Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Future of China, as Seen from Taiwan (and Tibet, and Xinjiang, and....)

My last post was read (I am happy to note) by a number of critical eyes across the blogosphere, particularly Michael Turton in The View from Taiwan. I do not have many objections to Michael's perspective, except that he seems to be arguing against a case I did not make. My purpose was never to argue for the naturalness or even desirability of reunification with mainland China for the people of Taiwan, my post was commenting exclusively on the effect that cross-Strait interaction is likely to have on the political culture of China. In particular, I would not contradict Michael's assertion that-

"[E]ven China becoming a democracy would [not] entice Taiwan into the Chinese political embrace. One, and only one thing will create 'peaceful' union between China and Taiwan: the Taiwanese belief that China is willing to commit murder and mayhem on an island-wide scale, coupled with the calculation that they are unwilling to accept such destruction in exchange for their independence, that will cause them to pack up their tents and set out the white flag."

I would only add to Michael's observation that a)the Taiwanese people are not wrong in their belief that China is willing to commit murder and mayhem on an island-wide scale; b)nothing, not even China becoming a democracy will decrease China's willingess to use extreme force to prevent formal Taiwanese independence.

I must underscore that I am speaking in a completely non-normative mode. I do not approve of China's willingness to use force against Taiwan. No amount of disapproval upon my part or anyone else's can change the brute fact of Chinese nationalism, however, or the political realities to which it gives rise. As I have stated in earlier posts, the deep-seated nationalist aspirations of the Chinese people preclude their ever accepting a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence. Even in a China that was fully democratic and in which the CCP no longer existed a Taiwanese declaration of independence could only lead to a cross-Strait war. No mainland Chinese government could survive the political firestorm that would follow acquiescence to such an event.

That being said, it is also true (as I clearly stated in my last post) that Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, and judiciary, its own body of civil and criminal law, and its own military for over 50 years. It is not reasonable to expect Taiwan, having enjoyed de facto sovereignty for so long, to revert to being a mere "province" of China. What then, is the way forward? The world (as world peace and prosperity do in many ways hinge upon peace in the Taiwan Strait) seems to be at an impasse.

There is one solution that, though it would require extraordinary forebearance and compromise to be effected, might at once both preserve the dignity of Taibei and resolve many of the structural impediments hobbling Beijing. As I stated in my last post, one of the chief difficulties China must overcome to preserve its stability and prosperity is the supercentralization of its internal political structure. Beijing can not exercise the kind of micromanagerial control relegated to it by the PRC system over the provinces of China, so that even as the Chinese economy expands its progress is retarded by ever-acclerating irrationality, inefficiency, and waste. Though large urban movements as occurred in 1989 have not recurred, local unrest is becoming ever more frequent and destructive in rural areas.

China's only hope of avoiding cataclysmic meltdown is to opt for an eventual program of decentralization. All of the provinces of China must ultimately enjoy a great deal of autonomy and independence from Beijing- even more autonomy than the 50 states of the U.S. do from Washington, as each province is geographically, socially, and demographically more complex than even the largest U.S. state. As this process of decentralization occurs (assuming for the moment that the best-case scenario arrives), the question of the non-provincial territory of the PRC (the so-called "autonomous regions") will naturally come into play.

Beijing is no more likely to ever grant Tibet, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang total independence than it is to Taiwan. Even so, it is not inconceivable that a reformed Chinese government might accede to a "bimodal" polity. In this scheme the 22 historical provinces of China would be fully integrated into a Chinese Federation. The autonomous regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia (Ningxia and Guangxi too, should they so desire) would be bound more loosely into a Greater Chinese Commonwealth. Commonwealth members would have many of the powers of sovereignty (thus the Dalai Lama could return to Tibet, Xinjiang could resolve its own policy toward Uighur language and Islam, etc.), they would only defer to Beijing on matters of foreign policy and defense.

