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Taiwan’s revolt of the nerds

Thu, 04 Nov 2010

At the opening of the Tokyo Film Festival, the leader of the Chinese delegation demanded the organisers change the description of visiting film-makers from Taiwan and make them enter as part of the Chinese group.

The incident is standard diplomatic practice by China and could be likened to schoolyard bullying of a nerdy upstart.

The reaction of many outsiders would be to brush this off as a routine humiliation that Taiwan has to endure because history has cast its die in a regrettable way.

But in the Tokyo case, Taiwanese delegation leader Chen Chih-kuan was caught on camera in a row with his Chinese counterpart, who was rhetorically asking whether Chen was Chinese or not.

“I am Taiwanese,” Chen replied, winning widespread admiration at home for his stand. It must have been a relief to the Japanese that the incident went no further than China pulling its films out of the festival.

The Chinese must have decided the timing was inapposite while the country was still smarting at having the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to an imprisoned dissident.

Liu Xiabo is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion and is a reminder to those living in Taiwan, even if they identify as Chinese, that their democracy depends on its values being upheld and defended.

It also irks them when they find others who share these values – particularly in the West – apply a double standard when they fail to reject ritual humiliation.

A victim of success
Visitors to Taiwan are left in no doubt that in many ways the country and its people have succeeded too well – not just on being a model society and a high-tech leader but because the One China policy leaves no room for compromise.

The irony is not lost on experts in what is called cross-strait relations. One of them at a think tank briefing I attended in Taipei this week described the situation as “weird.”

While Taiwan was increasingly economically dependent on China, with more than 40% of its exports now going to the mainland, the island republic was just as dependent on the West for ideological and security reasons.

Yang-Ming Sun, a former senior journalist and now vice-president of a think tank < > on policy options for dealing with China, says Taiwan’s strategy is to deepen its economic ties, while parking the political issues.

“Weird” is also the way to describe the attitude of Beijing, which is using this policy of economic cooperation to subdue the political debate within Taiwan on independence.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who leads the ruling Chinese Nationalist government (Kuomintang), benefits from because the left-leaning opposition Democratic Progressive Party scores points on any sign of appeasement that belittles Taiwan.

Dr Sun is not alone in seeing this “fragile” status quo as being the most likely future option. The others, most seem to agree, < > are not worth contemplating, running from eventual subjection or absorption by China to a stalling of the economic moves.

The issues are complex and unlikely to be resolved any time soon – yet Dr Sun points out while both countries adhere to the One China policy the dilemma is quite simple: “We just don’t recognise each other.”

Country non grata
The essence of the debate between the rival sovereignty claims of the two Chinas is largely one of constitutional legalities versus the exercise of raw power.

Taiwan bases its sovereignty claims on it being the inheritor of the Republic of China’s constitutions dating from 1912 and 1948. The People’s Republic of China was declared after it won a civil war and imposed a one-party dictatorship.

Since then, other countries have had to choose between each one, resulting in only a handful still recognising the Republic of China and its exclusion as a member of the United Nations or any of its affiliated organisations that govern virtually every area of international activity.

This has led to a sustained strategy of finding ways for Taiwan to participate fully in world affairs while not upsetting the legal niceties.

After all, Taiwan’s economy ranks just below the world’s top 20 countries and it is 17th largest in exports. Size alone dictates it should not be left out of UN activities – yet that is the effect of the One China policy.

Having won observer status in the World Health Organisation as a result of the Asian Sars outbreak a few years ago, Taiwan is now pushing its case to be involved in the world civil aviation body as well as the UN Framework on Climate Change and the related IPCC.

If persistence is any measure, the UN will eventually have to bow to some new form of legality that meets Taiwan’s demands to be a participant and overcome the rule that only ”countries” can be members.

The free trade option
The rest of the world probably wants to ignore the need to end Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and prefer the issue to go away through benign neglect.

I was asked over lunch by the Minister of the Government Information Office, “Johnny” Chiang, why New Zealand had dropped out of the group of Taiwan’s eight most friendly nations after 2000.

Both Canada and Australia had, too, and the answer wasn’t hard: New Zealand had too much to lose from not embracing China. That process began in earnest under the Clark government and culminated in the free trade agreement.

While it is embarrassing to admit to spurning a democratic country and instead opt for economic self-interest, New Zealand probably did not give Taiwan a second thought.

Ironically, Taiwan’s own strategem of pragmatic engagement, and a willingness to ignore some obvious realities in pursuit of its goals, gives a clue on how to go forward.

One step would be to call Taiwan’s bluff on negotiating a free trade agreement while those with the Gulf and Hong Kong have gone off the boil, and the one with Russia pales by comparison.

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Taiwan’s revolt of the nerds