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ISSUE 121 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/9/2008

China threatens Taiwan's democracy

By Sam Ostrander
Contributing Writer

Friday, May 9, 2008

In March of this year, millions of people living in the shadow of an authoritarian giant came together in support of democratic ideals. The Chinese government said that it "would 'repulse' any pro-independence activities" and there was concern of a violent response from Beijing. The event drew significant criticism from the U.S. government.

I'm not talking about protests in Tibet; I'm talking about elections in Taiwan. On March 22, Taiwan held a referendum to decide if the island should apply for membership in the U.N. under the traditional name "Republic of China" or the more controversial "Republic of Taiwan." Both initiatives, which the U.S. government criticized as provocative, failed. A simultaneous presidential election returned the once-dominant Kuomintang political party of China to power under the leadership of Ma Ying-jeou.

Taiwan is not legally independent from China and remains largely isolated from the international community. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and most states consider it part of China under the "One China" policy (although many, including the United States, have informal relations with Taiwan). However, Taiwan has de facto independence from China: there are no Chinese soldiers on the island, Chinese laws are not enforced and the government of Taiwan is wholly separate from the government of China. The issue of Taiwan's de facto independence has long been a point of contention between China, Taiwan and the United States. China unequivocally wants unification with Taiwan, though when, how and in what form is up for grabs. The U.S. government supports the current status quo and does not want either side to take unilateral steps towards independence or unification. Opinions in Taiwan are much harder to read.

More than 40 percent of the people living in Taiwan consider themselves Taiwanese. Another 45 percent consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese and 5 percent or less consider themselves Chinese. There is a slight trend favoring independence, but a consistent majority of Taiwanese support the current status quo, although there is a wide range of opinion on what exactly the status quo is. Indeed, President-elect Ma ran on the policy of "three no's:" no unification, no independence and no use of force. Research by Brett Benson and Emerson Niou indicates that about one-third of Taiwanese have a conditional view: they would support independence if peace was maintained and unification if China democratized. Despite the fact that Taiwan is democratic, public opinion is strongly influenced by the policies of the United States and China. Taiwanese expectations of U.S. protection decrease worries about China's threat.

Similarly, Chinese policies could encourage unification through democratic reforms or deter independence through a military threat. The United States fits into the China-Taiwan relationship by simultaneously deterring Chinese aggression (to protect Taiwan's independence) and formal Taiwanese independence (to avoid provoking Chinese aggression), effectively upholding the status quo of relative peace and de facto independence for Taiwan.

This U.S. policy towards Taiwan should be changed. Taiwan has had a long, hard struggle to attain democracy and that achievement should be recognized. The election of former opposition leader Chen Shui-bian (who was put in jail by the once-authoritarian Kuomintang of China) in 2000 marked the first peaceful transition of power through democratic institutions. This year's election marks the second. The United States and the international community should reward Taiwan's democracy by allowing it to participate in more international forums.

It is also important to note that formal Taiwanese independence may challenge the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) legitimacy and destabilize China. Since it abandoned its ideology in the early 1980s, the CCP can no longer claim legitimate rule by being communist and must instead claim it by being Chinese. Chinese nationalism claims to represent the whole of "China," including Taiwan. A formally independent Taiwan may create instability in mainland China.

I am not necessarily advocating formal Taiwanese independence; I am arguing that Taiwan's democracy must be preserved and must not be subordinated to an authoritarian Chinese state. At the same time, unification under "one country, two systems" should not happen either. Although parts of China like Hong Kong and Macau may enjoy more freedoms through that method, they are still dominated by the authoritarian regime in Beijing. A democracy subservient to a dictatorship is not a democracy at all. Taiwan should not unify with a government that would seriously inhibit its freedoms.

The Bush administration ostensibly has a policy of supporting democracy around the world. Yet when a proven democracy tries to hold a referendum, it is criticized because its actions may provoke its large authoritarian neighbor to attack. Taiwan does not threaten China. America should see to it that China no longer threatens Taiwan.

Sam Ostrander '08 is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He majors in political science and Asian studies.

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