Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012
Neither Independence nor Unification
By Zoher Abdoolcarim
When I was in Taipei recently to talk to Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen, about their prospects in the island's Jan. 14 elections, I dropped by the elegantly understated Fine Arts Museum. It was showing works by the global Chinese icon Ai Weiwei. All his signature pieces and installations so celebrated worldwide were on display: the bronze Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, the Coca-Cola urn, the catholic portraiture, an upgraded (specially for Taipei) Forever Bicycles.
To spotlight Ai's inability to attend, the exhibition was called "Ai Weiwei absent." Ai has become one of Beijing's public enemies for his outspokenness about what's wrong with China: he was jailed for nearly three months last year. Once, Ai was a darling of the Chinese establishment, but now it's inconceivable that any Ai event would be allowed in China or its supposedly autonomous satellites Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan, which mainland China claims as part of the People's Republic, stands apart. That Ai's art has found a home — indeed, a refuge — on the island precisely during its intense election season makes total sense: Ai has an independent spirit, and so does Taiwan. (Read excerpts from TIME's exclusive interviews with Taiwan's presidential hopefuls.)
There's another parallel. Also like Ai, Taiwan is caged. The People's Republic insists that it is the "one China," and most governments and multilateral institutions comply. As a consequence, Taiwan is not acknowledged as a sovereign entity, operates in deeply restricted international space and is often underrated or simply off the world's radar. Yet Taiwan's coming contests for the presidency and the legislature — the first of some two dozen elections taking place worldwide in 2012 — remind us that this small island matters big time to the global community.
Economically, Taiwan punches above its weight. Its IT industries, for example, rank among the biggest anywhere, as does its hoard of foreign-exchange reserves. Geopolitically, it is a perennial potential flash point. For the Chinese leadership and most mainland Chinese, Taiwan is a charged issue. Beijing has labeled Taiwan a renegade province that one day must return to the motherland, by force if necessary. (By some estimates, China has as many as 2,000 missiles locked and aimed at Taiwan.) Washington, through Congress's 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, is obliged to help arm the island. Whenever the U.S. sells Taipei military hardware, especially warplanes, China vehemently protests the action as interference in its internal affairs. Conflict over Taiwan between the two powers, while improbable, cannot be ruled out. (Read "How Will China React to U.S. Arms Deal with Taiwan?")
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.
Read "Building Bridges to China."
In his first four-year term, Ma, 61, forged a slew of reciprocal commercial agreements with the mainland. (China is now Taiwan's biggest trading partner and investment destination.) Academic and cultural exchanges have become common, and thousands of Chinese tourists visit Taiwan daily. Relations today between Taipei and Beijing are the coziest since 1949, the year the KMT lost to the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war on the mainland and retreated, with hundreds of thousands of refugees in tow, to Taiwan. 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. (See the world's most influential people of 2008.)
The planet's two strongest nations don't have a vote, however, and neither Ma nor Tsai can impose their will on Taiwan. The decider is the island's electorate. Under Ma, Taiwan has been politically stable and its economy resilient amid the downturn in the West. Yet polls have Tsai right on Ma's heels if margins of error are taken into account, meaning that her stances resonate with a substantial proportion of voters. Whoever they choose will determine the course of cross-strait relations for at least the next four years. Beijing has to understand and accept that it must deal not just with one or two political figures in Taiwan but also with the values and aspirations of 23 million people. That's democracy. That's the power of freedom.
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. (Read "Taiwan: How to Reboot the Dragon.")
What should Taiwan be? Neither Ma nor Tsai can resolve the island's existential problem. In fact, they reinforce it. Still, they do Taiwan proud. Both are informed, confident, articulate (in English too), well educated (he has a doctorate from Harvard, she from the London School of Economics), well traveled, passionate about making a difference and genuinely concerned about the future of their land — traits any electorate would want in its leaders. Too bad one of them has to lose. But whatever happens, as the freest place in the Chinese world, Taiwan wins.
— with reporting by Natalie Tso / Taipei