Rationality Hasn’t Stopped; It’s Alive and Well

Several misconceptions surround Taiwan and cloud the judgment of experts on the complex subject of the island’s future. A recent article contains almost all of them
J. Michael Cole

Every once in a while an article is written about Taiwan that manages to be so wrong about so many things that one might feel disinclined to grace it with a rebuttal, lest doing so give the offensive piece more attention than it deserves. One such article, written by a Taiwan “expert,” appeared recently in the pages of the Taipei Times. Despite the counsel of wise individuals not to bother countering with a piece of my own, the compulsion to respond was too strong. Perhaps this stemmed from my fear that some elements of this compendium of falsities might find a second life elsewhere, or because a few months ago the same author succeeded in being equally off the mark — this time in an op-ed about the motivations of the Sunflower Movement, a subject about which I care very much (the author proposed four theories, all of which were wrong).

Before we proceed, let’s get something out of the way: Ideology and facts are not one and the same. The good professor whose articles now impel me to respond has every right to his own ideology, as do I. However, facts, or their more elusive form, the “truth,” should not be molded to fit one’s ideology, something that academics, above all, should know.

To be charitable, perhaps the author’s mistakes are simple misunderstanding, distortions resulting from the thousands of kilometers that lie between the author and his subject. Or perhaps we can blame the fact that during his most recent visits to Taiwan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) may, as is their wont in such matters, have insulated the academic from some, shall we say, “inconvenient” truths. (This brings to mind a recent incident in which a delegation from a foreign country was unable to meet with representatives from the Democratic Progressive Party because, as MOFA informed the DPP on a Monday, the leader of the said delegation would have “stomach problems” on the day of the meeting, scheduled for the following Wednesday.)

Regardless of the causes, claims such as are made by the academic are heard often enough, in various guises, that they warrant a response. We tackle them one by one, in the order in which they appear in the article, titled “Campaigns start, rationality stops.”

As Taiwan prepares for the elections in November, many events and issues are being politicized and turned into campaign issues. As this happens, rationality often ceases to prevail; instead, untruths and hypocrisy rule. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the article. “Rationality,” “untruths” and “hypocrisy,” three terms that limit the discourse on what will follow. It goes without saying that whoever disagrees with the author will automatically be diagnosed with any or a combination of those conditions.

Having thus set the parameters of reason, the author jumps right in and discusses the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China and the free economic pilot zones, which, as he rightly points out, will have both positive and negative impacts on some sectors of the economy. The problem is what follows: Their [CSSTA and pilot zones] most obvious defect, it is charged, but which makes little sense, is that they are not transparent, and therefore harmful to Taiwan’s democracy — even though both policies have been extensively dissected, vetted, debated and criticized. They are certainly more transparent than most economic or commercial agreements and proposals negotiated elsewhere.

There are at least two fallacies here. First, both the CSSTA and the pilot zones have not, as the author claims, been “extensively dissected, vetted.” In both cases, public hearings were either not held, or attendance was limited to those who already supported them. In several instances which the author, being as he was in the U.S., could not have witnessed, opponents of the CSSTA who wanted to sit at the hearings were expelled by riot police and accused of being “violent” and “irrational.” Academics who disagreed with the administration were ignored, sometimes crucified in pro-government media. The contents of the CSSTA surprised even KMT legislators (the Legislative Speaker among them) following the signing of the pact in June 2013, as the China Times reported. So much for dissection and vetting! The same applies to the pilot zones, where word has it that the KMT is once again doing its best to ensure that one of its many proposals is passed “as is,” without proper oversight. As to criticism, there has been no shortage of that, but unfortunately as the past two years have made clear, criticism has failed to have any impact on the government, which has countered with the courts, police, indifference, or the argument that its policies are sound but that it has done a “poor job” explaining them to the (evidently stupid) public.

The second fallacy is that of transparency. Besides the questionability of the author’s claim that the pacts between Taiwan and China were more transparent than those negotiated elsewhere, the problem here is that pacts between Taiwan and China — any pact, not just those of an economic or commercial nature — cannot be regarded as agreements between two normal countries. The reason is simple: Authoritarian China does not recognize the existence of democratic Taiwan or that of the Republic of China; it claims sovereignty over them and has not ruled out the use of force to bring about its desired outcome — unification under “one China.” We therefore cannot dissociate cross-strait integration from Beijing’s efforts to exert political influence within Taiwan: Already, there is reason to suspect that the Chinese have begun to bypass the KMT, which is presumably too slow to deliver the goods, and are now directly bribing Lizhang, or “local representatives,” in return for favors.

