May 19, 2000

May 19, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

ED051900:  Taiwan's Presidential Inauguration Democracy Rules

Mr. Chen Shui-bian will be sworn in as Taiwan's new president tomorrow because he played by the rules. Perhaps more than any other politician in Taiwan - or in China, for that matter - attorney Chen Shui-bian understands that democracy is played according to constitutional rules which legitimate both the political system and the leaders it elects. Although the President-elect is a firm believer in "Taiwan Independence," he was elected under the constitution of the "Republic of China," and - well - that makes him Chinese.

This simple truth is all the context you'll need to interpret President-elect Chen's anxiously anticipated inauguration speech on Saturday, May 20. In it, Chen Shui-bian will seek to "legitimate" Taiwan. As a lawyer, he believes this is done through a constitutional process. Chen's speech will outline his governing vision - profoundly influenced by his slender 40% electoral plurality - as one which eschews narrow partisan dogma and platforms in favor of building a broad governing coalition to represent all Taiwan's people.


Of course, the most dreaded part of Chen's speech will address Taiwan's relationship with China. Chen doesn't have to read the polls to know that well over 65% of the population doesn't want him to address the "one China" issue at all, and this alone would keep him from adventuresome forays into "creative" new ideas on how to please Beijing. But Chen's resistance to any further compromise with China is far deeper than this.


Because Beijing's "one China Principle" demands that Taipei give up its legitimacy as a sovereign state in the international community, Chen is in no position to accept it, nor are the Taiwan people. So Chen says he'll devote "perhaps one-seventh, maybe even one-sixth" of his 4500-character speech to Taiwan's relationship with China. According to Chen's top advisor on China affairs, the portion of Chen's speech dealing with China is grounded in two principles: 1) respect for Taiwan's national identity and 2) goodwill toward China.


China wants to hear Chen say "I am Chinese, and I accept the principle of 'one China, and that Taiwan is part of China."' But he can't do it. Nonetheless, Chen will certainly reiterate Taiwan's desire to be China's "partner" and "friend," and will offer a broad range of new economic initiatives to China, including immediate opening of the offshore islands to Chinese tourism, trade and shipping.


It won't make China happy, but it isn't meant to. Chen's repeated hope is that his speech "doesn't give China an excuse to cause trouble." So, with warm words and an outstretched hand, Chen seeks to defuse China's suspicions and in the process make China appear churlish and unreasonable to the rest of the international community. Which, by the way, is another of Chen's hopes for his speech: that it "sets Taiwan's position straight for the international community."


Yet another hope Chen has for his speech is "that it satisfies the Americans." Last Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher shrugged off - but pointedly failed to deny - press reports that president-elect Chen Shui-bian had given a draft of his speech to the U.S. representative in Taipei. So it's pretty clear that Washington has had a chance to review the China portions of Chen's inaugural address and give its imprimatur.


But Chen's greatest hope for the speech, he says, is that his "fellow citizens can accept it." This reflects Chen's philosophy of representative democracy.


Of course, Chen didn't grow up in a representative democracy. An ethnic-Taiwanese graduate of the Island's top law school in the waning days of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) dictatorship, Chen got his start in politics by defending (unsuccessfully) the famous "Kaohsiung Eight" (one of whom was vice president-elect Annette Hsiu-lien Lu) in their 1980 sedition trial.


In 1985, after years of electoral politics and political activism, Chen managed to get himself thrown in jail for a year on a dubious libel charge. The next year his wife, Ms. Wu Shu-chen, was permanently crippled in what was widely believed to have been an assassination attempt by KMT-hired thugs.

Yet in the face of this awesome power of the state, lawyer Chen Shui-bian maintained his belief that the government's power could be challenged in law.


From 1981 when he was first elected to the Taipei city council to his election to Taiwan's presidency two decades later, Chen "worked the system" from the inside. He struggled to legitimate Taiwan's first real opposition political party in 1986, and after the 1988 death of president Chiang Ching-kuo, Chen cooperated with new president Lee Teng-hui to amend the KMT's 1948 Constitution and rid the legislature of hundreds of exiled mainland-Chinese congressmen-for-life.


With a new and truly Taiwanese legislature, the Island quickly evolved to full direct elections and is now certainly the most dynamic and free-wheeling democracy in Asia. And Taiwan's vibrant democracy gives it an ironclad "legitimacy."


Chen's reverence for "legitimacy" underpins his philosophy of government - and his view of Taiwan's relationship with China. Long a staunch advocate of "Taiwan Independence" in a party whose charter demands it, Chen Shui-bian now admits he won't become the "President of Taiwan" tomorrow, instead he'll be "President of the
Republic of China" a "sovereign and independent nation." This is a major concession for Chen, and it's about as close as he'll get to saying "Taiwan is part of China" in his inaugural address. But he understands that he was elected is under the constitutional "rules" of the "Republic of China," and that's that.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is president of China Business Intelligence, an Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm, with over 20 years experience in the China field. He is also a Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in China Online.