If Taiwan were to join such a system as a Commonwealth member it could retain its own institutions and sovereign independence, and would benefit from the lowering of all logistical impediments to cross-Strait trade. This might seem like an impossibly optimistic scenario, but international trends such as that exemplified by the EU demonstrate that it is the downhill slope of history. A Greater Chinese Commonwealth is no more intrinsically unlikely than a European Union, it only seems so because where Europe had historically been artificially hyper-fragmented China has been artificially hyper-united. If despite centuries of destruction and hardship Europeans have finally moved toward a more rational reconciliation of disparate sovereignties, it is not too much to hope that China, whose suffering has been no less intense, might make an analogously rational move (albeit in, superficially at least, the opposite direction).

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Coming (Knock on Wood) Taiwanization of China

Speaking in Japan this week President Bush urged China to look to Taiwan as a model of political democratization. Though there are few occasions this is so, on this score the President and I agree. Taiwan gives the lie to any cultural-reductionist claims that democracy is incommensurate with Chinese civilization. When I first arrived in Taiwan as a student in 1987 martial law had just been lifted and the island was still a single-party state. Today Taiwan is among the most robust democracies on earth, a fundamental restructuring that was achieved despite profound diplomatic isolation and unrelenting intimidation from the Goliath across the Strait.

Though the success of the democratization of Taiwan is undeniable, the prospects for the "Taiwanization" of China are less than obvious. Within the first week of moving into the men's dormitory at Tunghai Univesity in 1987 I returned to my room to find that my American roommate Doug had been collared by a young student in the army officer's training corps who was earnestly delivering a sermon on cross-straits politics. He explained that the situation today was analogous to the days of the early Roman Empire. Though the Christians had been a tiny, persecuted minority then they eventually were able to convert the entire realm, and the people and government of Taiwan would transform China through a comparably subtle organic process.

Doug and I smirked. At the time it seemed like more of the patriotic pabulum dished out by Taiwanese leaders at state occasions, when speeches still regularly referred to the imminent day that the army would "retake the mainland." Taiwanese leaders no longer indulge in that kind of rhetorical bravado, but as Taiwan's political system and economy continue to thrive the picture that young officer painted looks less and less fantastic.

Taiwanization seems more and more likely at least in part because it is already under way. As China's economy has liberalized and cross-strait tensions have cooled (albeit incrementally) the PRC has become a major target of Taiwanese investment capital. At least a quarter of a million Taiwanese businessmen and women are resident in Shanghai, billions of Taiwanese dollars have built factories and office buildings across Southern China. Just as Taiwanese capital has flowed to China, mainland citizens have become increasingly enthusiastic consumers of Taiwanese products. Taiwanese pop music, movies, and snack foods have become ubiquitous in the PRC both north & south.

With such an ever-increasing volume of economic intercourse one can only wonder how long it can fail to slide over into the political realm, especially given that both governments remain, in name at least, dedicated to a policy of "eventual reunification." Indeed, such political intercourse has proven unavoidable. The PRC government particularly is in some respects hostage to its commitment to reunification, a condition clearly ilustrated by September's visit to Beijing by Taiwanese intellectual and parliamentarian Li Ao. Li Ao has been one of the most articulate and effective advocates of reunification on the Taiwanese political scene, a fact which no doubt inspired the PRC government to invite him as a state guest. One can only imagine their chagrin when in a speech at Beijing University Li launched into scathing critique of the anti-democratic nature of the PRC government and berated the school's faculty for lacking the courage to dissent.

The CCP fell victim to one of the enduring ironies of cross-strait politics- the constituency on Taiwan that is most ardently pro-unification is also most zealously anti-communist. Beijing's leaders cannot be ignorant of this fact or have had any doubts about Li Ao's political opinions- they must have been counting on some impulse to courteousy or political expendiency to ameliorate his tone. Li's audacity is not likely to slow the pace of political interchange across the Taiwan Strait, however, as the PRC government simply cannot afford to reject ties or relations with those in Taiwan who oppose what would for Beijing be a domestic political disaster, the spectre of Taiwanese independence.

Moreover, Taiwan presents a global model for China in more than internal structural terms. Taiwan demonstrates not only how successful democracy can be within a Chinese social and cultural context, it demonstrates how much more efficient ANY form of political and economic management can be if practiced on a scale smaller than that of the 1.25 billion Chinese citizens. Much of Taiwan's success is arguably attributable not only to more liberal political and economic policies, but to the greater efficiency that inheres when local interests on the provinical level have more autonomous control over their own fiscal policy and infrastructural development.