Democracy itself is a problem for Beijing, which it considers anathema to its political system. Needless to say, trade pacts that touch on sectors such as advertisement and translation, culture and the service industry, cannot possibly be regarded as purely commercial, given the potentially very serious harm that opening those sectors to Chinese investment would cause to Taiwan’s democracy (we are talking here about a country that arrests journalists, forces the closure of media outlets, censors a variety of news items and web sites, and in recent weeks has launched a campaign to disappear newsstands nationwide!).

Furthermore, the fact that trade pacts between sovereign states are normally conducted in secrecy — a not uncontroversial practice, judging from the protests that generally accompany them — does not mean that “black box” agreements are therefore the right way to proceed. The problems that beset trade negotiations worldwide also apply to Taiwan; however, we cannot ignore the political dimensions of cross-strait agreements, let alone count on Beijing to limit its objectives to economics. If lack of transparency were the main issue, then surely Taiwanese would have mobilized over the agreements that Taipei has negotiated with other trade partners in recent years. And yet, those never materialized. The issue isn’t lack of transparency alone; it is lack of transparency plus the “China factor.” This should answer the author’s observation that, what seems most irrational [that term again!] about the criticisms is that Taiwan is making serious efforts to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, but that little is being said about that trade pact not being transparent.

The author then moves on to the visit in June by Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), whose behavior he describes as “friendly, cheerful and optimistic,” and the agenda “transparent.” Unfortunately, Zhang’s visit sparked protests, which we can only conclude were organized by “irrational” elements within society who operate in a vacuum or have nothing better to do than follow a Chinese official around the country so they can get roughed up by police and kicked out of hotel rooms. Nothing is said about the context in which the visit occurred: Beijing’s white paper on Hong Kong and “one country, two systems,” the large presence of pro-unification gangsters at every venue visited by Zhang, or the fact that the problems surrounding the CSSTA, which forced Taipei and Beijing to delay Zhang’s visit, had yet to be resolved. To his credit, the author does mention remarks by the Taiwan Affairs Office to the effect that the future of Taiwan should be determined by China’s 1.3 billion people, but he doesn’t seem to see why Taiwan’s 23 million people would regard that as offensive.

The author contrasts that with comments by Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) weeks earlier during a visit to Shanghai, where he departed from script and emphasized that the future of Taiwan is to be determined by its people only. Yet Lai’s statement was hardly realistic. Taiwan is small and that means that it will not decide its future. Anyone who has studied history or international relations knows this. Europe’s small countries did not decide their futures, bigger countries did. That is true elsewhere in the world. Taiwan’s future will be decided by the US and China; that may be hard to accept, but it is reality.

There’s so much to disagree with in those few sentences it’s hard to decide where to start. Suffice it to say that the good professor seems to disagree with the principle of self-determination which lies at the heart of modern politics (not to mention the ideals of his own country), and that his interpretation of Realism is a recipe for disaster and endless conflict on the peripheries, courtesy of what we should from now on refer to not as the Great Powers, but the Great Bullies. (And if size does matter, what does he make of Tibet, or Xinjiang, for that matter, which is three times the size of France?)

I would also refer the author to remarks that Professor Bruce Jacobs of Monash University in Australia made during a press conference in Taiwan in 2013. “Its [Taiwan’s] population, equal to that of Australia, is larger than two-thirds of the world’s nations and its area is greater than two-fifths of the world’s nations.” Once we factor in its economy, which is among the world’s 20 largest, Taiwan in fact emerges as an important “middle power,” Jacobs argues. (Size is always relative. During a recent diplomatic function in Taipei, an official from the Singaporean representative office here excitedly told me how much she loved being in Taiwan. “It’s so big!” she exclaimed.)

Let’s move on: [M]any politicians in Taiwan and their minions — lacking a sense of reality — rue Taiwan’s having become economically dependent on China, which means Taiwan’s sovereignty is challenged. Taiwan has become reliant on China; its exports across the strait now exceed 40 percent of its total, but this has been years in the making; it is not something hatched by the present administration. Except for a small minority of Taiwanese who are anti-globalization, most Taiwanese are generally in favor of opening up their economy and, like people elsewhere, are aware that there are costs to doing so. They are also in favor of trading with China. Their problem is with over-reliance on China, of Taipei putting “all its eggs in one basket.” The author is absolutely right when he mentions that the process has been “years in the making.” However, only under the current administration did the government focus almost exclusively on China (even Greater Taipei Mayor Eric Chu [朱立倫], now a deputy KMT chairman, has warned of that overreliance). The other area that has made many Taiwanese apprehensive is the list of sectors that have been opened, or that are in the process of being opened, to Chinese investment. It’s one thing to liberalize trade; it’s another to make sensitive sectors accessible to a country that has no compunction in spying on its partners, especially one whose territory it jealously covets.

