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Taiwan elections: US must show respect for self-determination

As Taiwan presidential elections approach Jan. 14, the US has shown a preference for incumbent Ma Ying-jeou – who says he can work with China. The US should set aside wishful thinking about unification and respect the right of Taiwanese to decide their own future.

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Their history is different from that of the “mainlander” Chinese who moved to Taiwan after World War II and today still represent only 10 to 15 percent of the population. Over the centuries, the Taiwanese have been ruled by the Dutch, Spanish, French, the Qing Dynasty of China, the Japanese, and – after the Cairo Declaration assigned Taiwan to China during the war –  the KMT party.

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Not until 1987, when martial law was lifted, could the Taiwanese even begin to engage in the basic activities of democracy and self-determination.

We have followed Taiwan since the 1960s, having lived there for 15 years between us, ridden the trains and buses, and pedaled bicycles around the country, albeit years apart.

The Taiwanese nation that we have witnessed is a dramatic example of economic, political, and social evolution. Its people have built the quintessential “economic miracle.” As successes mounted, they jettisoned the Nationalists’ statist economic model, which fed inefficiency and corruption, in favor of a vibrant, increasingly socially responsible one.

In politics, the Taiwanese feel that, in addition to building a democratic culture, they have worked hard to coexist with the Chinese among them and across the Taiwan Strait. Except in isolated incidents in the aftermath of the “2-28 Massacre” in 1947, in which thousands of Taiwanese died, the mainlanders have never been attacked or even harassed. The Taiwanese have voted for mainlanders, including President Ma, when they campaigned on pro-Taiwan platforms.

This is the pattern for Taiwanese – humiliation to which they respond with patience. In a remote hamlet of eastern Taiwan in 1968 with no inns, a Taiwanese family offered an American cyclist a bed for the night, but the police said the foreigner had to leave – until a mainlander next door volunteered to take him in. The Taiwanese family was deeply embarrassed, but they gracefully gave way to the mainlanders.

Taiwanese children punished for speaking their native tongues  in school have over time accepted Chinese as the official national language. When the deadly SARS virus spread to Taiwan from China in 2003, and China blocked Taiwan’s participation in international meetings about it, the humiliation was profound. But Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian channeled all energy into overcoming the crisis.

The cultural symbols of the Taiwanese remain the yam and the water buffalo – not the Chinese dragon or Japanese rising sun. The people of Taiwan are not out to make the world in their image, but simply ask the world to let them be themselves in peace and freedom.

This national character translates into cautious policies. Even Taiwanese who dream of recognized independence settle for the status quo. Then-President Chen, a Taiwanese whom Beijing and Washington cast as a troublemaker in cross-strait ties, was actually very cautious.

During his presidency, car license plates still had the words “Taiwan Province” – preserving the myth that the island is a province of China. Such timidity also explains why Taiwan’s official name remains “Republic of China” and its biggest airline is “China Airlines.” The Taiwanese have not upset the apple cart; they’ve actually filled it with more red apples.


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