The Dignity of Democracy

Report Asia

The Dignity of Democracy

August 1, 2001 16 min read
The Honorable C. J. Chen
Distinguished Fellow

John J. Tkacik, Jr.: Good morning, and thank you all for being here. This morning, Ambassador C. J. Chen (Cheng Chien-jen) of the Republic of China will share with us his vision of his country's democratic ideals and the dignity that are due them, not just among Americans but in the broader international community.

Diplomacy and protocol are not, after all, the exclusive province of officialdom. To treat a prominent person with dignity and respect is not something that need be reserved for chiefs of state or heads of government.

This was why, when Taiwan's then-president, Lee Teng-hui, took a "vacation" in January-February 1994 to three Southeast Asian countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, he was nevertheless treated with the respect and dignity that one would expect to be accorded the head of a major corporation or a Nobel Prize winner. At Subic Bay, President Lee was greeted and entertained by Philippine President Ramos; in Bali, he played a round of golf with Indonesian President Suharto, and in Bangkok, he dined with the King of Thailand.

But three months later, when President Lee was arranging a state visit to Latin America and his aides sought permission from the world's greatest democracy--the United States--for their president's aircraft to transit at Los Angeles, terror struck the hearts of bureaucrats in Washington.

American officials, it seems, were preemptively worried about Beijing's reaction if Taiwan's top leader were permitted to transit the U.S. Eventually, the State Department was persuaded to permit President Lee's aircraft to transit at Hawaii--but there were conditions. Just a refueling stop, only at the end of the runway at the military terminal; it must be in the dead of night when no one was around.

So, on that dark Hawaiian evening, past midnight, the Taiwan aircraft touched down after an eight-hour flight, and taxied down to the military terminal at Honolulu International Airport.

But President Lee refused to get off the plane, even though a rest area had been arranged for him at the threadbare military VIP lounge. Lee's refusal was principled. Here was the United States, the world's greatest democracy, snubbing a respected Taiwan scholar, with a doctorate in agricultural economics from one of America's most prestigious universities. And the snub was for only one reason: He was also the president of Taiwan, and the leader of one of Asia's newest democracies. But Asia's largest dictatorship laid claim to that democracy, and the United States didn't want to offend it.

President Lee was rightly offended--not for himself, but for his 21 million fellow-citizens whose emerging democratic experiment was thoughtlessly belittled by the snub. And thereafter, one of President Lee's top priorities was to regain the dignity for Taiwan's democracy that was challenged by the American callousness of May of 1994.

The rest, as they say, was history. But I am happy to report that Taiwan's new president, Mr. Chen Shui-bian--the tenth president of the Republic of China and only the second popularly elected president of the people of Taiwan--was received cordially in the United States just six weeks ago, and accorded the dignity and respect that befits a respected and influential figure in what is certainly Asia's most vibrant and dynamic democracy.

The Heritage Foundation is honored today to have Ambassador C. J. Chen here with us to share his thoughts on the dignity of democracy, and the importance of according respect and dignity to the maintenance and growth of democratic institutions.

I can think of no one better positioned to articulate this than Ambassador Chen, Taiwan's representative in Washington, who has spent 34 years in the diplomatic service of the Republic of China on Taiwan--with over half of his career in the United States.

An expert in international law and diplomacy, Ambassador Chen was Taiwan's minister of foreign affairs under the previous Kuomintang administration immediately before coming to Washington. He was chosen to represent Taiwan in Washington by the new Democratic Progressive Party administration at the suggestion of Premier Tang Fei, with whom he served at the ROC Embassy in Washington two decades ago.

Over the span of his 16 years in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Chen rose from the position of Third Secretary to the Deputy Representative before returning to Taiwan to serve as vice minister of foreign affairs in 1989. His days in Washington were a valuable and rewarding time, not only for himself, but also for the hundreds of friends with whom he forged close personal relationships while he was here. He was one of the hardest-working diplomats and most gracious hosts on Embassy Row. It is a little-known fact that Ambassador Chen's wife, Yolanda Ho, designed the wedding gown for Linda Hall Daschle when she married the current Senate Majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Please join me in welcoming Representative C. J. Chen.

