Taiwan: Political theatre reveals deepening crisis

A flurry of diplomatic initiatives and counter-initiatives from Taiwan’s sharply divided political establishment – the anti-independence pan-blue bloc and formally pro-independence pan-greens – has shifted the cross-strait issue (i.e. relations with China) into overdrive.

The country’s parliamentary scene resembles a TV reality show, full of cheap shocks but at the end of the day pretty pointless. The last week has seen ”treason” charges levelled against a prominent pan-blue politician and an incredible visit by a pan-green leader to a Japanese war shrine. This is against the international background of a struggle for influence and prestige between US imperialism, an emerging Chinese imperialism and a European Union increasingly set on demonstrating its independence from Washington – a struggle in which arms sales to China and a possible future war over Taiwan play an important role.

On 1 April, the vice chairman of the formerly ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Chiang Pin-kun, appeared in Beijing as the guest of China’s ”communist” leaders. Over half a century after the KMT fled to Taiwan having lost control of China to the People’s Liberation Army, this was the first such visit by one of their leaders. This ”historic” visit came less than a week after a huge demonstration in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, on 26 March. The organisers claim a million took part in the protest against China’s recent adoption of an anti-secession law providing for ”non-peaceful” steps if Taiwan’s government should declare independence.

Beijing’s blunder

The new law was a tactical blunder by the Beijing regime, which played into the hands of Taiwan’s ruling pan-greens, led by president Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The law originates from before last December’s parliamentary elections in Taiwan, which most people including Beijing wrongly expected would give the pan-greens an absolute majority. The anti-secession law would therefore be a warning shot to prevent a strengthened Chen pushing ahead with a pro-independence agenda. In the event, however, the pan-greens made no gains at all, the parliamentary deadlock continues and a more astute Chinese regime – or one more confident of its internal cohesion – would have postponed the new law. The anti-secession law also played into the hands of the Bush administration and its efforts to pressurise the EU not to lift its 15 year-old arms embargo against China. The embargo dispute is part of a wider geopolitical tug-of-war between French and German capitalism on one side, and the US on the other, over trade and diplomatic clout with the Beijing regime. It has nothing to do with concerns for the peaceful existence of the people of Taiwan, China or the wider region.

But Chiang’s visit to China and reports that he had signed a ”ten-point agreement” with the CCP regime covering issues such as trade, agriculture, fishing rights and – more to the point – guarantees for Taiwanese business interests on the Chinese mainland, have enraged the pan-greens. This visit and the resulting ”KMT-CCP pact” handed Beijing a welcome propaganda victory, enabling it to regain its diplomatic composure after slipping up on the anti-secession law. But the Taiwanese government is also angry because its own Machiavellian scheme to send a non-DPP envoy to Beijing was thus upstaged.

A surprising new alliance

President Chen plans to send none other than People First Party (PFP) leader, James Soong – the KMT’s alliance partner – following an agreement in February between these two former arch-enemies. Together Chen and Soong unveiled their own ”ten-point agreement” on the cross-strait issue that astonished observers, including many DPP members. The DPP’s pan-green allies, the TSU, roundly condemned the agreement, but so did the KMT who accused Soong of ”capitulation” – underlining how split both the major camps are. The deal was widely seen as making concessions to Soong and represented, according to Asia Times Online, ”A rejection of almost everything [Chen] advocated on the campaign trail” – a reference to the presidential election that he narrowly won in March 2004. Among other things the agreement states that the country’s official name shall remain ”Republic of China” – ruling out a change to ”Republic of Taiwan” – and there would be no referendum on the issue of independence.

The February agreement was an attempt by Chen to break the parliamentary deadlock resulting from the December elections. A key parliamentary dispute centres on the proposed $18bn worth of weaponry that Washington has been trying to sell to Taiwan since 2001, but which has been blocked by the pan-blues who argue the financial cost is too high. One aspect of the Chen-Soong agreement was to take a separate vote on eight new submarines – the part of the arms deal most repugnant to China – which would allow the PFP to vote against these while supporting the rest of the package. There is even speculation that Chen offered Soong the job of Premier, hoping to drive a wedge into the pan-blues and at the same time hand him the ”poisoned chalice” of responsibility for implementing a raft of unpopular policies, but Soong sidestepped that particular landmine.

Given Beijing’s refusal, however, to deal directly with the Chen administration (on the grounds that it advocates ”independence”), the president plans to use Soong – whose mainlander-dominated PFP is hard-line anti-independence – as an unofficial envoy in an attempt to move forward on a range of vital economic issues such as direct flights over the Taiwan Strait. Internal pan-blue tensions that erupted sharply after the elections, when Soong retreated from a planned KMT-PFP fusion, prompted the KMT to book a flight to Beijing, beating Soong to it.

KMT leader’s ”treason”

This explains the lynch mob atmosphere within the pan-green establishment (and probably within the PFP too) that greeted the KMT vice chairman on his return from Beijing last week. At first a ”private citizen” took out a court action against Chiang, for entering into an unauthorised agreement with a foreign government. Not long afterwards the High Court announced a criminal investigation into Chiang’s China visit, which if it leads to charges could carry a seven-year jail term. A heated legal argument is now raging over, amongst other things, whether China is a ”foreign government”, and in the light of countless deals between private businesses and China, what counts as ”unauthorised contact”. Some DPP politicians are demanding Chiang be charged with treason.

