July 1st 2003

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Referendum question divides Taiwan

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Referendum question divides Taiwan

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, July 1, 2003
The people of Taiwan live in an unstable environment. The economy has not been prospering, as for decades the Taiwanese had come to expect. Mainland China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has not renounced the use of force to reunify the island to the mainland.

The model held out for reunification with mainland China is the "one country, two systems" model, by which the mainland government has regained sovereignty over Hong Kong.

But two very important things have happened regarding the island and its links with mainland China.

In the first place, Hong Kong has been rocked by massive demonstrations in the supposedly "apolitical" Special Administrative Region (SAR). The problems in Hong Kong are the result of a number of factors, not only the "anti-subversion " Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, its mini Constitution.


The Basic Law was thrashed out between Britain and Hong Kong before the territory was handed back to China. It has long been known that the SAR would formulate an anti-subversion law, but the proposal goes far beyond what has been expected.

The existence of such a wide-ranging law gives no encouragement to the people of Taiwan, who have seen similar regulations in mainland China used to stamp down harshly on dissent and has led journalists to be jailed for revealing "state secrets," which are in fact often common knowledge amongst the people of mainland China.

The lightning rod has been Ms Regina Ip, the secretary for security, who among other statements, described the Falun Gong movement as an "evil cult." Falun Gong is banned in mainland China, but not in Hong Kong. Any move against Falun Gong in Hong Kong would be seen as the thin end of the wedge for Hong Kong's freedoms.

Tung Chee Hwa, the chief executive imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing, is widely unpopular. Hong Kong has had has 55 continuous months of deflation and as prices have fallen, so has the SAR's economy. Tung is also regarded as being an outsider, as his roots are in Shanghai, not Hong Kong.

Beijing is not keen for the protests in Hong Kong to topple Tung, as it would give encouragement for dissident groups, but it is in a bind, because any move to forcefully crush dissent in Hong Kong would discourage foreign investors, on whom the mainland's booming economy depends for growth.

Thus, the "one country, two systems" model held out for Taiwan does not offer Taiwan much encouragement to reunify with the mainland. Even those normally supportive of closer links with the mainland have watched uneasily as the situation in Hong Kong develops.

The second important event for Taiwan in its relations with the mainland has been the floating of a referendum proposal by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The constitution of the Republic of China on Taiwan says the people have the right to express their opinions via referendums.

When he took power, President Chen Shui-bian specifically promised there would be no referendum on Taiwan independence, but that has not stopped moves for referendums on other causes, which are almost equally controversial.

The referendum proposals are a transparent device for Chen to shore up his support among his base-level following, who have been disillusioned by the lack of moves towards asserting Taiwan's national identity. Chen also recently announced that there would be no direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland during his term in office, which apparently contradicts an undertaking he gave during his election campaign to strengthen relations with the mainland.

The other controversial topic of a referendum is the question of the fourth nuclear power plant. This plant, built at a cost of billions of dollars, is close to completion and the evidence is that the Taiwanese support the plant, mainly because they realise the island's power shortages can be solved no other way. However, as with left-leaning parties elsewhere, nuclear power is a hot button issue for Chen's bedrock supporters.

Much to the surprise and consternation of Chen and his allies, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) have supported the referendum proposal, but have been pushing during a special session in the Legislative Yuan for a law to govern the referenda.

Chen and his followers have said that the referenda are only "consultative" so no law is needed to govern them.

Chen's plan is aimed at shoring up support. The Government also has a set of money spending plans to boost the economy.

The combined opposition team has been ahead consistently in the polls, but if Chen can incite the mainland to some sort of sabre-rattling, it is possible the nation could rally behind him, as it did when the mainland threatened the island with missile attacks during the election campaign of President Lee Teng-hui.

In all, the referendum campaign ploy seems to be a dangerous tactic, and one that the United Sates, the sole guarantor of Taiwan's security, has notably failed to support. 

  • Jeff Babb

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