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Thursday, July 11, 2002

China holds Taiwan independence card


HONG KONG -- Beijing's unremitting struggle to keep Taiwan from straying onto the independence path continues unabated, with Lions Club International, or LCI, providing the latest battleground.

Beijing has told LCI that if it is to operate in China, then the name of the chapter in Taiwan must be changed from the "ROC (Republic of China) Lions Club" to the "China Taiwan Lions Club."

Chinese leaders evidently believe that such efforts will keep Taiwan from moving toward independence. Actually, they have the opposite effect, since they make the people of Taiwan feel that China is constantly trying to suffocate them.

Such efforts, far from strengthening pro-reunification sentiment, turn the people of Taiwan away from the mainland. To be sure, China's unhappiness with Taiwan is understandable. Just as the mainland is trying to keep Taiwan on a tight leash, so the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, government of Chen Shui-bian is slowly but surely trying to distance itself from China.

According to Professor Su Chi of Tamkang University, President Chen even avoids using the name "China" or "Republic of China." While his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, reduced the usage of those terms in National Day speeches from 11 times in 1988 to five times in 1999, Chen managed not to use either name at all in his National Day speech in October.

Also worrying to Beijing is the fact that the identity of Taiwan people is changing. Surveys show more people are identifying themselves as Taiwanese, greatly outnumbering those who identify themselves as Chinese, although a large number still identify themselves as both.

Jan Jyh-horng, director of the general planning department of the Mainland Affairs Council, said in an interview that while the council conducts regular surveys on identity, it no longer publishes its findings for fear of provoking Beijing. But, according to Jan, the identity trend is reversible. The current trend, he said, is a result of Beijing's "treating the government and people of Taiwan as its enemy." If Beijing changes its attitude, he said, the attitude of Taiwan's people would also change.

A senior DPP government official, who declined to be identified in this article, said: "If from now to the Olympics in 2008 there are no disruptions, then China will be a very different country. Whether Taiwan chooses independence or reunification depends on how China develops."

Over and over, the same theme emerges in interviews with both government officials and opposition leaders: Proindependence or proreunification sentiments are largely a function of what mainland China does rather than what happens within Taiwan.

Indeed, the DPP has been moving to the center since it gained power two years ago, pushing both opposition parties, the Kuomintang and the People First Party, to the right. Both those parties, who together have a majority in the legislature, favor eventual reunification. The DPP now makes it clear that it will not declare independence.

The only strongly proindependence party in Taiwan today is the newly formed Taiwan Solidarity Union, created through the instigation of former President Lee Teng-hui. The TSU has only 13 members in the 225-seat legislature, but wields influence disproportionate to its size. However, even the TSU isn't as solidly behind independence as it may appear. Monty C.H. Chang, director of the party's international department, conceded that independence might not be necessary if China became democratic.

Actually, reunification with the mainland is stated as a goal in Taiwan's current constitution. James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, or PFP, points out that the constitution presupposes eventual reunification. The 1991 preamble to amendments says: "To meet the requisites of the nation prior to national reunification, the following articles of the ROC Constitution are added or amended."

Soong and Chang Chau-hsiung, the PFP vice chairman, both describe their concept of "one whole China" as a roof that covers both Taiwan and the mainland. "Under that roof are two rooms," Chang said, "one for Taiwan and one for the mainland. You can make a hole in the wall so the two rooms can communicate. If things go well, the hole can be made bigger and bigger until finally you can tear the wall down. And if communications are not good, we can put a door where the hole is and lock it."

Yen Wan-ching, a DPP official who is deputy secretary general of the Straits Exchange Foundation, said: "Taiwan people don't trust the Communists. If China's political system doesn't change, it would be difficult for Taiwan to accept unification." However, if the mainland democratizes, "it will be very attractive to Taiwan. It will change the status quo in cross-straits relations."

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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