In his piece “Time to Review US Policy on Taiwan?” Dennis V. Hickey makes several important points about the future of the United States’ relationship with Taiwan, and there is no doubt that those should be addressed seriously to ensure continued stability in the Taiwan Strait. Unfortunately, the author presents a picture of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), currently the favorite in the January 2016 elections, and Taiwan’s civil society that is highly misinformed and which risks misleading the very American officials who will be charged with formulating a coherent U.S.-Taiwan strategy for the future.
To begin with, Hickey writes that while the DPP has sought to “‘rebrand” itself as a “responsible” alternative to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), “U.S. defense planners cannot help but wonder if the DPP will seek to entrap the U.S. in a cross-strait crisis in an effort to achieve its dreams of independence from China.”
Hickey doesn’t seem to realize that the DPP under chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is no longer the party that caused the U.S. administration headaches when Chen Shui-bian was president. Not only did it learn its lessons from the past, DPP officials are also well aware that returning to the contentious practices of the past would cost it the confidence and support that it has earned back over the years. Academics have no problem assuming that Beijing learned its lessons from the 1995-96 Missile Crisis and that it would not return to the path of belligerence, and yet they seem incapable of acknowledging that the DPP—a party that, unlike its counterpart in Beijing, must actually abide by democratic rules—can also have learned from the past, a bias that often clouds judgment.
Additionally, the DPP has had close, sustained, and highly constructive dialogue with U.S. officials based in Taipei, ensuring that the two sides are on the same page on the important issues.
Despite Hickey’s contention that she “has done little to assuage such fears” and that her positions “on many of the most important issues of the day remain opaque and unclear, especially her plans for handling relations with Beijing,” Tsai has been rather clear on the point that her cross-strait platform is based on maintaining the “status quo” under the current constitutional framework (i.e., the Republic of China) and “accumulated outcomes” (i.e., not undoing what has been achieved in cross-strait rapprochement by previous administrations). In other words, Tsai promises continuity under a policy that is strikingly similar to that of her predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT—so much so, in fact, that the deep “green” elements within Taiwanese society have repeatedly accused her of engineering a KMT-ization of her party. Two pro-independence parties were established recently in reaction to that perceived shift toward the center.
Moreover, Tsai has engaged in dialogue with her counterparts in China and has actively sought to establish a workable modus vivendi for the two sides. The only line that Ms. Tsai will not cross—and she has also been clear on that point—is adherence to the “1992 consensus” and its attendant “one China” framework. There is no secret plan to drag the U.S. into a war with China to realize the dream of de jure independence, for in Tsai’s mind, Taiwan (or the ROC) is already independent; her biggest task if and once she is elected would be to revive a still-stagnant economy and modernize the social safety net, among other issues.
Relations between Taiwan and China exist in the grey area between two extremes, one of which (“unification”) is unacceptable to the Taiwanese. Therefore no policy will ever be completely clear, and politicians in Taipei and Beijing must navigate between those two extremes (knowing that Taiwanese won’t accept unification forces Beijing to also adopt a less-than-perfectly-clear cross-strait policy).
Hickey then tumbles when he points to “concerns” (by whom he doesn’t say) that the DPP has “given up on democracy,” a claim that makes little sense in the wake of its unprecedented victory in the nine-in-one local elections in November 2014. The author states that the DPP is “reportedly” (he does not provide a source) “embracing a Middle Eastern practice known as ‘rent a mob’ and subsidizing extremists who attack Taiwan’s government ministries.”
Come to think of it, Hickey doesn’t need to give us a source, as what he tells us is exactly what a struggling KMT—especially the farcical and discredited Alex Tsai and Chiu Yi—has been saying since the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in 2014. For political reasons, the Ma administration has been unable or unwilling to accept the fact that society is capable of acting independently of the establishment and that it will take action whenever the system is perceived to be failing. Rather than confront the generational and identity challenge that has emerged in recent years, the KMT has instead chosen the path of least resistance: blame everything on the DPP.
If only Hickey had been on the ground in the past few years and done the necessary field work, he would have realized that the new generation of activists that has taken on the government is not only highly suspicious of all political parties, but well-organized, resourceful, and intelligent enough to accomplish great things without being “subsidized” by any political parties. Those of us who have followed social movements in Taiwan (I did so well before joining Tsai’s foundation) concluded long ago that their activism was a reaction not only to the KMT, which had grown unaccountable and disconnected from the public, but also to the DPP, which was regarded both as an unreliable ally and as part of the problem. Members of NGOs and civic organizations, the same organizations that Hickey claims have engaged in extremisms, have a very poor opinion of the DPP, views that have persisted even after Tsai replaced Su Tseng-chang as party chairman and tried to repair the party’s image among activists.
The rancor has been such that many of the young activists who have since chosen to join a political party (in most cases the DPP) have been accused of nothing less than “treason.” Facebook is filled with recriminations and attacks on youth who have chosen to make the jump into politics—hardly a sign of close cooperation between the DPP and activists.
This, of course, does not mean that there are not occasions when the interests of civic organizations and the DPP will overlap, or where their ideological beliefs will coincide. However, it’s quite a leap to go from like-mindedness to “subsidizing” non-state actors.
One also wishes that Hickey had been on the ground to see who the “extremists” really were—young idealistic activists, supported by academics, lawyers, and ordinary people who time and again exhausted the full gamut of legal means to address a grievance only for the government to break its promises, ignore the people, and proceed with violations that, in some cases, have cost lives and, when China was concerned, threatened Taiwan’s democratic institutions. Sadly, Hickey is also silent on the pro-unification (and China-funded) gangsters who have turned into a praetorian guard for Ma and visiting Chinese officials, and who have not hesitated to physically assault unarmed protesters or threaten NGO workers, always with impunity. Nor does he mention the KMT supporters who, after defeat in the 2004 presidential election, attacked police with Molotov cocktails or rammed police barricades with a truck (an attack perpetrated by no less than the aforementioned Chiu Yi).
The Ma administration has resorted to name-calling to discredit a civil society that has succeeded where the DPP had failed, accusing them of “extremism” and “irrationality” (as well as likening them to al-Qaeda, the Red Guards and ISIS). Had he had a chance to acquaint himself with Taiwan’s civil society (and in his defense, precious few foreign academics do so on their irregular visits here, meeting instead with government officials, pre-selected academics in the government’s favor, and sometimes the DPP), Hickey would have known that what he describes as extremism is instead the symptom of a society that refuses to capitulate. Resisting national suicide, or defending one’s liberal democracy, isn’t extremism—in fact it’s a perfectly rational, though by necessity temporary, response.
Unfortunately, in his characterization (or mischaracterization, rather) of civil society, Hickey has adopted the propaganda of a party that has been unable to respond—because it has refused to modernize—to the demands of an increasingly aware and active society. This situation finds its analogue in Hong Kong, whose society has also responded to external (Chinese) pressure by taking to the streets. No doubt Hickey, whom I have had a chance to get to know personally, is well-intentioned, but the many important points that he makes in his article are seriously undermined by his naïve take on the most important issue to have emerged in Taiwan in recent years: the rise of its civil society.
The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.