Falling into China's orbit

What's in store for Taiwan in 2009.
Two pandas named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, which together mean "reunion," were being sent as gifts to Taiwan from Beijing in December 2008, a symbol of warming relations, Chinese officials said. (Associated Press)

For most Canadians, Taiwan isn't even on the radar. At best, it is seen as a satellite of China, a satellite that merely obfuscates our view of that great celestial body; a rogue moon that must be brought into permanent orbit, like Hong Kong and Macao. Or, in Beijing's view, like Tibet.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou shortly after his election in March 2008. (Associated Press)

Sure, Taiwan is a high-tech powerhouse, an economic tiger (on its good days) and a beacon of democracy in Asia.

But with the world's headlines full of terror strikes and economic meltdowns, it is understandably hard for Canadians to see Taiwan's struggle for democracy as anything more than a tempest in a teapot — a China teapot at that.

Of course, there are those who do see Taiwan as something more than "a renegade province of China" (the official line from Beijing).

They understand that Taiwan has a parallel but separate history and that it has never been part of the People's Republic. 

Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk, a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.

They may even know that for the first half of the 20th century Taiwan was part of the constellation of Japan. And that for much of the latter half, Taiwan has been virtually an American outpost, deep inside "Chinese space."

But during this past year, as the world's attention was often elsewhere, Taiwan has lurched into closer alignment with China.

Most of the so-called China experts have portrayed this shift as a positive development. Peace in our time. The universe unfolding as it should.

But what might be the cost in democratic terms if this movement continues in 2009?

One small step

To the pundits, the return to power of the old Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in January 2008 was seen as a return to peace, order and good government by Taiwan's natural governing party.

For most analysts, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (elected a few months later) was the right man for the times. His new trade and transportation agreements with China were viewed as one small step for Taiwan but a giant leap for regional peace and prosperity.

Even the occasional tempest that disrupted this sea of tranquillity — such as the new government's raft of arrests, detentions and imprisonment of former officials — was seen as a campaign designed to root out corruption and bring evil-doers to justice.

Never mind that every one of those interrogated, imprisoned and indicted (including former president Chen Shui-bian and his entire family) are political foes of the reborn KMT, members for the most part of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

To the stargazers, Taiwan's future can only grow brighter by bathing in the light of Beijing, particularly now that resurgent China is on such an economic grand march.

But others observers see things very differently. They fear that Taiwan is far from ascending, far from waxing brighter. They fear that Taiwan is in retreat and that democracy and human rights are waning in the process, returning in fact to the darkness of martial-law tactics that defined Taiwanese life for almost 40 years.

A different night sky

For much of 2008, many Taiwan watchers saw a very different night sky; bright heavens in which all the stars seemed to be lining up in favour of Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT.

The return of the old regime was largely hailed as a good thing in both Beijing and Washington, a rare event on its own.

Beijing found itself with a Taiwanese president and government that is not only pro-China but also that clearly subscribed to the idea that Taiwan is, and has always been, part of "one China."

While Washington felt it had a Taiwanese president it could work with. With Ma, there would be no worries about Taiwan acting like a sovereign country, challenging the status quo and upsetting Beijing.

Indeed, the international community saw the pro-business Ma as a breath of fresh air — after eight years of nonsense about democracy and sovereignty — so it could get on with what really mattered: investing, trading and making money.

The KMT's prosecution of opposition politicians was largely seen as an opportunity to root out the endemic graft and corruption in Taiwan.

But these observations ignored the fact that these actions are designed to consolidate the KMT's grip on power, shut down any opposition to the deals with China and settle old scores with its old nemesis, the DPP.

Those less starry-eyed see a dark shadow moving across the face of Taiwan, an ill omen of Taiwan becoming another Hong Kong or Macao.

What's next?

Clearly, 2009 will prove to be a critical year for Taiwan. Either it will continue on course with the great Asian experiment in democracy, or it will become just another subservient satellite of China.

To find out which way the solar wind is blowing, we need to look no further than President Ma himself, someone critics have called "a windsock" and "a chameleon on a weather vane."

An early indicator will be how Ma intends to proceed against his old political foes.

Many observers have called on the president to stop what they call the witch hunt and make sure all the accused get fair and open trials. Such actions are necessary, they say, because the legal system itself is neither neutral nor democratic, but a law unto itself.

If Ma does step in, it will be a sign that he is prepared to do the right thing — the democratic and just thing — even if he has to be shamed into it.

Another indicator will be how the new Democratic government in Washington approaches its former satellite. If the U.S. goes ahead with its proposed weapons sales to Taiwan, it means Washington feels that Taiwan still has a future as a de facto independent democracy: a moon in Chinese space, but not necessarily a Chinese moon.

But if the U.S. decides to deep-freeze these weapons sales, it means that Washington believes that Taiwan has already moved too close to China and that Taiwan cannot be trusted as an ally.

In that case, if the Taiwanese want to be pulled out of China's orbit, they'll have to do it themselves.

To many Canadians, especially those who focus on trade with China, Taiwan's fall to earth (and return to more authoritarian rule) won't be anything more than a slight prick of conscience.

To others, though, the disappearance of even one democracy makes our own sky that much darker.