Taiwan Is an Entirely Different Proposition

Hong Kong's 'one-country, two-systems' formula won't easily apply here, because the island has an elected government and voters will have to approve any reunification plan

Since the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in Hong Kong on July 1, the press has frequently asked: Does Taiwan now feel greater pressure to follow in Hong Kong's footsteps? Beijing's leaders have capitalized on such speculation, reiterating offers to work out a similar "one-country, two-systems" arrangement for Taiwan.

So, the logic goes, if it can work for Hong Kong, why not for Taiwan? But this seemingly straightforward reasoning contains a number of questionable assumptions. "One country, two systems" is an experiment without precedent. The people of Hong Kong were not party to the negotiations leading up to the Joint Accord of 1984. Great Britain handed over jurisdiction of a colony it had ruled as such. Whether this experiment will work is a question that can only be answered in the years to come.

Another implied assumption is that Taiwan and Hong Kong are analogous. While they share Chinese populations and both have historically been Chinese territory, Taiwan is not a colony as was Hong Kong, and the Republic of China's government on Taiwan has a popularly elected chief executive and parliament. Hong Kong enjoyed the latter only until midnight on June 30.

Political accountability

In fact, the people of Taiwan today enjoy a full democracy. Both their constitutional government and head of state have been freely elected and, thus, govern by popular consent. No statecraft sleight of hand like "one country, two systems" could preserve intact the high level of political accountability that the people of Taiwan have achieved.

In a democracy, the rule of law allows tolerance of diverse political views. The missile tests off Taiwan's shores last year before the direct presidential election underscored how badly Beijing misunderstands the democratic process. Such heavy-handed meddling in the election campaign was justified by the mainland regime as delivering a clear warning against declaring Taiwan's independence. Yet, that proved to be far from the minds of most Taiwanese voters. Opinion surveys have repeatedly verified that the electorate there affirms the status quo and supports continued cross-strait exchanges to build mutual trust. As Beijing has yet to learn, consensus in a democracy is achieved through a spirited exchange of political views, not military muscle-flexing.

Another implication of democratic government on Taiwan is that the people must have a voice in the decisionmaking process. No democratically elected government can govern without the consent of the people. And it certainly can't purport to bargain away the hard-won liberties and rights of its electorate without their approval, even to appease a powerful neighbor.

21.5 million voters

Negotiations over Hong Kong's future were conducted with a colonial government technically accountable to no one but the members of a distant British Parliament. The leaders in Beijing cannot be allowed to confuse this with a process of national reunification that must involve the consent of the 21.5 million people in Taiwan who elected their government.

The people of Taiwan have repeatedly affirmed through opinion surveys that their democratic rights are not negotiable. They have also indicated a desire for good relations with their fellow Chinese on the mainland. To that end, the ROC government is promoting exchange on a number of fronts and continues to call for a resumption of the dialogue so painstakingly undertaken before Beijing broke off talks in 1995.

The celebratory fireworks on July 1 lasted only a few hours and then died away. The most meaningful celebration would be for all Chinese to be able to commemorate the lasting attainment of democracy, freedom, and prosperity in every part of the historical Chinese nation.

Such an accomplishment will not take place in a single day or at a special ceremony. Rather, it will happen gradually, as leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait build on the promising foundation of exchanges begun in 1987. Given the nature of democracy, Taiwan's electorate will have to be an integral part of this process.

* David Tawei Lee is director general of the Government Information Office in Taipei, Taiwan.

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