“Neither Independence nor Unification”

Time has another piece on the Taiwan elections, which are now just more than a week away:

There’s a more crucial, cosmic element to Taiwan. It is worth defending, if not as a territory, then as an idea: that freedom is compatible with the Chinese world. Taiwan could do a better job strengthening rule of law and fighting corruption. But in many stellar ways, it is the un-China: a vigorous democracy; an alternative fount of Chinese language and culture; an arena of fiercely competitive (and partisan) media; a crucible of creativity (tech, film, food); a haven of environmental consciousness (you’ll find recycling bins on remote hilltops). Heck, even the people are nicer — literally a civil society. China has muscle; Taiwan has soul. It’s the true people’s republic.

Taiwan’s voice, particularly during elections, is strong enough to reverberate even on the mainland. The islanders take politics very seriously — it seems to suffuse their lives — because they know their votes really count. In the presidential contest, the 99% figure a great deal: Tsai and her opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accuse Ma and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) of pandering to Big Business and ignoring income inequality. But beyond livelihood issues, the giant shadow of the mainland looms largest. The elections are, in truth, a referendum on China.

Ma, Beijing and Washington all want the current peace to keep. Ma believes that in a globalized world, no economy can be an island. Engagement with China “carries risk,” he told me, but “it’s in Taiwan’s interest.”

Tsai, 55, demurs. She says she is willing to do business with China — on Taiwan’s terms. She thinks Ma has given away too much to an authoritarian state. “We [should] treat China as a normal trading and economic partner,” Tsai told me. “A lot of people are concerned that we are moving so close and so quickly to China that we would at some point pass the point of no return, meaning the only option is to be with China in the future rather than being on our own.” That sounds perfectly reasonable. But because the DPP advocates de jure independence for Taiwan (an extreme red flag to China), many interested parties — most notably Beijing and Washington — worry about a Tsai victory. One scenario: a return to the cross-strait cold war witnessed during the DPP’s eight years in office before Ma’s election in 2008. It’s clear to all that China and the U.S., which seldom agree on much, both prefer Ma over Tsai — Beijing because it sees him as friendlier, Washington because it doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of any new quarrel between Taiwan and China if Tsai wins.

The planet’s two strongest nations don’t have a vote, however, and neither Ma nor Tsai can impose their will on Taiwan.

Given that Taiwan is its own political, economic, military and cultural master, it’s surreal, and somewhat tragic, that such a discrete and open society cannot be a normal nation. While much of the blame lies, of course, with Beijing — which, through its clout, blocks any meaningful overseas role for Taipei — much is also Taiwan’s own doing. Two polar illusions, rooted in misguided hope, have governed the island: that Taiwan will win back the mainland and unify the two as a noncommunist state (the KMT’s raison d’être) and that Taiwan will be formally recognized as an independent country (the DPP’s cause). For too long, Taiwan has been defined by the struggle for one or the other. But now there’s a growing realization that both unification and independence are impossible dreams, so much so that you don’t hear those words mentioned in Taiwan anywhere as often as before.

Having never been to Taiwan I do wonder about the people being nicer- it’s been my experience that mainlanders are mostly very friendly. Anyone have an opinion on that one?

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