Sunday, June 15, 2008

A matter of national identity and unfinished business

An interesting read of how Taiwan goes about its business of democratizing itself in the face of its "lordship" China.

An island divided
  • Tom Hyland
  • June 15, 2008

PETER HUANG doesn't look like an assassin. His grey hair is thinning and as he talks he sometimes pauses, as if lost in thought. Then he apologises and says he's 72 and these days sees a geriatric specialist. But he's lively and his eyes glisten when he laughs. He chain smokes as he sips iced tea on a humid night in Taipei, Taiwan's capital.

With his shorts, sandals and backpack, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, Huang looks like a veteran human rights activist, which is what he is.

He heads Amnesty International in Taiwan, and he's just come from an all-day meeting of human rights groups. He apologises for being late, but says such meetings are often complicated by intense debate, where everyone insists on being heard.

Things were different back in 1970, when he was a would-be assassin. In those days, Taiwan was under one-party rule and dissidents risked arrest, torture, even death. So Huang tried to create some democratic space by taking a shot at the man who was the regime's chief enforcer.

Huang's story crosses the fault lines of a new democracy with a violent history where acknowledging the past is unfinished business.

It's a divided democracy, independent in all but name. And it confronts what Huang calls "peculiarities", especially an unresolved debate on national identity - is Taiwan Chinese? It's a debate distorted by the threat of war from China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

Huang's story also prompts a question: If Taiwan, a nominally Chinese state, could transform itself into a vibrant democracy, why can't China?

If Taiwan was a democracy back in 1970, Huang says he would never had dreamed of buying a pistol. He was studying in the US at the time, and planned to kill Chiang Ching-kuo, the son and nominated successor of Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist Party - the Kuomintang, or KMT.

The Nationalists had ruled Taiwan since 1949 after retreating to the island when they lost control of China to the Communists. Under martial law, Chiang jnr had controlled a pervasive system of repression that killed thousands and jailed thousands more.

So when Chiang visited the US, Huang saw an opportunity. His aim was limited: He hoped Chiang's death would ignite a power struggle within the Nationalists that "might open political possibilities", leading to democracy and freedom.

But when he pulled out his gun, a detective grabbed his arm and his one shot went into the glass door of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Huang was charged with attempted murder, jumped bail, fled the US and lived in exile for 25 years (even now, he won't say where). In 1996, the year of Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections, he sneaked back into Taiwan.

He concedes there may be an irony in a failed assassin heading a human rights group, but says that even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges a conditional right to rebel against tyranny.

Contradictions abound in the tale of man who tried to kill a tyrant, because in the end the door to democracy was opened not by an assassin's bullet, but by the tyrant himself.

In his dying days, with Taiwan isolated and facing growing internal pressure for reform, Chiang underwent a conversion. He lifted martial law in 1987 and allowed opposition groups to form the Democratic Progressive Party.

After ruling for half a century, the Nationalists were unseated for the first time in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was elected president. It was the first time a nominally Chinese government was voted out of office.

CONTENDING versions of history clash on Taipei's bustling intersections, where monuments to oppressors confront memorials to their victims.

For all but eight of the past 60 years, Nationalists have occupied the presidential office. They reclaimed it two months ago, when Ma Ying-jeou was elected president.

These days the Nationalists portray themselves as pragmatic democrats, emphasising economic growth and an easing of tensions with China.

Senior party figures have apologised for the decades of repression, but the party still traces its lineage back to Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, and extols their wisdom.

Across the road from the presidential office is a marble wall inscribed in memory of the victims of the White Terror, the violent campaign by which the Nationalists entrenched their rule from 1949.

Behind the wall is the 228 Memorial Peace Park, commemorating an anti-Nationalist uprising on February 28, 1947. The uprising was ruthlessly suppressed and up to 28,000 people were massacred. There's a museum in the park, and a monument inaugurated by President Lee Teng-hui in 1995 - a Nationalist whose official apology alienated many in his own party.

It also rings hollow for Taiwanese like Faith Hung, a volunteer museum guide. "They say they are sorry, but they don't say they were the ones who were wrong," she says.

