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A Gap on the Issues of Democracy and Rising China: response to Taiwan President Ma's interview with the BBC

By Dr Fang-long Shih
Research fellow, LSE Taiwan Research Programme
27 July 2015

This commentary is written as a response to Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s interview with the BBC. The interview was conducted by the BBC’s China Editor Ms Carrie Gracie on the morning of Monday 27 July 2015. Dr Fang-long Shih from the LSE Taiwan Research Programme was interviewed by Ms Yalda Hakim for the BBC World News Impact on the same day, in the afternoon. Dr Shih’s interview lasted for about 5 minutes, and was broadcast live. The commentary below follows on from her response, focusing on the three aspects of foreign policy, economic agreements, and social movements.  She argues that there is a big gap between President Ma and Taiwan’s citizens, in particular on the issues of democracy and Taiwan’s relationship with rising China. 

Foreign Policy with its Sole Focus on China

President Ma is well-regarded as a politician who is loyal to the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) and to the ideal of the Republic of China, and who acts according to his convictions. He resigned as the KMT chairman after his party’s defeat in local elections last November. His analysis of this is interesting. He thinks the loss was not related to his policy on China, but due to domestic issues. However, although this is his understanding, there is a big gap between Ma and Taiwan voters – While Ma is certain about prioritising the establishment of closer ties with rising China, the voters remain doubtful and apprehensive and see China’s rise as creating many new uncertainties. His approval rating has fallen to below 10 per cent.

Since taking office, President Ma has seen improving the relationship with China as his mission. It is a delicate situation: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognise the existence of the Republic of China (ROC), which is Taiwan’s official name, but at the same time the PRC’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) only officially talks to the mainland Chinese (not Taiwanese) leaders of the KMT, which is the party that moved the ROC from the mainland to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the CCP in 1949. The CCP does not talk to the main opposition in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), even though it was Taiwan’s democratically elected government between 2000 and 2008. Is the fact that the CCP will only talk to the KMT’s mainlanders on cross-Strait affairs a hangover from the civil war period?

So, President Ma is in the position to play this role, and over the last seven years he has put most of his energy into improving the relationship with the PRC. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on 10 May 2015, he said the cross-Strait relations have moved from confrontation to negotiation, and as a result Taiwan has also made gains with the rest of the world. But the majority opinion in Taiwan does not agree with this. Many people ask why Taiwan must go through China to connect with the rest of the world. It’s like the rest of the world for Taiwan only means China. Taiwan’s foreign policy looks unbalanced because of this, which is a great pity. In his interview with the BBC on 27 July 2015, President Ma said "Political progress in mainland China is unstable.” He also said he was “disappointed” that Beijing is still resisting a face-to-face meeting, and that “we are not clear about the decision-making process, but I believe it was Mr Xi who made the final decision”. Does this mean his foreign policy, with its sole focus on China, has been a waste of time? Does it mean Taiwan has lost other possibilities of building relationships with countries other than China?

Economic Agreements with China

President Ma likes to highlight his achievements in making progress in economic relations between China and Taiwan. Especially, there have been 21 agreements made with China. But many people in Taiwan feel uncertain and worried about closer economic ties with China. Maybe the agreements will help Taiwan to emerge from economic isolation, and revive its economic growth, but so far Taiwanese people only see more and more hotels and restaurants in Taiwan that have been bought and are now owned by Chinese mainlanders, while their own salaries remain as low as they were 20 years ago. Also, these agreements will maybe increase dependency on Beijing. People are worried Taiwan will lose democracy and sovereignty because of this. This is what inspired the protests in March last year, which are now known as the “Sunflower Movement”. Protesters were not so much against the most recent trade-in-services agreement itself, but the way it was pushed through Parliament in 30 seconds. This was a violation of democratic procedure. President Ma still hasn’t shown that he has heard this message. There is a different interpretation of democracy between Ma and the protesters.

Ma’s Interpretation of Democracy is Different from that of the Sunflower Movement

President Ma seems to think that his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 mean he has the right and authority to do whatever he thinks is best for Taiwan, but he has spent more energy communicating with China than with his voters. He seems very paternal, as if he knows best and doesn’t have to answer questions. Meanwhile, China’s attitude is paternal, too, as if this trade-in-services agreement is a special treat that Taiwanese people may lose out on if they don’t accept it as a package now. This approach is no longer accepted by the Taiwanese people, especially young adults who have grown up with democracy in Taiwan.

Taiwan has been democratic now for 30 years, and is becoming more mature. Taiwanese citizens, and especially students, expect the President to explain why he is doing something on their behalf. They expect a proper, line-by-line explanation of something as important as the trade-in-services agreement, with details about who will benefit and who might lose out. Especially, they expect a full discussion and debate among governmental officials, academics, practitioners, and ordinary people, as well as measures to help the adjustment for those who will face new challenges due to the new competition with Chinese business and companies. This means transparency, accountability and participatory democracy in a civil society. These are the kind of issues that we have seen the Sunflower Movement’s seed spread to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement is campaigning for transparency, real participatory democracy, and real politics of representation, that is, universal suffrage. It is hoped the day will come when Taiwan’s President will not represent his people without communicating with them and answering their concerns and worries as Taiwan’s citizens are now capable of representing themselves.

About the Author

Dr Fang-long Shih is Research Fellow at Taiwan Research Programme in the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where she served as Co-Director between 2009 and 2014. She is interested in social scientific questions (e.g. civil society and democracy) relating to anthropology and sociology of religion on Taiwan and in comparative perspective.