Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Lien In China

"For Beijing, Lien's visit was an opportunity to show a friendly face and perhaps soften the anger created by its passage last month of an anti-secession bill that codified into law a longstanding threat to use force if necessary to prevent Taiwan from gaining formal independence. In that light, China's controlled media treated the visit as a major event, broadcasting the arrival live and splashing news of his plans on the front pages of the government-controlled press."

I just got done watching the TV reports of the riots (no other word) at the airport on Lien Chan's departure. The footage evoked a rather confused cocktail of emotions. I have a visceral dislike of mobs, and the sight of a middle aged (KMT) man prone on the ground being being kicked senseless by feral TSU demonstrators was repellent. The rest of what I just saw on TV was hardly more edifying. Then came the sight of Lien getting the red carpet treatment in Nanjing, worthy of a head of state, and I sure wanted to kick something.

Lee Teng Hui yesterday attacked not only the pan-Blues, but the DPP, calling them "liars" for their cautious stance on the Lien trip. Lee's criticisms of Chen often ring hollow, given that Lee himself held the position of President and tacked a far more moderate course than he has in retirement. Fact is, Taiwan is a small country, and for the forseeable future there is going to be a gap between what a Taiwanese President desires in his heart and what is doable on the ground. I don't believe the disagreement between the two is choreographed, but I think between Chen's statesmanlike caution and Lee's fury they just about get it right.

To understand why Lien's trip is so devious, it's important to keep in mind that he has never recognized the legitimacy of the 2004 election that he lost to Chen. Even in their eleven minute phone conversation between the men prior to the trip, Lien was careful not to refer to Chen by the title "President." This has continued even after the court system has delivered a verdict that Lien's claim that the pre-election assasination attempt was staged was without merit. Democracy is not just about holding elections. It is about respecting the results of the elections, respecting rule of law, and respecting the adjudication of the courts on disputes. The High Holy Day of democracies isn't necessarily when the people go to vote, but when the loser in the election validates the process by conceding. Lien's trip takes place in the context of his rejection of this basic democratic requirement. He is being treated as the leader of a local territory paying tribute to the central government; he is acknowledging Hu Jintao's legitimacy as President of China, even while he has withheld that acknowledgement from the elected President of Taiwan. It is perfectly insidious.

One thing that came across clearly in the TV reports was just how much "face" Lien is being given by the Chinese. It seems to me that this is not only about Lien's vanity, but an essential career move for him to stave off irrelevance. The time has clearly come for him to step aside and make way for the new generation in his party - Ma Ying Jeou and Wang Jin Ping. He's had two opportunities and lost twice. This is his last chance at making history, of moving on the big stage that he sees as his entitlement. This photo particularly struck me. If history teaches us anything, it is that the very worst possible way to try to bring about peace is to enter into negotiations with an adversary that is threatening you carrying a large sign reading "PEACE." Chen is correct to wait until Lien does the deed. But Lee's people are right, as well.