This referendum will set an important precedent for Taiwan, effectively guaranteeing that any future plan for "reunification" with China will be put to a vote. It offers the Taiwanese some measure of protection against having a change in the status quo of de-facto independence forced on them without their consent.
The Taiwanese people deeply resent China's constant threats and insults, and Chen Shui-bian represents a large and growing proportion who see the referendum as a way to speak out on their own behalf. They object to having their sovereignty bartered and traded throughout history by external powers—Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, then Chinese again—without ever having a say in the matter.
Taiwan has been politically separate from China for over a century, and for the last decade and a half has been ruled by native-born leaders (first Lee Teng-hui, now Chen Shui-bian) for the first time in its history. Understandably, the Taiwanese people do not want to come under the thumb of the current regime in Beijing. Their country has already been occupied by one Chinese-style, single-party dictatorship, and they are glad to be rid of it.
Chen's current term of office ends in May. If he loses the election to the KMT camp, there might not be another chance to establish this all-important precedent. Since the enabling legislation for the referendum was just passed a few months ago, Chen has only a short window of opportunity.
If it has to be done in the next few months, it might as well be the same day as the presidential ballot. Elections are not cheap; combining them saves money. Moreover, Taiwan's outdated constitution requires voters to cast their ballots in person in the township where their family residence is registered. Changing one's residence registration ("hu-kou") is enough of a bureaucratic hassle that most people avoid it. (Of course, Beijing objects to Taiwan changing its constitution too.) Voting takes only an hour or so for the average Westerner, but for millions of urban transplants in Taiwan it involves an overnight trip.
The referendum is also expected to boost turnout at the polls, a Good Thing in a democracy by any account. As higher turnout is expected to favor Chen's re-election, one can hardly blame him for arranging the schedule to his own benefit. (Even so, Chen says the referendum is even more important than his own re-election.)
Threat of war
The most important question is, will China really attack if Taiwan holds a referendum? The answer is: No.
China does not yet have the military means to take Taiwan quickly and cleanly enough to get away with it. Thanks to America, Taiwan is well armed, and the strait itself makes invasion a risky business. China's only option is to destroy Taiwan outright with the 496 missiles it has prepared for this purpose—to directly attack the civilian population. But even then, there is no guarantee of success, and no guarantee the US would not impose sanctions or otherwise get involved. In any case, a cross-strait war would be an unmitigated disaster for China, not to mention the world at large.
China's banking system is a house of cards, there are frequent riots in the hinterlands, curruption is rampant, and for every up-and-coming yuppie in a big coastal city there are hundreds of angry, frustrated peasants in rural villages. In short, China's economic bubble is teetering on the brink, and separatists in Xinjiang and Tibet would no doubt see war as an opportunity. It might also inspire the 40-million-strong Falun Gong to get involved, or the estimated 100-million who protested in solidarity with the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement.
It's precisely for these reasons that Beijing hammers this issue so relentlessly. Whipping up nationalistic fervor over Taiwan has always been a reliable source of legitimacy at home, and now the same legitimacy is sought abroad as well. The "return" of Taiwan would signal the world's acceptance of the Communist regime and its brutal methods.
The referendum makes it more difficult for China to achieve this. It is no longer possible to simply cut a deal with mainland-born politicians in the KMT; now Beijing must deal directly with the Taiwanese people.
Chen has played his cards shrewdly. Announcing the referendum, but not the actual wording, just before Wen Jiabao's visit to Washington, gave China a reason to complain and threaten. And President Bush dutifully served up a kow-tow to mollify Wen, branding Chen a troublemaker.
But now that the wording of the referendum has been finalized, the Bush administration is taking a softer line. Colin Powell now calls Chen "flexible", and has reiterated that America is not opposed to referendums per se.
Taiwan might be even better armed already, if Chen's proposals were not constantly blocked in the KMT-controlled legislature. Putting the issue of arms acquisition into the referendum will give Chen the clear mandate he needs to beef up Taiwan's native defenses. That is why the US is now far less disapproving of the idea.
Chen knew that Bush could not directly support the referendum without upsetting China, so he deliberately started with an extreme and ambiguous stance. This gave China a face-saving show of American anger at Taiwan. Similarly, the finalized wording has given America a show of "flexibility" to point to as proof that Chen is now toeing the line. But ultimately, Chen has not changed his goals; he's getting exactly what he wanted all along: self-determination for the Taiwanese people.
There has been a tectonic shift in the Taiwanese electorate, away from China and unification, and toward a growing sense of "Taiwanese" identity, and yes, independence.
