China's leaders may pursue a cross-strait unification with Taiwan, but will they go so far as to use force? Tommy Sheng Hao Chai writes.
Will China use force to reunify with Taiwan?
Why has Taiwan not passed marriage equality yet?
"In the face of love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” In a short 15-second campaign video, Tsai became a symbol of progressive change in a region tainted by repression of queer rights. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), later won the 2016 elections, taking the presidency and a majority in the legislature. Marriage equality was imminent.
But she failed. Last year, the DPP was unable to pass its marriage equality bill due to the fierce backlash from Taiwan’s Christian minority. The party looks set to repeat its mistakes this year, delaying the bill’s passage until 2018, or as some fear, 2019.
Seven months ago, the Taiwanese constitutional court found Taiwanese marriage law unconstitutional. The court chose not to immediately grant marriage equality, instead ordering the legislature to amend the law within two years. Failure to do so and the court will then finally abolish the law.
Yet, the DPP prioritised other legislation, squandering the “6-month golden window” to amend the law. The government promised to debate the marriage equality proposal during the current legislative period. But they have not announced the details of the bill, with many doubting it will be passed on time, if at all.
Debate over the bill centres on two proposals. Some legislators demand the government amend the civil code to grant all couples the same rights. Other legislators want a special law that allows for marriage equality, but does not grant equal rights.
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Tsai’s administration hinted that it may propose the latter bill. Writing on her Facebook page, Tsai said: “We are obligated to design a legal framework in line with the spirit of the grand justices’ interpretation, but we are also responsible for ensuring unity in society.”
A majority of Taiwanese support marriage equality. Yet, Taiwan’s Christian groups, who make up less than 5% of the island’s population, threatened to oust lawmakers who support the bill. Their bullying tanked the 2013 and 2016 attempts to bring marriage equality to Taiwan. The recent court ruling has not deterred them.
A Taipei lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, faces a recall campaign by Sun Chi-cheng, chairman of the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, a group opposed to marriage equality. Sun detests Huang’s support for amending the civil code, stating it will destroy Taiwanese family values.
Such pressure may explain Tsai’s lack of commitment to marriage equality. With local elections scheduled for late 2018, Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu suggests that if Tsai cannot pass the bill before January, the DDP will shelve it until 2019 to focus on campaigning.
Many believe Tsai will wait until May 2019, when the court’s ruling will strike down the law. While it would save her from Taiwan’s evangelical backlash, it would create logistical problems and further harm to Taiwan’s queer community.
If the law is struck down, many government offices will need to process marriage claims without clear guidelines. Hsu explains that “[t]he municipal registration office will not know what to do with their certificate and their IDs; hospitals will not know how to process them. A lot of contingency plans must be put in place.”
Meanwhile, the government will still deny queer couples marriage equality for the next 17 months. Some cannot afford to wait. The partner of Nelson Hu, a famous queer rights activist, is diagnosed with a rare form of hemangioma and could die. Hu has no legal say over his treatment.
Many in the queer community now feel betrayed by Tsai and the DPP. In an interview with the News Lens, Nelson Hu criticised the DPP for “[backtracking] on their promises”. Another disappointed couple lamented that “the politicians supported gay marriage as a way to win votes, but now it feels like we have been fooled.”
Desperate to avoid evangelical ire, Tsai may risk angering the queer community she sought to support. Hsu and commentators have urged the DPP to pass the bill by this session or to hold a special session in early 2018. The journey for many in the queer community to be treated as equal partners in society would be painfully prolonged otherwise.
3 minute readRead more
Lessons from Taiwan: The epicentre of East Asian rivalry
Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific congregated in Vietnam this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. As global political heavyweights gathered around the diplomatic roundtable in Da Nang, however, one placard may have seemed out of place.
Squeezed between household names like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe sat a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.
‘Chinese Taipei’ is the humiliating label for the largely unrecognized Island nation of Taiwan. This unofficial name printed on placards in front of an unfamiliar flag, flown by an unknown political representative - all echo a history of bloody civil conflict and divisive cold war politics. The fact that Taiwan even has a seat at the table however, tells a far subtler story of East Asian rivalry and grand strategy.
The true epicentre of the region’s seismic strategic relations, Taiwan represents a microcosm of East Asia’s major diplomatic challenges. How the nations of East Asia chose to handle Taiwan and where they are willing to compromise, provide a potential model for future regional relations in an era of impending strategic uncertainty.
