Taiwan tweaks Beijing by welcoming one of China's worst critics

The visit of lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest in China, is a bit of a test for Taiwan's president, who has built his administration around better relations with the mainland.

Pichi Chuang/REUTERS
Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng answers a question during an interview with Reuters in Taipei June 24, 2013.

Taiwan, long overshadowed by political and military rival China, reasserted its individuality Monday by receiving one of Beijing’s worst critics, civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

The Chinese lawyer, who moved to the United States last year after escaping house arrest and reaching the US Embassy in Beijing, gave a number of pro-democratic Taiwan speeches on Monday, the first full day of his 18-day trip to advocate more freedoms and civil rights for Chinese people.

His series of speeches and meetings are expected to put a shine on democratic Taiwan by pointing out contrasting curbs on freedoms in Communist China. 

“Taiwan’s success with democratization shows that democracy isn’t some kind of so-called Western system in its origin, just one that was led by the West,” Mr. Chen told a news conference on the island that China claims as part of its own territory.

“Taiwan’s success with democracy has at the same time prompted authorities in China to say democracy isn’t of value and doesn’t suit the Chinese people,” the terse but animated activist said. “That lie has completely gone bankrupt.”

Legislators and officials in Taiwan’s chief opposition party, which advocates more distance between the island and China, are scheduled to meet Chen. The local human rights group organizing his visit says he will give a speech at the island’s top-ranked school, National Taiwan University.

“Burnishing its democratic credentials, Taiwan will be playing its most potent card for badly needed international visibility,” says William Sharp, author and professor at Hawaii Pacific University. “At the same time, it will step out of China’s shadow into the daylight of its own identity.”

Taiwan has grown closer to Beijing economically over the past five years under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's leadership. Some say President Ma has gotten too close. Still, he has spoken out in favor of democracy and human rights. 

Mr. Ma has not agreed to meet the activist, and the ruling party legislative speaker cancelled a meeting with him.

Chen’s visit follows his abrupt departure from New York University, a move he says was prompted by pressure from China but that the school calls the scheduled end of a one-year fellowship. Chen said he had not decided his next move but that an eventual return to China was inevitable.

China has not protested Chen’s visit to Taiwan, and analysts do not expect a public outcry unless he meets the president. The visit does not threaten Beijing’s territorial concerns or “core interests,” says Sean King, senior vice president with the political consulting firm Park Strategies in New York.

Beijing has claimed self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Mao Zedong’s Communists routed the Nationalists, who in turn fled to the island 160 kilometers (100 miles) away. Relations were icy for six decades.

China overshadows Taiwan today with its mammoth economy and global diplomatic clout, and urges its 170 allies to avoid formal ties with the island government.

But Taiwan and China have been careful about criticizing each other since they began talks in 2008, when Ma took office. The talks have established trade and investment ties along with a foundation that could lead eventually to a first-ever political discussion.

Chinese dissidents are also nothing new in Taiwan. Wu’er Kaixi, a prominent dissident from the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989, lives in Taipei, and fellow exiled 1989 leader Wang Dan teaches at a university on the island. 

“I somehow sense Chen Guangcheng won’t be a big issue,” says Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping is a person who believes in capturing the big and letting the small stuff go.” 

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