Taiwan elected its first female president, in defiance of China’s warning. Her toughest task: resisting pressure from Beijing.
‘Greater China’ is the term that refers to four autonomous political realities, the People’s Republic of China (having Beijing as capital); Hong Kong; Macao, and Taiwan (with Taipei as capital). Only the latter, between difficulties and challenges, managed to achieve freedom and democracy after a violent colonial rule. Taiwan’s democratic system, however, must deal with political pressure from Beijing. Last 16 January, Taiwan elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, 59 years old. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, built an unassailable lead over her closest rival, the Nationalist (KMT) candidate. The KMT had ruled the island since 1949 and lost power from 2000 to 2008, when it became the ruling party again.
Tsai Ing-wen comes from the south of Taiwan, an independist stronghold. She is the youngest of 11 children and received an international education, having studied in Britain and the USA. She is not married. Tsai narrowly lost her first bid for the presidency in 2012 , but she did not give up. She isn’t the first woman in Asia to be elected head of state, but she is the first to do so without being some kind of political legacy.
Tsai chose Chen Chien-jen as vice-president. He is also from the south and like the newly elected President he has grown up in a numerous and modest family. Chen Chien-jen, who is father of two daughters, is a famous and influential epidemiologist and member of the prestigious Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s premier research institution. He converted to Catholicism as an adult, and belongs to Taipei’s Holy Family Parish, where he plays an active role.
The Taiwan Strait
Tsai Ing-wen, like the Party she leads, is a pro-independence supporter. However, she has declared she intends to maintain the ‘status quo’, in order to avoid tensions with Beijing. This means that Taiwan will continue to have administrative autonomy, without formally declaring independence from China. But will Beijing accept a dialogue with the newly elected president, recognizing the will of the people of Taiwan? Or will China make every effort to boycott her success in the name of the nationalist ideology according to which ‘there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of it’?
The ‘Taiwan Strait’ is considered a dangerous point of tension which might threaten peace in the Asian Pacific and in the world. With the 1992 China-Taiwan peace agreement, both sides recognize there is ‘only one China’. However, this does not mean that this concept is interpreted in the same way by Beijing and Taipei. In the 1990’s, tensions escalated because of Chinese military exercises. Even today, China has thousands of missiles pointing towards Taiwan.
In 2005, the Chinese parliament approved a Taiwan anti-secession law that states. ‘In the event the Taiwan independence secessionist forces should not act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state should employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’.
The Relations with the Vatican
The relations with the Holy See are also another thorny issue. It is hard to say if the election of the new president of Taiwan along with the appointment of the vice-president, who is a devout Catholic, may better the relations with the Vatican.
China, for many years, has pleaded the Taiwan issue as an obstacle for closer ties with the Vatican. The Holy See in fact maintains its Apostolic nunciature in Taipei, which is represented by a ‘Chargé d’Affaires’. As a matter of fact, the main points of contention concern the freedom of the Church and the appointing of Catholic bishops in China.
The new Taiwan leadership is closer to the Catholic reality and it is watched with suspicion by the government of Beijing which fears that the change in Taiwan may spark and spread democratic aspirations in China too.
The current President Xi Jinping has launched a tough campaign against the contamination by ‘Western values’ such as freedom, human rights and democracy. However, Beijing may be interested in resuming ties with the Holy See in order to isolate Taiwan. Taiwan officials, in fact, believe China is trying to isolate their island by persuading Taiwan’s 24 remaining diplomatic allies to switch allegiance. Besides, due to the unresolved political conflict with China, Taiwan democracy is victim of a severe international isolation imposed by Beijing, which affects the political and cultural life as well as the sporting events. After centuries of several foreign military occupations, Taiwan is still forcibly isolated. The island is hostage of the Chinese nationalist ideology, which is powerful enough to prevent the world from tackling Taiwan’s reality and identity.
Hope for the Chinese nation
Taiwan is a democratic reality where human rights and religious freedom are respected. The island is a beacon of democracy to Asia and it has paved the way to hope for the future of the Chinese nation. In the other two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao, instead, democracy movements have lost steam. Macao, which historically played a key role in the evangelisation of East Asia, is now a small town monopolized by Chinese and international capitals invested in the gambling industry. Civil consciousness is anesthetized and this affects even the Catholic Church. The people of Hong Kong instead, strongly pushed for democratic reforms with protests, demonstrations and calls for greater democracy, the so- called ‘umbrella revolution’. But China wanted Hong Kong back at all costs. The ‘one country, two systems’ model, which was supposed to last at least fifty-years, failed after only eighteen.
The story of the missing publishers in Hong Kong, specialised in salacious books about the Communist party elite, was somehow the point of no return. Their books went like hot cakes and most of the buyers were tourists from China visiting Hong Kong. The five publishers were about to sell a new book, critical of the President Xi Jinping. Their abduction, to end up then in the hands of Chinese agents, is one the worst events a person can experience. People had always felt safe in Hong Kong so far. But now, major corporations and smaller business entrepreneurs are showing growing signs of unease about the changing climate in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government appears to have now considerably diminished autonomy and the central government liaison office seems to be strengthening its position. Hong Kong is becoming a conformist cultural desert. Only Beijing’s friends seem to have a smooth life and can assert themselves in the fields of media, education and politics.
The respect for human rights and religious freedom showed itself to be several steps back in China too. The crackdown on journalists, lawyers, and anybody who criticizes the regime continues. Even Christians are affected. A campaign, which has lasted for two years, has led to the demolition of more than a thousand crosses and numerous churches. This is why, in this scenario, the democracy of Taiwan and the personal stories of Tsai Ying-wen and Chen Chien-jen have a prophetic significance and spark hope for the whole Chinese nation. (J.L.)