The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan
The Cross Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei is one of jarring hostility and quiet cooperation.
Despite Beijing’s Peaceful Development Doctrine, a 2004 Official Statement from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that “If Taiwan leaders move recklessly to provoke incidences of Taiwan independence, the Chinese people will crush their schemes firmly and thoroughly at any cost.”
In the face of this major aversion to displays of Taiwanese Independence however, China has puzzlingly also permitted Taiwan to participate in a number of multilateral organisations such as APEC. While there are a handful of restrictions placed on this participation, Beijing has for the most part respected Taiwan’s role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.
This confusing strategic cognitive dissonance is intimately linked to Xi Jinping’s notion of the China Dream 中国梦. A political concept-cum-nationalist ideology, the China Dream is a push for national “rejuvenation”, attempting to redefine the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ and of Chinese nationhood to consolidate and galvanise Greater China under a single authority.
The Cross Strait relationship is the most transparent testing ground for this new strategy. Whether a peaceful slumber or an offensive nightmare, the pursuit of the China Dream in Taiwan will set the terms of engagement for China’s future relationship with its autonomous regions. The lessons learnt by Taiwan and its significant gains in economic autonomy provide practical utility to keen-eyed observers Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Japan and Taiwan
The nuance at the heart of Japan–Taiwan relations, as is often the case in Asia, arises from a legacy of colonialism.
Following a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japanese sovereign control. It was during this period of harsh treatment and widespread discrimination that Taiwanese intellectuals began calling on citizens to challenge the militaristic leadership and to purse modernity alongside mainland China. The very notion of an independent Taiwan only surfaced in opposition to Japanese Occupation.
When one examines the mood in Taiwan today however, this anti-Japanese strand of nationalism is almost non-existent.
Unlike other former Japanese colonial holdings like the Koreas, China, the Philippines and Malaysia, Taiwan seems to greet its colonial past with a degree of nostalgia and amity. While some literature has dismissed this as simply a by-product of elderly Taiwanese citizens sentimentally reflecting on their childhood memories, the trend of Japanese rapprochement is in fact an intergenerational one.
Japan has managed to recontexualise its colonial legacy with Taiwan into a story of shared democratic values, security concerns and opposition to an increasingly assertive Beijing. Japan’s unofficial diplomatic representatives in Taipei have, since the late 1990s, stressed the importance of the triangular security relationship between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan – a move which has time and time again been met with great public enthusiasm in Taiwan.
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Japan has also provided open support for Taiwanese participation as an observer in the World Health Organisation and was a key driving force in the decision to include ‘Chinese Taipei’ at APEC.
In order to continue to challenge the interests of a rising China, Japan will have to win over its former colonial holdings. Taiwan provides a model for reframing colonial contempt into a more positive and enduring relationship. The negative historical burden which still weighs on the Koreas and the Philippines represents a major roadblock to a strong unified region. If a regional-led containment policy to oppose China is a major aspect of Tokyo’s grand strategy, policy makers will be looking to the Taiwan case to inform bilateral relations in the coming decades.
The Republic of Korea and Taiwan
The South Korea – Taiwan relationship is a rarely addressed, but fascinating case study in political parallels. The key security concerns in both Taipei and Seoul are their rogue neighbours which present alternative governments that claim the ancestral homeland as their own.
North Korea is to South Korea, as Taiwan is to China.
This parallel complicates the triangular relationship between South Korea, China and Taiwan – three sizable economic forces which all benefit from economic cooperation.
Despite potential economic benefits, China frequently employs economic sanctions to coerce its neighbours. But no one is more familiar with Chinese sanctions than Taiwan.
In 2000, upon the election of its first pro-independence president, Taiwan incurred significant diplomatic and economic costs from Beijing – as many in the international community expected.
What was more surprising however, was Beijing’s response to the March 2008 election. Following the success of candidate Ying-jeou Ma, Beijing endorsed the new President’s more neutral cross-strait stance, lifting numerous sanctions for the first time in decades. Beijing abandoned its policy of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, permitted further multilateral autonomy and even looked the other way as Taiwan signed free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.