As impressive as economic growth has been on mainland China, there is little doubt that future progress (especially in critical areas like ecological management and equitable development) demands a relaxing of the supercentralization of the PRC political system. Many of the political and economic woes of the current regime stem from the same systemic forces that impeded and eroded the Chinese Empire- the fact that precious few institutional structures were in place to allow for the free expression of local interests or the reconciliation of conflicts between center and periphery. Though Beijing looks to a future in which Taiwan exists in the same relationship to itself as Hunan or Jiangsu, all China would arguably profit from a situation where those provinces' orientation toward Beijing grew closer to that of Taiwan.

Decentralization and democratization (two forces that must ultimately work in tandem) seem the only way forward if China hopes to preserve its prosperity and stability. In this respect the prospect of the "Taiwanization" of China grows even more likely. No structural change in the Beijing government will make reunification with Taiwan any less urgent an issue in cross-straits relations. Reunification is a nationalist vision which the ordinary citizens of mainland China cherish very ardently, and no amount of democratization or decentralization is likely to cool their feelings on that score. Given that fact, the likeliest scenario for reform in China is one in which Taiwanese political parties and Taiwan's government play a central role. This makes sense in pragmatic terms, as Taiwan is well-placed to provide the kind of expertise essential to this transition. Beijing might furthermore see real political advantage in welcoming Taiwanese participation, as it would be the clearest and most infallible route to defusing the cross-straits crisis. More flies are caught with honey, as the old adage goes, and the surest way to make reunification palatable to Taiwanese leaders and citizens would be to invite Taiwanese political parties to register voters and compete in elections on mainland China. Strange as it seems to contemplate, coming decades could potentially see a KMT or DPP president at the helm in Beijing.

This is of course a very optimistic scenario. Many, many things can and may go wrong to preclude such a happy outcome. Resistance on Taiwan to unification is never likely to be wholly overcome. Having had their own President and parliament it is difficult to imagine the Taiwanese people accepting return to the status of "province." This is not an insurmountable goal, though it is a question too large to treat here. Even given the many difficulties and contigencies, however, I feel confident that Beijing is not only well-advised but more likely than not to look toward Taiwan, and that the future will bring one form or another of "Taiwanization" to the political life of mainland China.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


President Bush yesterday accused Democrats in Congress of undermining the Iraq war effort by raising questions about how his administration used intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. This claim, wild on the face of it, is made doubly absurd in the wake of this week's bombings of hotels in Amman, Jordan. Where Bush would have us believe that, "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," events increasingly demonstrate that the Iraq conflict has entered a phase in which the tenor of American will is largely irrelevant.

Among many tragic facets of the brutal Amman attacks perhaps the most troubling is their provenance- they were planned in and executed from bases in Iraq. The Iraq conflict has thus finally afforded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi an asset he never possessed (or could have acquired) during the reign of Saddam Hussein, a platform in Iraq from which to launch attacks against targets in the broader Middle East. This despite more than two years of Coalition occupation, 220 billion dollars expended, and more than 2000 soldiers killed. If none of these efforts could prevent Zarqawi from achieving the strategic purchase he currently occupies, it is ridiculous to suggest that the griping of a few Congressman can make any difference to how the conflict evolves moving forward.

President Bush's speech is a familiar tactic for his administration, to go on the offensive in the face of criticism. Where this kind of audacity has served them well in the past, it seems ill-considered under the current circumstances. There is little likelihood that the teapot controversy being plumbed by Patrick Fitzgerald and implicating Scooter Libby will brew into anything with the dimensions of Watergate. It can never be proven legally that the administration set out purposely to deceive Congress or the public at large, and the time it would take to even approximate such a case would easily run out before the end of this lame duck presidency. It would thus seem prudent for the President to let this storm blow over rather than roiling the waters by launching an illogical partisan counter-attack.

