Commentary / Japan

Taiwan's democracy is worth defending

by Shaun O'dwyer

It was one of the less publicized international campaigns of support for Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Three days after the disaster, the government of Taiwan pledged ¥300 million in aid to Japan; Taiwanese citizens quickly followed up with a fundraising drive for the Tohoku disaster zone, revealing the depth of affection many have for Japan.

Nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, celebrities, companies, schools and private individuals raised over ¥20 billion by December, making Taiwan the leading donor state. One beneficiary of Taiwan’s generosity was the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku, which lost its hospital and 65 patients to the devastation. A ¥2.2 billion donation funded the construction of a new facility in 2015.

In a pattern that the Taiwanese are well familiar with, the then Democratic Party of Japan government adhered strictly to the country’s “One China” diplomatic protocol in its response to Taiwan’s generosity, most likely out of fear of provoking Beijing’s ire. An official letter of thanks from the Japanese government to donor nations published in international newspapers snubbed Taiwan, and Taiwanese officials were not invited to a national Tohoku disaster memorial service, upsetting survivors in Tohoku and angering other Japanese citizens.

The DPJ had a chance to make amends once it appointed Renho as its opposition party leader in 2016. A veteran Diet member and a child of Taiwanese and Japanese parents, Renho has long promoted closer Japanese ties with Taiwan. However, the Liberal Democratic Party government cynically exploited doubts about her citizenship status to undermine her party leadership, a campaign that contributed to her resignation in October 2017.

So in the past few years it has fallen on the conservative LDP government to pursue bilateral ties with the progressive government of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, much as it did with the Kuomintang regime decades ago. The ironic twists and turns of Taiwan’s relations with conservative governments in Japan are worth considering to get a better understanding of present-day relations. But there are also strong reasons why political progressives in Japan and elsewhere should express more solidarity with the Taiwanese people.

When President Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan with other Republic of China regime officials and refugees following their defeat by Mao Zedong’s communist armies in 1949, they had every reason to feel bitterness toward Japan. The Sino-Japanese War, provoked by Japan’s armed forces in 1937, had not only devastated China — inflicting a death toll of around 20 million by 1945 — it also decisively weakened the Kuomintang’s ability to defend itself against the Communists, easing the way to their ultimate victory in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The Kuomintang worked assiduously (if unsuccessfully) to sinicize Taiwan after 1945, and this meant repressing aboriginal Taiwanese cultures and combating the residual influences, and allegiances, of a half century of Japanese colonial rule. But pragmatism and a shared hostility to communism overrode wartime resentments, facilitating closer relations with Japan’s postwar LDP governments.

There were some odd ideological affinities that also motivated early gestures of reconciliation. Masahiro Yasuoka, a Japanese Confucian philosopher, political adviser and advocate of a misguidedly idealistic “kingly way” doctrine for Japan’s moralized rule over Asia, found an unexpected postwar savior in Chiang. In late 1945, Chiang lobbied the United States to have Yasuoka removed from a list of war crimes suspects, stating that “it was completely mistaken to implicate such a profound thinker in war crimes.” Like other conservative Japanese intellectuals, Yasuoka was a supporter of Taiwan, and he would have been pleased to see Chiang’s Kuomintang regime impose Confucian education in postwar Taiwanese schools.

On their side, many conservative Japanese legislators felt a close connection to Taiwan through their rose-tinted memories of the colonial era, and saw in it a trade partner and geopolitical ally. Together with Japanese businesses they promoted strong investment in the rapidly industrializing postwar Taiwanese economy. But a decade before U.S. President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with Communist China in 1972, there were already factions in the LDP that advocated diplomatic recognition of the PRC.

After Japan withdrew its recognition of the Republic of China as the sole government of China in 1972 and shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC, trade, business investment, civil society ties and informal diplomatic contact continued between Japan and Taiwan. Yet from the 1980s onward, the democratization movement in Taiwan wrought profound transformations in its political culture.

Prodemocracy organizations promoted a Taiwanized cultural nationalism in reaction against the sinicizing ideology that they associated with decades of Kuomintang repression. The prodemocracy movement also boosted the spread of feminist, gay and lesbian, and environmentalist activism, even as that same activism languished in Japan.

Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party and its loose coalition of liberal and centrist “Pan-Green” parties are the legatees of this movement. Finding their support among younger Taiwanese, these parties advocate greater autonomy or even a declaration of independence from China, based on affirmations of a distinct Taiwanese identity and liberal-democratic values. Their governments have also worked to dismantle China-centered and Confucian ideological education in schools.

For its part, the Kuomintang peacefully surrendered its autocratic power to participate in a multiparty democracy. It adjusted its policy vision accordingly, with sometimes discordant results. It opposes independence from China and any reunification detrimental to Taiwan’s interests, but has struggled to articulate its vision of the “One China” doctrine without alienating Taiwanese voters fearful of China. It is committed to greater Chinese national-cultural unity and to closer economic integration with China. This is a policy supported by influential business organizations and some urban voters, but opposed by many other Taiwanese.

All these changes have mattered little to Japan’s political class, which until recently was hedging between a “China opportunity” outlook pushing it toward greater economic and diplomatic engagement with China, and a “China threat” outlook on China’s illiberal and aggressive foreign policy, driving it toward closer relations with Taiwan. Following its U.S. ally, Japan is now favoring the second outlook. Amid growing geopolitical tensions with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is happy to do business with the feminist, pro-marriage equality Tsai.

Japanese and American progressives may recoil at this seeming triumph of pragmatism over principle — not without precedent in Japan-Taiwan relations, as we have seen. They may wince at the sight of Tsai negotiating an arms deal with Trump, at her praising Abe’s “strong affection for Taiwan” or at her calls for closer military security cooperation with Japan. If so, perhaps they should cultivate more sympathy for the isolated state on the front line of China’s projection of sharp power, which does not have the luxury of choosing its friends.

But that is not all. Taiwan long ago abandoned its status as an autocratic pawn in Cold War geopolitics. Under Tsai’s government it now has claim to be one of the most progressive of liberal democracies. It ranks highly for its political freedoms, while its civil society boasts diverse religious affiliations, robust trade union and migrant worker activism, numerous feminist organizations, and a gay and lesbian rights movement that has successfully campaigned for marriage equality. Currently 38 percent of Taiwan’s legislators are women, putting it well ahead of the U.S. and Japan, and it has had an efficient universal health care system in place since 1995.

In short, Taiwan’s political culture supports rights and freedoms that are under pressure in other liberal democracies and almost extinguished in China, where Hong Kong’s citizens are waging a desperate struggle to protect theirs. China is now increasing military threats to enforce its “One China” policy should Taiwan push for greater political autonomy or independence, and destabilizing its political system with United Front influence operations.

Ominously, misguided Chinese intellectuals are calling for a benevolent “kingly way” for China to project its moral leadership in Asia and the world. Perhaps China can achieve its geopolitical ambitions peacefully, or tolerate a continued “One China” status quo. Nevertheless, political progressives should still ask themselves what of their own cherished freedoms and values would be endangered if Taiwan fell to China’s sharp or military power — and what it will take to deter China from exerting that power.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University, and the author of the new book “Confucianism’s Prospects.”

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