John J. Tkacik, Jr. is Research Fellow for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Representative C. J. Chen: Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to address such a distinguished audience. This morning, our hosts have asked me to offer a few thoughts on Taiwan's quest for appropriate dignity and respect as a major democracy. It's a very important issue for the people of my country, so I will try to give the subject the attention it deserves.

Let me begin with a very relevant but philosophical observation: The concept of "democracy" is a very complex issue, and a difficult one to define with precision or unanimity. Honorable men may disagree about its nature and parameters. They may disagree as well about the meaning of "dignity" and what that word implies in the international context. And because the concepts of democracy and dignity are subject to different interpretations--all colored by cultural, political, and historical factors--I think quite often we tend to avoid the issue altogether.

But that is a mistake. We do not do ourselves, or the world in general, any favors by avoiding an issue that is complicated and subject to interpretation. I submit that we must confront the issue and discuss it, no matter how delicate, how difficult, or how divisive that discussion may be. For the issue of dignified treatment for democracies does not just affect Taiwan, it affects the entire international community. And it touches on certain basic concepts and values that all democracies hold dear.

Taiwan's Exclusion

Let me quote a very important international document: It says, "To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of every human person, in the equal right of men and women and of nations large and small ... we have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims." These are the words in the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, a charter that my country helped to formulate, an organization that we helped found, but from which we are now excluded.

Allow me to quote as well from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.... Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs... " (Articles 1 and 2). Ironically, the world community has even mandated that "All persons deprived of their liberty"--that is, those who are justly penalized for crimes--"shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person" (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10).

Yes, dignity has become a universally accepted human right. Dignity is what our people in Taiwan earnestly seek at home and from the international community of nations. In what surely is one of the bitter ironies of our times, free and democratic Taiwan, home to 23 million people, a peace-loving member of the international community, and a faithful and steadfast friend of the United States, has been excluded not only from the United Nations and all its peripheral agencies but also from nearly every other inter-governmental organization in the world. Although we ourselves willingly abide by international norms, standards, and obligations, we are not able to enjoy the same normal, standard privileges and treatment afforded others. This unfair, unjust, and unreasonable situation results not from any misdeed on our part but solely from the discriminatory politics of one single and powerful state, the People's Republic of China. It is an affront to the dignity of the people on Taiwan and a great stain on the conscience of the international community. We see no reason why the conduct of international relations among democracies should be dictated by an authoritarian regime.

The people of my country are justifiably proud of their political, social, and economic achievements, which compare favorably to those of many fully industrialized nations. Our success has been earned over many years by emphasizing higher education, entrepreneurial creativity, the worth of the individual, and with much hard work. As a result, we believe Taiwan deserves to be treated with appropriate dignity and respect as a major democracy, as a society committed to human rights and the rule of law, and as a key trading partner to much of the world, including the United States. In this regard, we expect no more and no less than any other successful sovereign society.

For too long, our unique international status has stigmatized Taiwan and hindered its full and equal participation within the global community. Diplomatically, much of the world has turned away from us, and excluded us from international participation. Even so-called rogue nations like North Korea and Libya participate in the United Nations and enjoy recognition by most nations of the world. Can you imagine any reason why a democracy with the world's 17th largest economy should be treated any differently? Today we are excluded from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and numerous other multilateral organizations and agencies. We are still waiting on permission to join the World Trade Organization, and we cannot even carry our own flag in the International Olympics.

Let me cite a couple of examples of what practical difficulties such a situation entails, not just for Taiwan, but for the international community at large. I can vividly recall how, during the Persian Gulf War, we tried to donate $100 million to help defeat Saddam Hussein and rebuild the region. Our offer was declined. And, when Rwanda was torn by civil strife and famine, our efforts to donate a substantial amount of assistance were also turned aside. In such instances, who suffers more, Taiwan or the international community?