Moreover, the alternative is cutting or reducing exports to China and adopting policies of protectionism and isolationism, which would be devastating to the nation’s growth and its prosperity. One cannot have it both ways: That is realism. No. The alternative is diversifying trade partners through the signing of trade agreements with major economies, which requires that the necessary domestic reforms be initiated to turn Taiwan into an alluring investment destination (this will admittedly require more hard work than striking deals with a mercantilist China whose purposes are not solely economics but also, as we saw, political).

[A] few decades ago, nearly half of the nation’s exports went to the US and it did not suffer. Of course it didn’t suffer; for all its faults (and the wishes of a few outliers), the U.S. does not claim sovereignty over Taiwan.

[O]ther countries in Asia have also become dependent on China, which is now the foremost trading partner of nearly every East Asian country. They have not lost their sovereignty. Of course they haven’t; China does not claim sovereignty over them — at least not their core territories and populations.

Finally, protesting China’s encroachment on Taiwan’s sovereignty may be counterproductive. It plays into the hands of the Chinese military, which takes a much more aggressive stance toward Taiwan. In the worst situation, it could push civilian leaders in China to adopt a military solution to the issue. We can only conclude from this bizarre logic that freedom-loving Taiwanese should simply give up and “rationally” allow an authoritarian regime to dismember their democracy, lest resistance — legitimate resistance — “anger” Beijing and put “peaceful” civilians in the uncomfortable position of having to confront the military. Better not resist a rapist, as he might decide to beat you to a pulp in the process!

The author concludes with remarks that could only have been made by someone who wasn’t in Taiwan in the past two years, who refuses to acknowledge reality, or who somehow missed all the action when he was here. Taiwan’s democracy is doing well, especially when seen in the context of that political system failing in many parts of the world. Democracy is in retreat in the developing world and is losing public support in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Its being alive and well in Taiwan makes the nation special, but it requires enlightened voters who face reality and distinguish between truth and political rhetoric. The fact of the matter is, democracy isn’t “alive and well” in Taiwan. Those of us who have chronicled the efforts of activists since 2012 are well aware that democracy is in retreat here as well, and that this is, global trends aside, a direct result of the China factor. Facing reality — his term — is admitting that the failure of democracy isn’t mere political rhetoric (implicit in that comment is the accusation that the democratic malaise is purely a DPP fabrication) but a real problem that has very little to do with elections, which again the author seems to imply, given the title of his article (perhaps not his, granted) and the reference in the opening line to the November elections. If all this “irrationality” were tied to elections, then how do we explain the hundreds of protests that have occurred since 2012, after the presidential election, over several dozen controversies? The coming together of a multitude of NGOs that under normal circumstances would be fighting one another? The occupation of the Ministry of the Interior in August 2013? The signing, by a thousand lawyers, of a petition condemning abuse by the authorities over sundry issues of injustice? A man’s decision to crash his truck into the Presidential Office, not because, as the government claims, he was “mad,” but because he, as the “little man,” had had enough with a system that constantly favors the rich and the politically connected, while ordinary people face increasingly unfavorable odds, despite all the official rhetoric about the benefits of getting closer to China? Or the occupation of the Legislative Yuan and the Executive Yuan in March and April 2014? None of those were connected to the elections, and rather than the underhanded acts of a mischievous DPP (does the author really imagine that the nearly-broke opposition party could orchestrate all this, rallying people from all walks of life, “mainlanders” and KMT voters among them?), this was society as a whole, heterogeneous society, saying enough is enough, crying foul as the nation’s democratic institutions, including the opposition party, continually fail them at a time when they are needed more than ever so that Taiwan can properly navigate the waters of rapprochement with China.

Rationality hasn’t stopped. It’s alive and well.

(Lai I-chung of Taiwan Thinktank also responded to this article over at Thinking Taiwan Chinese.)


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

2 Responses to “Rationality Hasn’t Stopped; It’s Alive and Well”

August 05, 2014 at 2:13 pm, brian dawson said:

Spot on, and you are right to reply otherwise that misleading piece would look unchallenged and worse still unchallengeable.


August 07, 2014 at 7:39 am, Chris Hughes said:

Well done, academics have it much too easy, speculating to fit their own natratives without having to take any of the material consequences


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