This behaviour demonstrated to international observers that China was no longer the spiteful, unwavering Cold War patron it was once considered. Chinese foreign policy had matured as it entered the 21st century – using economic and diplomatic coercion to both punish and reward behaviour in its sphere of influence. It is this maturity that South Korea needs to acknowledge as it shapes its own relationship with Beijing and Taipei.
Beijing’s decision to sanction Seoul earlier this year is less to do with broader relations and more so a response to specific policy issues. Beijing has signalled repetitively that it disapproves of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system installed in South Korea early last year. Heeding the lessons from the history of cross-strait sanctions, Seoul must think carefully about the risks of compromising Beijing’s strategic deterrent capabilities.
China’s sanctions must be understood as a redeemable act of economic coercion. Policy change has proven in the Taiwan case to motivate a rapid retraction of economic punishment.
Why bother with Taiwan?
When faced with the question – “why bother studying Taiwan?” - it is hard not to formulate an answer that comes across as patronising. Ultimately Taiwan is the junction of its region. It is has been occupied, bombed, sanctioned, unrecognised – but has always remained central. To understand East Asia’s major challenges, it always prudent to glance first at Taiwan and consider its potential as lens for viewing the region. After all, should push come to shove, and the superpowers of the regions begin to tussle – Taiwan will likely immerge as the seismic epicentre.
8 minute readRead more
Strait differences: attitudes towards same-gender rights in Taiwan and mainland China
On the 24th of May, the Taiwanese Constitutional Court invalided marriage law defining unions between a man and a woman. The court ordered the parliament to amend the law within two years, otherwise, same-gender couples will be allowed to marry under the current law.
Two days later, a popular lesbian dating app in Mainland China, Rela (热拉) was mysteriously shut down; following the earlier removal of another dating app, ZANK. This ties in with the government’s intolerance towards the LGBTIQA community, as it last year issued a ban on the portrayal of “abnormal” sexual relationships within Chinese media, lumping LGBTIQA relationships along with incest and sexual assault.
Despite their similar culture and heritage, both society’s attitudes are undeniably separate. Taiwan is home to a vibrant LGBTIQA community and there is a majority support for same-sex marriage within Taiwanese society. Mainland China, on the other hand, has only removed homosexuality off its official lists of mental disorders since 2001, let only only having legalised homosexuality in 1997. Homosexuality in China is still viewed as abnormal and conversion therapy clinics remain open within the country.
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Why do Taiwan and China view same-gender relationships so differently?
Following the fall of Taiwan’s authoritarian government, there was a commitment to push forward with democratisation with a strong rule of law and constitution. This promoted the growth of a progressive and active civil society with strong freedom of speech and assembly. In turn, LGBTIQA activism was encouraged to protest and argue lawfully for equal rights.
The Taiwanese government’s passage of the Gender Equity Education Act in 2004 has also assisted in promoting progressive values among Taiwanese society, as the act instructs schools to teach students the importance of gender equity and diversity.
Taiwan also lacks a strong religious resistance, as over two-thirds of its society adhere to Buddhist or Taoist teachings, which hold no opinion over homosexual relations.
Mainland China, sadly, lacks Taiwan’s strong rule of law and civil freedoms which make LGBTIQA activism possible. Not being allowed to properly inform the public and push for better LGBTIQA rights, these activists suffer under the threat of arrest or harassment.
This is not the only reason why Mainland Chinese attitudes towards the LGBTIQA community differ. Within China, there is a strong emphasis on continuing the families bloodline and reputation — especially considering after-effect pressures of the former one-child policy. Many gay Chinese men feel forced to marry into sham marriages to satisfy their families. In 2012, these cases ignited public debate after a professor committed suicide after finding out her husband was gay.
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In 2016, Peking University published a survey, Being LGBTI in China, looking at social attitudes towards the LGBTI community. It which found “[f]amilies have the lowest degree of acceptance for [sexual] minorities.” The survey also found 35% of Chinese born before the 1960s “cannot accept my children as any [sexual] minority”. Looking at these results, it is no surprise many feel compelled to be pushed into these marriages rather than risk being disowned by their family.
But there is hope for change.
Many Chinese millennials are far more open towards same-sex relationships. Social media that they use has helped LGBTIQA activists fight for equal rights online. Many millennials are also willing to fight back, as was felt in a landmark win for the Chinese trans community as a transman won a wrongful dismissal case earlier this year.