And here's still another example. Taiwan is not allowed to participate in the World Health Organization. As a result, we have no way of directly warning international health organizations or acquiring information about how to stop virulent diseases, in an age when a virus can travel round the world in less than 24 hours. Can you think of any good reason why Taiwan should not be able to participate in the WHO when even the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Palestine Liberation Organization can?

Still other practical problems are posed by Taiwan's isolation as well. Today, almost two million air flights pass through the Taiwan flight information region, yet we are still unable to join the International Civil Aviation Organization. While I can assure you that we do all we can to ensure the safety of flights over Taiwan, I do not doubt that air passengers everywhere would be more comfortable if we had quick and easy access to ICAO rules, regulations, and recommendations.

These are just a few of the multitude of concrete reasons why my country seeks to be treated with greater dignity and respect.

I would like to point out that, of course, our efforts to pursue greater dignity and respect are not limited to the international arena. At home, after decades of toil, we have smashed the myth that democracy and Chinese culture do not mix. Today on Taiwan, people practice dignity and respect among themselves more than ever.

The Connection Between Democracy and Dignity

Over the last decade, for example, we have worked hard to transform Taiwan into an even better democracy. In putting the finishing touches on this great endeavor, the new administration in Taiwan, under the leadership of President Chen Shui-bian, has drafted a Basic Law on the Guarantee of Human Rights. The law guarantees people's right to life and security. It emphasizes a respect for the dignity of human beings. It guarantees personal freedoms, the freedom of movement, the freedom of expression, the right to privacy, the freedom of religion, the right to assembly, the right to work, and the right to hold property. It states that the government will respect the right to protection against arbitrary or unlawful interference with family, home, personal reputation, privacy, or correspondence.

Moreover, our Executive Yuan formally endorsed two United Nations human rights treaties on April 18 of this year: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which I quoted from a minute ago, and also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which similarly supports all the normal standards of human rights behavior. Taiwan's move to ratify these treaties is in keeping with our government's policy of including Taiwan in the mainstream of international human rights efforts.

My country's democratization has thus underscored the basic dignity and respect to which all people are entitled in Taiwan. We strongly believe that dignity and respect are universal values; that when the dignity of one is belittled, the dignity of all is diminished; and that since dignity and respect are universal human values, these truths apply not only to relations between individuals in Taiwan but also to relations between states in the global community.

Taiwan and the United States

While enduring often humiliating and distressful treatment overseas, our people have, over the years, found some comfort in the friendship and support provided by other countries, particularly the United States of America. Through the provisions of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances of 1982, and owing to the American sense of fairness and justice, we have been reassured that our integrity, our efforts, and our capabilities have not been overlooked by the greatest power on earth. The loyalty and support of the American people has indeed been a great asset in our on-going struggle for international dignity and respect.

Of course, there are still many areas in the bilateral relationship where we hope improvement can be realized in the future. But, here in the United States, we are genuinely encouraged and reassured by several recent gestures made by the new administration that demonstrate honor and respect for our people. I can say that Taiwan is truly grateful for recent reiterations, at the highest levels, of U.S. commitments to Taiwan's safety and welfare. We appreciate the approval of sales of defensive arms and services to meet our legitimate self-defense needs. And our people are equally grateful for the recent reasonable adjustments in the U.S. guidance allowing Taiwan's senior officials to transit this country in safety and comfort, with dignity and respect. We can feel now that we are not only referred to as friends, we are treated as friends. It was, after all, only seven years ago that our president declined to disembark from his plane during a refueling stop in Hawaii because of inappropriate arrangements. And, only last year, our president was virtually confined to the hotel where he stayed. So all these recent gestures reflect an enhanced degree of mutual respect and esteem between Taiwan and the United States.

