does not mind taking the lead in getting momentum going,” he said.
With regard to China’s reaction — it was quick to slam the referendum proposals as pushing Taiwan independence agenda — and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Johnny Chiang saying that abrogating the ROC Constitution “is unacceptable to the KMT,” Lin said that the “voices of the Taiwanese are what really count.”
Chiang’s remarks exposed just how insulated the party is from the views of the majority of Taiwanese, which is the reason the KMT is seeing its influence shrinking, he added.
“It is an arduous task stimulating public awareness and civic engagement on constitutional issues,” Lin said, when asked how the foundation would keep the public engaged in a healthy dialogue while preventing it from disintegrating into a protracted gridlock of unification versus independence.
“More often than not, many view the Constitution as something far away, but the truth is it is omnipresent and it affects everyone’s daily lives profoundly — from matters relating to the functions and power of the government to individual rights, such as people’s freedom of expression and assembly, and many more,” he said.
With that in mind, Lin said that the foundation strives to bring the subject of the Constitution closer to people’s immediate concerns.
For instance, in the past few years an increasing number of people have been keeping pets and treating them as members of their families, Lin said.
The trend has resulted in a growing interest in animal welfare issues, so the foundation is using that to direct people’s attention to the Constitution’s flaws, he said.
“Animal rights are not enshrined in the Constitution, which currently interprets an ‘animal’ as a ‘thing’ and not ‘life’ justified for constitutional protection,” Lin said, adding that housing justice and environmental protection are among the other issues that lack constitutional guarantees, again showing that the Constitution is disconnected from Taiwanese and their needs.
“In a nutshell, it is hoped that the two proposed referendums on minting a new constitution will launch a discussion about Taiwan’s future, compel the Taiwanese public to rethink their national identity and inspire all to imagine the nation’s future,” Lin said.
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