Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: VOA
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: VOA

Chinese state media, experts and officials said their country’s live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait on April 18 were a warning to advocates of Taiwanese independence.

On April 18, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), a Hong Kong-based English-language publication, ran an article headlined “Why China’s latest Taiwan Strait drill is just the latest bout of saber-rattling.” The piece listed some of China’s “most significant exercises” since 1995 and noted that these “followed a similar pattern, with displays of military muscle coinciding with Beijing’s concerns that the island – which it regards as a renegade province of China – might seek to break away.”

But after taking a deeper look at Beijing’s military exercises and its posture vis-a-vis Taipei since the mid-1990s, it can be said that Taiwan’s democracy – rather than its independence – is the root problem facing the Communist-ruled mainland. That being the case, Taiwan and its democracy are not easily rattled by China’s threatening rhetoric and military intimidation.

The self-ruled island is now a fully fledged democracy. In its 2018 report on “freedom” around the world, Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog funded by the US government, gave Taiwan a very high score of 93 (out of 100), the second-highest in Asia after Japan. In the Reporters Without Borders’ latest global ranking on press freedom, Taiwan was rated the freest on the continent. By contrast, China was placed almost at the bottom of these two international rankings.

Reforms of Lee Teng-hui

The leader who laid the solid foundation for Taiwan’t vigorous democracy was probably Lee Teng-hui. Coming to power in 1988 after the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek – the defeated anti-Communist leader who fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 – Lee broke with the Chiang regime’s autocracy and engineered major political reforms. As a result, the island was radically transformed, leading to its first-ever democratic presidential election in March 1996.

In the months prior to that unprecedented event, mainland China was hostile toward Taipei and particularly Lee, who made a “personal visit” to his alma mater Cornell University in New York state in June 1995, becoming the first Taiwanese leader to visit the United States since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

However, China’s military belligerence spectacularly backfired, as Lee won a resounding victory.

In his inaugural address, the newly elected president said that because of their “opposition to democracy,” the Chinese Communists had launched “a smear campaign” against him and “in an attempt to influence” the election’s outcome, they conducted “a series of military exercises against Taiwan.”

That could be the reason the first and main part of his speech focused on Taiwan’s democracy. He hailed the people of the ROC “for being resolute and decisive when it comes to the future of the country … so firm and determined when it comes to the defense of democracy, [and] so calm and invincible when it comes to facing up to [China’s] threats.”

Lee, also regarded as “Mr Democracy,” likewise clearly stated that making Taiwan’s “inhabitants feel safer and live a happier and more harmonious life is the common responsibility” of its people, stressing that “no individual or political party can singlehandedly decide a policy of far-reaching importance to the country.”

Peaceful transition of power

With such a strong conviction in, and a total commitment to, the island’s democracy, when Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which had ruled the island since 1949, failed to win the 2000 presidential election, Lee smoothly transferred power to Chen Shui-bian of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The election of Chen and Taiwan’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power between parties further testified to what Lee had rightly said and firmly upheld – under a democratic Taiwan, it is the Taiwanese people, not an individual or a political party, who decide the island’s leadership, policy and direction.

Whether the PRC, which has never chosen its top leadership by democratic elections since its founding in 1949, understands that fact is an open question. What is clear is that such a reality made – and probably continues to make – the island’s voluntary and peaceful unification with the mainland more difficult, if not impossible.

It is recorded that three days before the 2000 election, Zhu Rongji, China’s premier at the time, threatened the Taiwanese “with blood and thunder” if they voted for Chen, and “that helped decide the undecided” in Chen’s favor. China also sought to influence the election’s outcome by staging live-fire missile exercises off the coast of Taiwan.

The above-cited SCMP article noted that after Chen’s election, Beijing likewise held a seven-day live-fire artillery drill, near Fujian province, around 30 kilometers from territory controlled by Taiwan. Under his two-term tenure, tensions between the two sides sometimes grew.

Cross-strait ties significantly improved under Ma Ying-jeou. During his eight-year tenure (2008-2016), the KMT leader championed strong interaction and close integration with China, and bilateral trade reached US$121 billion in 2015.

However, his pro-Beijing policy backfired, resulting in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, when massive student-led demonstrations forced his government to abandon a major trade deal with Beijing. Ma’s popularity plummeted to 9%.

Defiant under fire

As the anti-mainland sentiment increased and the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen took the lead in the presidential campaign, in July 2015, the People’s Liberation Army resumed live-fire exercises, which had been put on hold for almost a decade.

But again, as in the 1996 and 2000 elections, China’s intimidation had an adverse effect. Beijing’s coercion frustrated many in Taiwan, particularly the youth population, prompting them to vote for Tsai in 2016.

Indeed, her convincing victory over the KMT’s Eric Chu once again confirmed what Lee Teng-hui said in his 1996 inauguration speech – notably about the Taiwanese people’s determination to defend their democracy and their calmness and invincibility when facing the Chinese threats.

All of this could be the reason that on April 16 this year, two days before China’s latest drills, President Tsai asserted, “We have every confidence and determination to defend our country [and] democracy.” A day later, she embarked on a visit to the southern African nation of Swaziland, one of about 20 states still maintaining formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Before her departure, she made the same assurance.

It’s true that in a democratic system, she can be brought down in the 2020 election, possibly by the same angry young people who brought her to power, should they be unsatisfied with her performance.

That said, as they have enjoyed their democracy and freedom, it’s very unlikely that the Taiwanese, especially the young, will accept unification with the authoritarian mainland, especially by intimidation or force.

A recently published survey found that up to 86% of Taiwanese young people supported the democratic political system and 70% of Taiwanese would fight if the mainland invaded.

According to Hsu Szu-chien, president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the results of the survey also revealed that “the more people are committed to democracy, the more they are willing to defend Taiwan” should the mainland decide to take the island by force. “That means, defending Taiwan [against China] is to defend our democracy,” Hsu was quoted as interpreting the survey findings in a press conference last week.

Some may question the survey findings and Hsu’s comments. But other surveys and many key events confirm such trends and views.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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