Five thoughts on Taiwan’s elections

Five thoughts on Taiwan’s elections

1) Taiwanese politics are maturing and changing. Inside baseball terms, such as the "1992 consensus," do not have much meaning to the average Taiwanese voter. Even for Taiwanese who are "mainlanders" — meaning that they or their parents were born on the mainland of China — their children and grandchildren who are born in Taiwan have no memory of or emotional bond to China. Taiwan now has its own consensus: Taiwanese want to benefit from trade with China while maintaining their dignity as citizens of Taiwan. The system works and the Taiwanese people end up with the policies they want. These policies include a robust trading relationship with China and the world, stability and peace across the Strait, and acceptance of Taiwan’s de facto independence. On the one hand, DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen gained 45 percent of the vote by making a fundamental criticism that Ma Ying-Jeou was not being fastidious enough in protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty in his negotiations with China. This argument has some appeal to many Taiwanese. On the other hand, Tsai was not able to convince voters that she would ratify the gains Ma made in cross-Strait trade and stability while also protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. Elections in Taiwan are increasingly about which candidate can successfully engage China while protecting Taiwan’s status. Though voters had their doubts about Ma, he won that critical argument decisively.

2) Any thought of "abandoning" Taiwan should be relegated to ivory tower social science labs (if such things exist). It is not only immoral, it is wholly impractical. The vast majority of Taiwanese (the numbers vary, but are probably close to 90 percent) want to maintain the status quo —  Taiwan’s de facto independent status without conflict. Debates in Taiwan are increasingly about whether Taiwan is independent under the name the Republic of China (the KMT’s position) or under the Republic of Taiwan (the DPP’s position). The rest is a debate over tactics, such as how far and how fast Taiwan’s leaders should discuss anything but trade and economic issues with China. The vast majority of Taiwanese would simply leave the island if the U.S. withheld support, a boon to Northern California perhaps, but a stain on America’s honor and a severe blow to the kind of Asia we want.

3) It is increasingly awkward for China to remain authoritarian. China’s brethren in Taiwan have now undergone their fourth really competitive presidential election. It was spirited, free, and fair. Voters got to hear a debate on Taiwan’s future. Now Chinese have even more access to Taiwan and simply do not buy their government’s condescending arguments that Chinese people are not "ready" for democracy. Taiwan’s democracy works, in a Confucian cultural setting. Taiwan’s economy is thriving and it is the envy of many developing countries. Taiwan had to sacrifice neither economic growth nor stability for democracy. This year China is going through its own "selection" process for President. What is the argument against democracy in China now? That the people are less developed or inferior to Taiwanese?

4) Democracy in China would probably have the same effect over time on cross-Strait relations. The Chinese people would also opt for moderation and stability. The debate would most likely be over how to repair the humiliation the Chinese suffered at the hands of Western and Japanese colonialists — still a very charged issue among Chinese citizens — while letting the long-suffering Taiwanese people enjoy their own identity and basic rights. All sorts of solutions might emerge (e.g. a commonwealth system) that would let the Chinese people live in peace and prosperity as well.

5) Until that time, the U.S. must stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan. In many respects it is U.S. blood and treasure, spent over decades, that set the conditions for the Taiwan miracle. There is no sense letting the sacrifices of Americans who fought and died for freedom in Asia be in vain. Washington must hold out until politics in China changes, which would pave the way for a peaceful democratic solution.