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Chinese activist's independence remark shows nationalistic mentality

Publication Date : 28-06-2013


Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has been heaping praise on Taiwan's democracy and freedom during his ongoing visit to the island. He has described Taiwan's democracy as a “beacon lighting the way forward for the Chinese-speaking community”, and looked at the bright side of the brawls at the Legislature, describing them as a demonstration of freedom of speech.

But what is more controversial is a passing remark he made regarding Taiwan's independence movement.

Following a talk on Wednesday with Su Tseng-chang, chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chen told reporters that he respects the right to self-determination.

But he quickly added that he thinks the Taiwan independence movement is already “outdated”, and he went on to say that he supports the “one country, two systems” formula. China has put the formula into practice in Hong Kong and Macau, and has been trying to force it on Taiwan.

Chen did not specifically say that he wishes Taiwan would come under the “one country, two systems” rule. Chen's idea of the formula, as he elaborated, is rather radical.

The activist said China might as well allow southern China to have its own system if the people there desired a free and democratic society. The Chinese capital could continue its own system and the rest of the country could adopt a different one.

The liberal-minded Chinese dissident was apparently arguing that though differences and plurality must be tolerated and celebrated, the “one country” framework remains essential.

There are two levels to his remarks: on the human rights and democracy level, it is plurality that matters; but on a nationalistic level, the emphasis is on oneness, unity.

Liberal as he is, Chen thinks not much differently than most of the Chinese people and officials in terms of nationalism.

He did not explain why he thinks the Taiwan independence movement is a thing of the past, but we can safely infer that he was referring to the Taiwan issue exactly in terms of those two different levels: Taiwan is a beacon to others in terms of human rights and democracy; but on a nationalistic level, Taiwan should eventually return to the Chinese rule — hopefully a democratic one.

He believes in self-determination, but he does not believe that Taiwan's people would support independence.

How far is he willing to go in support of self-determination? Does he support the independence movements in Tibet or Xinjiang — two regions of major unrests in China?

Of course, inside the DPP camp, we have also heard key members saying that Taiwan independence is at an impasse. They are not supporting Chinese nationalism, but simply resigned to the fact that Chinese nationalism is so strong that Beijing is never going to allow Taiwan to break free permanently.

The chance of Beijing letting Taiwan go grows dimmer as China grows stronger, militarily and economically.

We are not trying to discredit Chen for his fight for freedom and democracy, merely pointing out that when such a liberal-minded activist like Chen also frames his thinking within a “big China” mentality, Taiwan independence stands little chance.

Self-determination is a right that China will never let Taiwan exercise even if it became democratically ruled, because the implications are too big. The people in Tibet and Xinjiang would ask for the same.

For Chen, self-determination may simply mean the decision to adopt a different political system under the “one China, two systems” framework. Any part of China may operate under a different system, as long as it remains in the country.

That is China's bottom line, and that is what the pro-independence camp in Taiwan has to deal with when searching for new strategies for cross-strait ties.


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