For Asia Times
TAIPEI – Top officials of Taiwan’s main opposition anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), together with civic groups and think tanks close to the DPP, showered blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng with pleasantness on his arrival in Taiwan. Then he reciprocated by tearing up their dream.
After touring a former Taipei prison where Taiwan’s pro-democracy and pro-independence activists were once detained and tortured by the henchmen of China’s erstwhile Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile, Chen proclaimed that ” … the notion of independence is out of date in Taiwan”.
Adding insult to injury for the DPP, Chen has during his Taiwan stint obviously felt comfortable mingling with advocates for Xinjiang, Tibet and the Falun Gong, all of which, like the Taiwanese independence movement, are staunch adversaries of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But Chen’s statements were hardly a surprise, and not only because even China’s liberals are generally regarded as also being nationalists.
“He is interested in getting China to democratize and sees Taiwan as having set a precedent of Chinese people making a democracy flourish,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “With this in mind, he has a vested interest in Taiwan staying ‘Chinese’ so that the CCP cannot dismiss democracy as we understand it – not the CCP version of it – [or claim it] cannot work among Chinese people.”
In other words, in his uphill battle for human rights in China, Chen needs China and Taiwan to move closer to each other. While speaking in Taipei, Chen has given the example of Chinese students brainwashed by CCP propaganda being “detoxified” when studying at Taiwanese universities. He has also brought into account that the success story of Taiwan’s democracy has “caused panic” in China.
This phraseology is all but identical with that of Taiwan’s contemporary KMT government under President Ma Ying-jeou, who relentlessly argues that his policy of closer cross-strait ties will eventually lead to the betterment of China.
Chen knows all too well that if the DPP had its say, Taiwan would have not opened its doors to mainland Chinese students in the first place, nor would have the CCP allowed media coverage in the mainland explaining Taiwan’s democratic system as it did during Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in 2012.
Although Ma has refused to meet with Chen, and the activist’s visa application process was allegedly tinkered with so as to be slowed significantly, his public dismissal of Taiwanese independence effectively protects Ma – who after all did let Chen enter Taiwan – against a Chinese government increasingly distrustful of the Taiwanese leader, seen as dragging his feet on unification.
“If Chen is critical of Beijing and pro-unification, both parties [KMT and CCP] would find it difficult to swallow,” said Wu Yu-shan, director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science in Taipei. “Even though Beijing may not strongly air its dissatisfaction with Ma, it would add further frustration toward his administration.”
If Beijing were to grow tired of Ma, his successor – likely someone near Ma’s inner-party arch rival, pro-unification honorary KMT chairman Lien Chan – could consider the democratization of mainland China a much less desirable outcome than Ma views it, which again would run counter to Chen’s interests.
But there is yet another possible rationale behind Chen snubbing Taiwan’s anti-unification specter. Right after Chen announced in April from his New York exile that he would head for Taiwan, “security personnel” in his hometown in eastern China began attacking the home of his brother, Chen Guangfu.
“They said he’s planning to go to Taiwan to work on Taiwan independence and to go to Tibet to support Tibet independence,” Chen Guangfu was at the time quoted by Reuters as stating. As such attacks on Chen and his kin are apparently initiated by Chinese officials at the local level whose careers are threatened through Chen’s revelations of human rights abuses, as opposed to the central government in Beijing, it is possible that Chen, by not challenging and even endorsing the top leadership’s core concern – China’s territorial interests – aimed to offer Beijing a quasi deal to gain protection.
This notion becomes more plausible if seen in the context of Beijing’s almost simultaneously implemented policy u-turn allowing Tibetan monks in some areas of the mainland to openly worship the exiled Dalai Lama, possibly paving the way for a return to China of a man otherwise branded by the CCP as a criminal, separatist and traitor.
Chen knows that he, too, must return to China soon, as the fate of other Chinese dissidents strongly suggests that his relevance will decrease the longer he remains in his American exile.
Still, whatever motivations lie behind Chen’s dismissal of Taiwanese independence, it is clear that the real loser is the DPP.
“The DPP very much needs to engineer a better relationship with China and the US and is seriously handicapped by not being able to do so,” said John F Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, referring to the DPP’s 2012 election loss, which was partly attributed to Beijing and Washington helping the KMT for the sake of smooth Sino-US relations.
“But China is certainly not going to see the DPP trying to make a story out of Chen as a friendly gesture.”
Sean King, vice president of Park Strategies, a US-based lobbying firm until recently working for the Taiwanese government, took it a step further.
“One can now almost envision a PRC propaganda blast something along the lines of, ‘Even Chen Guangcheng thinks Taiwan’s part of China!'” he said.
King emphasized that it’s not a question of Chen keeping his mouth shut, as his trip is intended to underscore freedom of speech and association, but that the DPP should have better understood where he stood on the independence issue before putting itself and Chen in the situation they now find themselves.
“It’s kind of like a guest speaker at the George W Bush Presidential Library openly questioning the rationale behind the 2003 Iraq War,” King said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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