Sociologist and prominent LGBTIQA activist Li Yinhe (李银河) argues that because of the lack of religious pressure within the country, the only resistance towards same-sex marriage is current culture. In a New York Times interview, Li further argues “real change will only come once this generation of leaders dies out”. Li’s argument may have merit, as the Peking University survey finds many Chinese under 35 support gay marriage. At the same time, The Economist finds the average age of China’s legislators to be 49.
Overall, there is hope for many LGBTIQA-identifying individuals in China — and the recent decision by the Taiwanese Constitutional Court is advancing its cause. In another interview, Li states that critics of gay marriage have always claimed that it is a ‘western’ culture incompatible with Chinese culture. Taiwan’s ruling however, shows how a similar society has independently decided in favour of gay marriage. She concludes saying, “if Taiwan can, we can.”
4 minute readRead more
Tiger on a tightrope – Why Taiwan is called ‘Chinese Taipei’
Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific will congregate in Peru this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting. As the global political heavyweights gather around the diplomatic roundtable in Lima however, one placard may seem out of place.
Squeezed between household names like Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe will sit a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.
A name for a nation that does not exist, ‘Chinese Taipei’ is a political compromise. It’s a label for one of Asia’s four great ‘economic tigers’ that must perform a delicate balancing act to win the right for global recognition. The diplomatic status of ‘Chinese Taipei’ or Taiwan as it is more commonly known, is a quirk of history – a by-product of a 70 year-old civil war over the governance of Asia’s oldest superpower.
[caption id="attachment_5005" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Taiwanese politician Lien Chan greeting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the 2008 APEC Forum[/caption]
In the early hours of 10 December 1949, Communist troops laid siege to the final Nationalist stronghold in China – Chengdu. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Government, battered and bruised retreated to safety of Taiwan. The Nationalists however, much like the Communists, insisted that their government continued to represent all Chinese people, both on the island and the mainland.
While for much of the Cold War, most Western powers including Washington and Canberra recognised the administration operating in Taiwan as the legitimate government of ‘China’, it became apparent in the 1970s that the People’s Republic of China in Beijing posed greater economic and political utility in the fight against the Soviet Union.
And so, in 1971, representatives of Taipei walked out of the UN General Assembly, an organisation of which they were founding members, as Resolution 2758 was passed. It recognised the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”
The following decades saw a string of memorandums and communiques, with the United States promising to withdraw recognition and reduce the quantity of arms provided to Taiwan in exchange for an assurance from Beijing that Taiwan would be able to engage in capitalism and maintain a degree of autonomy – “one China, two systems” in the words of Deng Xiaoping.
But the China of the 1990s, undergoing turbulent economic and structural reforms, was ill-equipped to represent the diplomat and economic interests of a democratic, capitalist Tiger, eager to engage with the region.
The compromise was ‘Chinese Taipei’.
Taiwan would be permitted to participate in multilateral organizations, not on the basis of legal sovereignty, but on its role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.
The restrictions placed on this new ‘Chinese Taipei’ were not however limited to simply a humiliating name. A Memorandum of Understanding signed between China, Taiwan and APEC in 1991 significantly limited Taiwan’s space in the organisation, specifying that Taiwan is not permitted to send its President to the annual APEC economic leaders meeting or its Foreign Minister to the Ministerial Meetings.
Instead a strange diplomatic ritual has emerged, in which the APEC secretariat sends a special envoy to Taipei to deliver a letter of invitation to Taiwan’s President, who is then expected to politely decline. A second envoy then delivers an invitation to a candidate that has been both elected by the president and approved by the APEC host nation.
For a country with limited diplomatic means, the ability to appoint an APEC representative has become an unconventional but important tool for maintaining balance on the tightrope that is cross-strait relations.
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s newly elected president, has used the APEC candidate selection process to extend an olive branch to Beijing. Representing ‘Chinese Taipei’ in Peru later this month is James Soong, leader of the People First Party – a small pro-China, minor opposition party with only two seats in the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan.
[caption id="attachment_5035" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Leader of the Taiwanese People First Party and representative of Chinese Taipei to APEC 2016, James Soong[/caption]
Tsai’s election of a candidate with a strong pro-unification stance is a show of good faith from a president whose Democratic Progressive Party is viewed in Beijing as a major challenge to the existing status quo.