But could she imagine the Chinese Government ever allowing a monument to the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre? "If they became more democratic, maybe," Ms Hung says. "But I am not confident. In Beijing they change the history all the time, they just make it up."

They change history in Taiwan, too.

A short walk from the peace park is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Last year, in an attempt to dilute its political potency, it was renamed the Democracy Memorial Hall. Inside is a statue of Chiang, and his uniforms, letters and limousines are displayed. Exhibits extol his wisdom, modesty and leadership. There's no mention of the atrocities commemorated nearby.

Even posing the question "could Taiwan be a model for China?" risks causing offence. It implies Taiwan is Chinese, and touches on the chasm that divides Taiwanese politics.

To Nationalists, Taiwan is Chinese and part of China, even if they want it to retain its own government. They insist on referring to the island as the Republic of China, and talk of eventual reunification with the "mainland". On this, they and their former Chinese Communist enemies agree.

But for many the question is not so simple. The 1970s reform movement that formed the base of the opposition DPP included a pro-independence strand that says Taiwan has a unique identity and a right to self-determination.

Press commentator Antonio Chiang sees lessons for China in Taiwan's democratic transition. "The Chinese are told they're unique and they don't need 'Western' democracy. This is rubbish," says Chiang, a national security adviser to the former DPP government.

"The Chinese can see it's working in Taiwan," he says. "They watch all our experiences, the process and the pitfalls, and it's a good lesson for them."

The Beijing authorities don't face the same stresses that confronted the Nationalists in the late 1970s - international isolation and a domestic clamour for reform. Instead, China's booming economy and assertive self-confidence is propelling it to superpower status, while boosting the Communist Party's domestic standing.

But the Communists can't be sure of political developments in Taiwan, even if they've been heartened by the Nationalists' return to power.

Huang says a key concern for Beijing will be whether Taiwan can consolidate democracy and resolve what he calls "our disease, our China problem".

Beijing's fear is that Taiwan will reach the "wrong" consensus on its national identity, he says. "If Taiwan deepens its democracy sufficiently, the people's choice might be independence or reunification, but it would be the people's choice. And if the peoples' choice is independence, do you think Beijing would like that?"

ON THE surface, Taiwan shows all the signs of a functioning democracy, with government changing hands peacefully in rowdy elections reported by an unruly media.

Democracy Taiwan-style is noisy and unforgiving. Fists fly in parliamentary debates. Taiwan's press freedom has been judged the strongest in Asia. Public protests are common. It's underpinned by an economic miracle that has made Taiwan one of the Asian Tigers.

"Democracy in Taiwan is resilient enough," says Chiang, the commentator. "The institutions have their inherent defects, but the democratic practice is well established now. It's become a way of life."

Others are not so sure. Pessimists point to unresolved issues of transitional justice. No one has been convicted for the crimes of the past, and there's resistance for calls for an official truth and reconciliation commission.

Corruption is widespread, crossing party lines. And critics fear the Nationalists remain wedded to their old ways - a top-down style of government where the separation of powers, judicial independence, and community participation are suspect. They also hold massive assets, worth over $US757 million ($A805 million).

Many worry that young people, like their Chinese counterparts, are obsessed with consumerism and politically disengaged. Those who've grown up since the end of martial law are sometimes dismissed as the "strawberry generation", a phrase that suggests vulnerability and inability to cope with stress.

Peter Huang says he's an optimist. "As a social-movement activist, I have to be," he says. "But there are so many things that are out of our control, and there are so many peculiarities."

The "peculiarities" include 1300 ballistic missiles that China has on its coast, just 160 kilometres away, all pointing at Taiwan.

Huang says the more Taiwan entrenches democracy and reforms its justice, education and social welfare systems, the more unlikely a violent Chinese takeover becomes.

He has a dream. It goes like this: "If Taiwan can make itself like one of the north European countries then the world would have a problem with its conscience if China tried to swallow Taiwan - and even China would have a problem with its digestion if it tried to swallow us up."

Tom Hyland travelled to Taiwan as a guest of National Taiwan University