Sunday, September 23, 2007

Taiwan's Bid for UN: In Ballot We Trust

-Does the pursuit of democracy justify electoral stunts?

By Thomas Huang

The Taiwanese is probably the last nation in the world that would burn a US flag. Yet they did, last week in Kao-Hsiung, the second largest city on the island. Although circa a dozen of flag-burners are far from constituting a fair representation of all Taiwanese, discontent against America certainly growled when Taiwan's bid for UN membership ran into a merciless blow from the US. As Taiwan's slogan for its UN campaign cried, "A vital life should not be limited, a democratic nation not isolated," enthusiasts of freedom and democracy simply cannot comprehend why America, the most prominent democracy in the world, will side with the repressive regime in Beijing in blocking the democratic aspiration of the people on the island. It is, then, tempting to think the islanders' struggle as a crusade against the oppressors in Beijing, and the elites in Washington who are dominated by the interest of Corporate America.

If only things can be that simple. Surely, the current arrangement of Chinese representation in major international organizations severely limits Taiwan's room of activity: Taiwan's public health experts, for example, cannot participate in WHO meetings without approval from Beijing. When Taiwan do have independent representation, e.g. in International Olympic Committee, it bears an awkward name like "Chinese Taipei." Ironically, another "land of the free" in China, Hong Kong, dances around the globe proudly with its own name, not even bothering to mention its status as a "Special Administrative Region" of China most of the time.

There is little doubt that Taiwan deserves something better: greater international visibility, more room for active involvement in world affairs, etc, etc. Yet the timing of such a campaign casts on it a dubious appearance. Of course, Taiwan has always endeavored to return to the UN since the 1990s. The DPP government continued that tradition, yet none of its previous strives was as vociferous. Now, with a congressional election coming up in four months and a presidential one six months ahead, and with an ambition that eviscerates the peril, the much-troubled DPP government surely needs to "do something." KMT has a similar move that features a similar referendum proposal, highlighting "a flexible strategy to return to the UN" with the help of the historical legacy of the ROC; but without all the executive resources that the DPP has, KMT's proposal appears to be little more than an hollow call to win the middle-of-the-road voters.

On the surface, it sounds risky to dismiss the blood, sweat and tear that Taiwanese, especially DPP supporters, have poured into the campaign as merely an electoral stunt, given the argument of "democratic self-determination" and Taiwan's de-facto independence. But before getting turned on at these ingratiating ideas, one still has to face the bitter fact that Taiwan's fate is still all up in the air. At this point, it is equally reckless to cross out the option of eventual reunification (of course, the precondition would be PRC's liberalization) as it is to exclude the idea of independence, not to mention the many other options that human ingenuity can come up with. UN membership comes after that bigger question, i.e. "independence or reunification, or maybe something else," has been answered. If one day the pro-independence Taiwanese somehow miraculously talked the PRC leaders into accepting a formal departure of Taiwan, official diplomatic ties with other countries and UN/WHO membership would immediately be at Taiwan's disposal. Thus, it is utterly illusive to view the UN membership as a confirmation of independence without earning the independence at first. No wonder, even the "Godfather of Taiwan Independence," former President Lee Teng-hui, cannot help but denounce the DPP's campaign as an electoral "scam."

Democracy does not justify bad policies - some scholars, like Bryan Caplan, even argue that popular democracies have an inherent propensity to generate bad policies. What Taiwan needs is not constant inflammation of nationalistic sentiments, but concrete efforts to stabilize its democracy and revive its economy. Similarly, while doing everything to keep Taiwan in track is important, it may also make more sense for Mainland China to focus on domestic issues such as corruption and quality control. The old Confucian teaching seems to apply here: "The best way to appease outsiders: to refine yourself."


Michael Turton said...

Bryan Caplan is on crack. Thomas, how can Taiwan stabilize its democracy when the major opposition party is fundamentally opposed to democratic politics and cooperating with the authoritarian neighbor next door?


Thomas said...

Thanks for the comments.

First, I do not see much truth in describing KMT as "fundamentally opposed to democratic politics." Even if people like Ma has past history of being part of the repressive regime, they have to play by the democratic rules now.

Plus, there is no evidence indicating that KMT will attempt to restore the authoritarian regime once it comes into power - as DPP supporters themselves say, a trend of democracy is "irreversible."

In contrast, the populist approach that the DPP takes may be, in the long run, more harmful to the formation of a fair and stable republic. There is only one thin line between a "democracy" and a "tyranny of majority," and an over-emphasis on popular power can certainly lead to a drift toward the more dangerous aspect of democracy.

Second, cooperating with the authoritarian neighbor does not necessarily compromise democratic values. European countries are generally friendly with Beijing, but I do not see their freedom and democracy being threatened.

I personally believe that changes will surely happen with Beijing, and if we want those to be positive ones, more "engagement", i.e. cooperation with the Mainland makes more sense in leading to a more open and free society for the people in the PRC, and thus removing the menacing pressure that it puts on Taiwan.

Politics aren't all about ideals; in most cases, they are more about tactics and compromises. The young liberals on my college campus sometimes do not seem to appreciate the merits of pragmatism which may get more done at the end of the day.

Third, I don't think Bryan Caplan is totally "on crack." At least we can see people having different perception and conceptualization of democracy, even if they agree on the core values of democratic governance. The style of democracy in America is definitely not the same as the ones in Europe. Hence, it is dangerous to assume that there is only one interpretation to democracy, as such "democracy absolutism" is itself anti-democratic.

Anonymous said...

I notice the map on your page include outer Mongolia. Are you longing for the re-unification of Mongolia under the 'liberated' China?

Thomas said...

lol it is more of an iconic image of the "Republic of China."

Anonymous said...

"Hey! You are the evil guys here! All you have is such a small island and you claim the territories of UN members your own in your constitution!"
"If we unclaim those territories, it would be deemed unilateral change of staus quo and provoke China."
"You are kidding me, right?"

Thomas said...

you certainly messed up the distinction between "be" and "should be."

People frequently misinterpret Hegel's famous quote "Was wirklich ist, das ist vernuenftig; was vernuenftig ist, das ist wirklich." Taiwan's de facto independence is indeed a Wirklichkeit, yet the Vernuenftigkeit here does not do the justification a priori, but can only be a explanation a posteriori.

ROC's "paradox of territory" is just a prime example that reveals the complexity of the issue, which goes far beyond what the present "Wirklichkeit" and "Vernuenftigkeit" can explain.

Yet you are right in that you pointed out one dilemma that Beijing always shies away from: would it prefer the ROC, or a ROT, or something else, when it seems increasingly impossible to impose the rule of the PRC on Taiwan?

Anonymous said...