Pulled in two directions by an ever growing domestic desire for recognition and an intense pressure from its powerful neighbour, Taiwan must tread carefully. The Little Tiger of East Asia must exploit the abnormality of its peculiar political position, even if that means working under an unfamiliar banner to achieve its diplomatic objectives.
4 minute readRead more
Media Control in China: Zhao Wei and Weibo
Often when it comes to film all the drama plays out on the silver screen. Not so in China.
A recent controversy played out on Sina Weibo, regarding a romance directed by one of China’s most famous actresses Zhao Wei. It is a revealing and cautionary tale about how much control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has over the media.
Zhao has been forced to replace Taiwanese actor Leon Dai, and Japanese actress Mizuhara Kiko after finishing her new movie “No Other Love”, due to intense pressure on microblog site Weibo from both the public and Beijing.
Dai has a history of supporting Taiwan independence, while Kiko once visited Yasukuni shrine. Dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who fell in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the shrine has been condemned by the Chinese.
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Weibo is a Chinese Twitter-like social media site, and the hottest microblogging service currently is Sina Weibo– the original inventor of the platform. It has various powerful functions, allowing users to insert rich media. The word limit for a basic microblog is 140 words, but users can edit and post “Long Microblogs” with lengthy text and multiple pictures.
[caption id="attachment_4218" align="alignnone" width="1346"] A screenshot of a microblog, otherwise known as Weibo[/caption]
Netizens can speak relatively freely on Weibo. Besides memes, commercials, news and harmless personal daily records, people use it to call out immorality, crime, and to criticise the political system – exposing injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.
Of course, this freedom is not entirely without limitation. Sina can delete posts and comments if they contain illegal content, or “sensitive words/information” unwelcome to Beijing, or the company itself.
For years, microblogs have served as a highly-valued justice tool. In 2016, however, things have started to change. Although netizens often criticize the CCP’s strict media control, they have paid more attention to Sina since the Zhou Ziyu Event.
The Taiwanese female singer insisted that Taiwan be an independent nation during her appearances on Chinese television. Angered, the public took to Weibo to ask her to apologise for the remarks.
Throughout the incident, a popular view emerged that Sina’s executives, in fact, support Taiwan independence, as the system deleted countless posts and comments in which furious netizens urged Zhou to apologise. Mistrust was bred.
The Zhao Wei Event is a replica of Zhou’s, but more serious and complicated. The movie was partly-financed by Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce giant as well as a major shareholder of Sina.
Three months ago when Zhao announced the cast on Weibo, her fans immediately realised that such choices would be a hidden danger to both Zhao’s movie and reputation. They kept reminding or questioning her about this on her posts, only resulting in deletion by the actress and her company.
The situation was inflamed on 25 June when she posted a joint photo with Dai to celebrate the movie’s completion. More protests appeared, while Zhao’s company threatened to sue, and Sina prevented users searching for the ongoing drama by blocking keywords.
[caption id="attachment_4229" align="alignnone" width="690"] The joint photo of Dai and Zhao that led to great controversy[/caption]
On 6 July, there was an even more surprising plot twist – the Party began to interfere. The official account of the Communist Youth League, a key element of the CCP, posted a long detailed microblog about the incident.
Although it used the word “alleged” when presenting Dai’s history of supporting Taiwan independence, the end of the article “kindly” reminded the public of three other movies which he stars in and will be soon on screen, and directly mentioned Zhao.
“Everyone makes mistakes – what is crucial is that you should be aware of and correct them,” it wrote.
[caption id="attachment_4263" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The screenshot of the article posted by the Communist Youth League on Weibo[/caption]
Making matters worse, Sina deleted the post after only 10 minutes, which led to unprecedented fury. As more political accounts got involved in the incident, Zhao finally threw in the towel and now the movie is in post-production.
Territorial unity is China’s most important political topic and nationalism is a mainstream ideology. The country is particularly sensitive to Taiwan. It may be seen as self-ruling from an international point of view, but in China it is considered an inalienable part of the territory. Any remark about independence can be a serious political mistake – as highlighted in both the Zhou and Zhao events.
And such control will continue to be stricter in the visible future. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed in a national speech the necessity of media’s subordination to the Party’s will.
Outside forces like business and the market might make some change in China, but they will never win the fight for dominance. Big Brother rules, as always.
4 minute readRead more