Even if we assume that Chen is cynically pandering for votes, we must admit that such tactics would only be used if there is strong support for his views among the voters. In fact, such support is so strong that even the KMT is now distancing itself from it's traditional policy of eventual unification.
Last December, Wang Jin-pyng, legislative speaker and head of the KMT's southern election campaign, said in an interview that the KMT no longer opposed eventual independence, no longer accepted the 1992 Consensus (One country, different interpretations), and agreed with Chen Shui-bian's characterization of "One country on either side." Beijing's response, in a People's Daily editorial, expressed, "deep concern" over the reversal, calling it "a bid to woo votes."
That single statement fairly sums up Beijing's entire attitude toward democracy: they object to it strenuously. They fear it.
Ironically, Taiwan is a perfect demonstration of why they needn't fear democracy at all. The KMT government started out in China as a single-party dictatorship on the Leninist model, just like the Chinese Communist Party. And although it is no longer "in power" in Taiwan at the moment, the KMT is still very powerful. It's high ranking members still enjoy great wealth and influence, despite their party's tyrannical history.
If the CCP were to follow the KMT's example, and implement true democratic reforms on the mainland, support in Taiwan for eventual unification would probably strengthen. But continued threats of force, without a doubt, serve only to increase support for independence.
The Taiwanese people do not object to being Chinese, in the ethnic sense, but they will not willingly give up their democratic freedoms, which is what unification entails. The "one country, two systems" idea is bankrupt in Taiwan, after the way it has played out in Hong Kong. The only acceptable form of "reunification" would be peace between equals in some sort of Chinese federation.
Living memory reaches back almost to the beginning of the Japanese colonial era in Taiwan. Thus, Taiwanese voters have experienced three distinct forms of government. And of these, the period of Chinese-style dictatorship, imposed from the mainland, which ended just seventeen years ago, was by far the worst.
(A vivid and detailed account of the early part of that period was written by America's Vice-Consul in Taiwan at the time, George H. Kerr, and published in 1965 under the title Formosa Betrayed. The book is available free, online, at www.romanization.com/books/formosabetrayed/. It gives the reader a sense of how dearly the Taiwanese people have paid for democracy, and thus how dearly they might pay to keep it.)
Westerners tend to sympathize with both Taiwanese and Chinese people, for the various ways they both suffer from China's Communist government. We admire both cultures for their friendliness, diligence, and creativity, but when it comes to their governments, only one is seen as a threat. The threat of war in the Pacific comes not from a commonplace democratic procedure, but from a totalitarian regime seeking control of a strategic piece of territory—which happens to be a friendly democracy and important trading partner.
The Taiwan Question
Westerners, by and large, don't care whether Taiwan is independent or part of China. Acceptance of the "One China" policy is merely a diplomatic gesture to gain access to China's markets. What we really want is simply that there not be a cross-strait standoff anymore, so that everyone could get down to the business of making money.
And no one wants that outcome more than the Taiwanese themselves. Fully one fifth of all China's foreign direct investment (FDI) comes from Taiwan. That's twice as much as the number-two investor, America, puts in, even though America's population is over a dozen times bigger. But Taiwan cannot seriously be expected to open up direct transport links with China unless the latter renounces its threat of attack.
Some Americans, unfamiliar with the situation, have complained that they are not willing to "send their sons and daughters off to die" defending Taiwan and its "uppity" president. Such condescension is unbecoming to my fellow Americans. No one understands what's at stake in this referendum more keenly than the Taiwanese people. After all, if there is a war, it will be fought in their homeland, not America.
Yet clearly they want this referendum anyway, otherwise it wouldn't be happening, because no politician would see it as a vote getter.
The Taiwanese are not asking the West to fight their battles for them. But a measure of understanding and moral support would, no doubt, be greatly appreciated. All it would take is a simple request that China should renounce the use of force and remove its missiles. It is, after all, American policy that the Taiwan question must be resolved peacefully. And the threat to American security is war, not the holding of a referendum.
It's time the Western Powers started demanding greater reforms in general, despite China's complaints about interference in its domestic affairs. If China wants to play in the big kids' sandbox, it must learn to play by the big kids' rules—openness, transparency, freedom, and above all peace. As the SARS epidemic showed, these things affect not just the domestic population, but also the reliability of a government in its dealings with foreign concerns.
Democracy in China would transform the entire world order. It is the only sure way to avoid a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
What US Citizens Can Do: There is a bill in Congress this term (Spring, 2004), a resolution affirming Taiwan's right to hold a referendum. Contact your representatives and tell them to support it.