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A Call for Independence In Taiwan

By Robin Herr. Robin Herr is associate director of the Asia Resource Center in Washington. She traveled throughout Taiwan to monitor the recent parliamentary elections and has lived and worked in Asia for three years. / March 5, 1993



WHEN the 161-member Taiwanese parliament opened last month, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had increased its representation to 31 percent of the seats - the result of Taiwan's first general legislative elections held last December.

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Now the DPP platform for Taiwan independence will be debated. But Taiwanese aspirations for democracy and self-determination still face major roadblocks. The Clinton administration's response can influence whether Taiwan emerges as an independent democratic nation.

The issue of independence is rooted deep in Taiwan's history. From 1895 to 1945, the Japanese colonized Taiwan, brutally suppressing any protest. In 1949, the Nationalist Party, or Chinese Kuomintang (KMT), established power, massacring 20,000 Taiwanese. The KMT ruled Taiwan by martial law until 1987. It institutionalized control over the Taiwanese and silenced opposition with imprisonment, exile, torture, and execution. "KMT rule over Taiwan is like beggars invading a sacred temple," is a common Taiwane se analogy.

The KMT promotes the interests of the Nationalist Chinese elite at the expense of Taiwanese, who comprise 85 percent of the population. Until the recent legislative elections, the people of Taiwan were denied full representation in their government. Many key government posts continue to be reserved for the Chinese political elite.

Impressive growth rates mask rampant waste and corruption due to KMT control over the economy. In addition, the KMT has tried to suppress Taiwanese culture. In school, for example, China's history and culture are emphasized over that of Taiwan.

The opposition DPP is calling for a genuinely democratic and independent Taiwan. As one elder explains, "We are not Chinese any more than you Americans are British. That's why we want to determine our own future." Only within a true democracy can the Taiwanese have the freedom to resolve their future.

The recent legislative elections provided an opportunity to gauge the extent of democracy. Many indicators pointed to election biases favoring the KMT:

* The KMT controls the military vote and directly influences the votes of educators, civil servants, and employees of party- and government-owned businesses. For example, pro-KMT military personnel are allowed to return home to vote; suspected opposition sympathizers must stay at the barracks.

* The KMT does the majority of vote-buying, which can influence the elections. A survey by the Center for Policy Studies at Sun Yat-sen University concluded that in Kaohsiung, the nation's second largest city, 44.8 percent of the population were given money for their vote. Of those, 12.7 percent said they would vote for the candidate who bribed them. The survey also revealed that 79.6 percent of vote-buying was by KMT candidates. One voter commented, "It's useless to report vote-buying. The judicial syst em is unfair, and I might get in trouble with local leaders."

* The KMT controls the electronic media, which favor the KMT and tend to portray the opposition as violent. The DPP and some KMT candidates agree the electronic media should be open. They believe an open media would allow Taiwanese to decide for themselves where they stand on important political issues.

* Interviews with election officials revealed that a majority of Election Commission members are pro-KMT.

In Taiwan, as in other countries, democracy does not end with dropping votes into a ballot box. Until the sophisticated forms of KMT control are addressed and the government is open and responsive to all members of society, democracy is not genuine. And without a genuine democracy, the Taiwanese will not have the freedom to determine their own future.

A FREE debate on both independence and democratic progress is also impeded by the international community. The KMT government in Taiwan claims to represent and hopes to reunify with mainland China, Tibet, and Mongolia. Someday the party hopes to take over the mainland. This unrealistic proposition is used to divert people from the real question of the future of Taiwan. Communist China considers Taiwan a renegade province and threatens to use force if Taiwan declares itself independent. The KMT uses China 's threat to scare the Taiwanese. During the election campaign, a front-page headline of the China News read: "Beijing warns ROC [Taiwan] voters not to back independence calls."

"Let us apply for United Nations membership and force China to tell the international community where it stands on the issue of Taiwan," argues DPP legislator Annette Lu. This would also allow the United States and other countries to clearly state their position on Taiwanese independence.

Currently, Taiwan is the sixth-largest trading partner of the US. It holds the largest capital reserves in the world. Yet the US and other countries deny the Taiwanese their right to self-determination by yielding to China's demand to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

With the end of the cold war, it is impractical to continue catering to China's wishes. And as increased democracy contributes to a growing independence movement in Taiwan, it is in the US interest to support Taiwanese independence in order to promote long-term stability in the region.

The Clinton administration can promote further democratic reforms by urging the KMT government to implement the rights guaranteed in its own constitution. But the final challenge is whether the US will clearly state its support for the independence of Taiwan.