An editorial in the (pan-green) Taipei Times argues, ”Without a doubt, his conduct constitutes spiritual and de facto treason”. The investigation is a counter-stroke from the DPP establishment to put pressure on the KMT tops not to sabotage or upstage government diplomacy towards Beijing. Whether it actually leads to charges or not, it underlines the sharp divisions within the country’s political elite.

Meanwhile in a separate but connected excursion into the sphere of regional diplomacy, the chairman of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) – the DPP’s junior partner – caused a political storm by paying a visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, a symbol of Japanese militarism, where 28,000 Taiwanese conscripts are among the war dead. Japan’s occupation of much of East Asia in the past, including Taiwan (from 1895-1945) still arouses powerful emotions. The visit led to fisticuffs at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek airport when TSU chairman, Shu Chin-chiang, returned and has even drawn condemnation from DPP politicians, some of whom are furious that Shu has scored an own goal just when they had the KMT on the defensive over the Chiang affair. Opinion polls show the public split 40-40 over whose toadying – Chiang’s in Beijing or Shu’s in Tokyo – is the most shocking.

Green and blue neo-liberalism

These almost theatrical clashes tend to obscure the de facto agreement that exists between the blocs over economic policy. The dilemma for the Taiwanese working class is that politics is dominated by two anti-working class alliances that in the name of being pro- or anti-independence stand for almost identical neo-liberal policies of privatisation, deregulation and cuts. The difference, in so far as one exists, is that the pan-blues approach these issues a little more cautiously, advocating slower privatisation than Chen and the pan-greens. The trade unions, which are dispersed between to the two blocs, face a series of challenges particularly with the government’s new pensions ”reform”, involving the privatisation of pension funds, and a speed-up of the state sector sell-off particularly in banking and telecoms. As elsewhere, privatisation is accompanied by attacks on working conditions, pension rights and jobs. Rather than advocating an alternative to privatisation and Chen’s anti-working class policies, the pan-blue leaders argue that better relations with China is the key to economic revival, more jobs and better prospects for the working class.

From both pan-green and pan-blue wings of the ruling class, there is a conscious policy of using the cross-strait issue to whip up nationalist passions and thereby divert attention from their complete lack of answers to the problems facing the majority of the population. This is repelling a growing section of the population, as was shown by the record low voter turnout (51%) in December. Here there is a parallel with the ”new democracies” of Eastern and Central Europe where abstentionism tends to be growing faster even than in the older bourgeois democracies. But despite its air of sideshow, the political elite’s recourse to nationalist rhetoric in order to gain political influence has the potential to spark serious social conflict and inter-ethnic clashes in the future.

Racist elements

The issues involved are complex. There is a chauvinistic or racist element in both pan-green and pan-blue camps. PFP leader Soong is a hate-figure among many Minnanese (the majority grouping whose ancestors began arriving from the Chinese province of Fujian several centuries ago) because of his role as information minister under the KMT dictatorship, when he masterminded the suppression of local dialects and culture. While the TSU – the most neo-liberal party – has a racist policy towards mainlanders (i.e. those who arrived in 1949 following the civil war and their descendents) over immigration and job quotas, for example. This party also discriminates against the island’s aborigines who make up 2% of the population.

But most ordinary pan-green voters choose these parties because they are repelled by the idea of Beijing’s dictators deciding their future. The island has experienced a growth of national identity over the last two decades that challenges what to many appears to be an anachronistic view of Taiwan’s relationship with China. For many workers who support the pan-blues on the other hand, they are equally repelled by the antics of the pan-green leaders which they see as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous provocation of China, upon which Taiwan is increasingly dependent. China is now Taiwan’s main trading partner, taking over a third of its exports. Over half of Taiwan’s foreign investment goes to the mainland.

No capitalist solution

The argument for economic integration is obvious. But on a capitalist basis this integration is yet another trap for workers – used to drive down wage levels, bring in longer hours and more ’flexible’ working patterns. Already a section of Taiwanese capitalists are realising they may be too dependent on China – that in the event of a Chinese economic slump, Taiwan will be plunged into a devastating crisis.

New attacks on the working class, increasing political instability and ethnic strife, and the squandering of precious economic resources on both sides of the Taiwan Strait on a dangerous arms race; this is the future on a capitalist basis.

The key ingredient lacking in the Taiwanese situation today is a workers’ party standing firmly for the unity of the working class, for socialist policies and complete independence from the bosses’ parties whether decked in blue or green. Such a party would call for a democratic socialist Taiwan and use this idea to capture the imagination of the huge and increasingly militant working class of the mainland. On the basis of socialism, through the drawing up of a democratic plan of production for the region’s resources, relations between Taiwan and China – whether in the form of independence, reunification or a new form of federation – could be decided on a democratic and voluntary basis.

From chinaworker.org

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April 2005