Some may still ask, why is America's policy of treating Taiwan with dignity and honor eminently justified? There are three major factors, I believe, underlying Washington's continuing reasonable and pragmatic policy toward us.

First, the most obvious consideration: Taiwan's survival and welfare. Despite the less ideological climate and growing private sector exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, our people still live daily under the peril of military threat or assault from China's mainland. Beijing has never renounced the use of force against Taiwan to achieve its objectives, which include subsuming Taiwan under the authority of the People's Republic of China. Today, as in the past, Taiwan's stability, security, and survival are enhanced by the moral support of the international community. If we did not have sufficient international consensus on our side, Beijing could take action against us with impunity. In this regard, many other nations worldwide look to America for leadership and guidance. Without appropriate and respectful treatment by the American people, the future of democratic Taiwan would be placed in greater jeopardy.

Second, the objective principles of fairness and justice really demand dignified treatment for our 23 million people. By any standard of true equality and objectivity, our people have earned suitable recognition for their accomplishments. They are not asking for charity but for equity. Who could fail to recognize the justifiable sensitivity of our people on this point, after all they have achieved in this generation? Who would deny or discount the soaring aspirations of a well-educated, democratic, and entrepreneurial society that is ready to claim its place among progressive peoples of the world?

I recall very well, for example, our pre-democratic phase, when we were striving for the means to gain international recognition and respectability. In those days, Taiwan was well advised by its friends here in the United States to take the road of democracy and human rights, with the promise that appropriate respect would surely follow. It was sound advice, and we took the leap of liberalization despite certain risks and resistance. Fair and dignified treatment of other democracies is a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy. It is also the reason why the United States is considered to be a truly great nation. In doing so, the United States also sets a clear moral imperative for other free and democratic nations to follow.

Third, and no less important than the other considerations, is the fact that it is very much in the self-interest of the United States itself to treat Taiwan with appropriate dignity and respect. The multitude of common values and interests we two share, as fellow democracies and major trading partners, lends heavy credence to the argument that America herself is well served by Taiwan's continuing survival and success.

Fundamentally, it's the core values of freedom, democracy, justice, and human rights that our two countries share, and the many important commercial and security interests between our two peoples in the public and private sectors, that form this monumental bond of reciprocating partnership. Yes, it's true that Taiwan today is the eighth-largest trading partner of the United States, and that we have almost 2,000 investment projects now underway in this country, worth more than $4 billion. It's also true there are well over 130 joint agreements covering education, air transportation, scientific and technological cooperation, energy development, medicine, agriculture, and environmental protection. But no less significant is the fact that we are a free and just society that has willingly shaped itself almost in the very image of the United States. As a matter of free choice, our people will continue to adhere to the course of democracy, free enterprise, and respect for human rights, and they will stand ready to promote these values worldwide.

In sum, we will remain a faithful partner of the United States in advancing our common values and interests, now and in the future. The Republic of China on Taiwan will serve as a beacon and positive example to other developing nations, showcasing the benefits of democracy, free markets, and international teamwork. For the United States itself, and for the progressive nations of the region and world more generally, it will always be easier to deal with fellow democracies in a mutually rewarding partnership. Treating Taiwan with respect and dignity lets other countries clearly understand that America is ready to stand up for what it believes to be right and supports democracies around the world.

Recently, The Weekly Standard carried an article entitled "Poor Democracies: Instead of Condescension, They Deserve Our Support." I would say the same must hold true for prosperous democracies like the Republic of China as well.

Respect for Taiwan's achievements is a matter of mutual interest and objective fairness. It is also a matter of great importance to us in Taiwan and to the international community. We are prepared to do our part in the years ahead to continue to justify the confidence and trust placed in us by the American as well as other democratic peoples. If we aspire to a more civilized world or a democratic world with more civilized rules, then democracy with dignity ought to be a universal principle not only promulgated, but promoted and put into practice.

The Honorable C. J. Chen is Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.


The Honorable C. J. Chen

Distinguished Fellow