One reason the President might have chosen this tack is because the administration is contemplating a further long-term extension of the Coalition occupation in Iraq. I give the administration enough credit for political savvy, however, to presume that they know this will not materially change public opinion about the war, as this is the one aspect of the Iraq policy where they have demonstrated clear judgment. The Bush White House knew all along that public support for the Iraq war was soft- this is why they engaged in the kind of political hijinks that have fed Scooter Libby to grand juries and special prosecutors. Whether a crime was committed is a moot point, but what cannot be denied is that the administration made every effort to circumvent a genuine open and critical debate about the Iraq invasion and its potential consequences before going to war. Why was this done? Because all polling showed that the American public was deeply ambivalent about the Iraq invasion, an ambivalency that would have been exacerbated by a clear and open enumeration of the complexities and dangers inherent in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The administration knew that a long, arduous political process would be required to build a genuine consensus, indeed that if real criticism of the policy's perils entered the political bloodstream support might collapse altogether and the moment to strike might be irredeemably lost. This is why the administration resorted to strong-arm tactics like the "Valerie Plame" outing to quickly quash dissent and preserve the fragile support for the Iraq conflict just long enough to launch the invasion itself, trusting that the quick success of the policy would preclude any close scrutiny of the tactics employed in pushing it to fruition.

The optimism of the Bush White House on the outcome of the conflict has of course been shown false. If US troop levels had receded to the 30,000 soldier occupation force anticipated in Defense Department post-invasion plans there is little doubt that Scooter Libby would never have gotten near a grand jury. Though the administration was completely misguided about the strategic trajectory of the conflict however, its own actions show it was always clear-eyed about the nature of US public opinion. It is thus difficult to imagine that the President's audacious speech yesterday was made in hope of rallying public opinion for a much further extended occupation of Iraq. American patience with the war has bottomed-out, a condition which the Bush administration helped foster by short-circuiting open debate about its dangers and complexities. President Bush can chastise Congress's scrutiny of the justification for war all he likes, but he and his officials know that it is precisely the rhetoric of WMD's and links to Al Qaeda that has left Americans confused and disenchanted with the conflict as it stands now. No amount of punditry or posturing can unring that bell.

So why, then, has the Bush White House chose to launch this attack? One can only hope that a different, more rational motive underlies this rhetoric. The strategic trajectory of the Iraq conflict has clearly moved beyond the control of the US military. At this point, even if we were to double the number of US soldiers in Iraq it is unlikely that the Coalition could dislodge Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his confederates from his base in Iraq, much less quell the other elements of the Iraqi insurgency that are home-grown. Once a constitutionally mandated government is elected in December, the utility of US forces toward the defeat of the insurgency will rapidly move toward the negative spectrum. The intrinsic conditions of Iraqi society do not favor the long-term survival of Zarqawi and his operation on Iraqi soil, if an effective Iraqi authority can emerge from December's election it will likely, over time, dislodge Zarqawi from Iraq. Though US forces will be needed to protect the nascent government as it sets new institutions in place and begins to govern, if the US military presence is not seen to quickly diminish in the wake of its taking power the new Iraqi govnernment will suffer a crippling loss of legitimacy and prestige.

The time is thus now right for a staged withdrawal of US forces to begin. This process will not be a politically pretty one- as US forces withdraw the level of violence will likely increase. Ultimately the Coalition will depart from an Iraq still in the grips of insurgency and civil war, and Zarqawi and his ilk will be able to crow triumphantly that he drove the "infidel" off of Muslim land. Their triumph will not endure, however, as in subsequent months or years, once Iraqis are forced to choose between wholly indigenous options, foreign agitators like Zarqawi will see their base of support erode beneath them.

George W. Bush and his advisors hopefully see this picture or something like it. At the very least one can hope that they see the domestic political prudence of a US withdrawal from Iraq in the face of mid-term elections. This new rhetorical offensive is thus (hopefully) laying the groundwork for that policy shift. Any politically embarrassing sound-bites coming out of Iraq in the midst of a Coalition withdrawal can now be blamed on the Democrats- "Zarqawi would never have remained as powerful as he is were it not for the partisan attacks of Congressional Democrats." As deeply cynical as such a strategy clearly is, if it has been embraced by the Bush administration it is at least a hopeful sign that they intend to move the Iraq policy in a more rational direction.