It was two years ago that Tsai Ing-wen won a decisive victory in Taiwan’s Presidential elections, also garnering her Democratic Progressive Party’s first clear majority in the Legislative Yuan. This second achievement represented a goal that had eluded the party’s first President, Chen Shui-bian, during his eight years in office. The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) was utterly crushed, and following local elections the previous year that also bolstered the DPP’s standing throughout the island, it all seemed like smooth sailing.
Of course the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reacted in its typical curmudgeon-like manner, sending none-to-subtle warnings about the consequences if the next Taiwan leader failed to embrace its favored formula for cross-Strait relations—the amorphous “1992 Consensus.” Under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, this formula was seen by many as too accommodating to Beijing’s preferences concerning the development of cross-Strait ties, so for obvious political reasons, Tsai was not about to comply.
Fairly quickly after Tsai’s election, the flow of Chinese tourists to Taiwan began to drop, as did cross-Strait trade volume. PRC President Xi Jinping and his cross-Strait team hunkered down, hoping to bully Taipei into further concessions. Beijing could not have been pleased by the multiple signs that their favored KMT was in utter disarray. The longtime ruling party of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-guo suddenly found itself without experienced leadership and facing an utterly new and depressing future in Taiwan politics.
Many observers also expected a vigorous push by the PRC to strip Taiwan of its remaining diplomatic allies, mostly small states in the Pacific, Latin America, and Africa. In fact, the Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Panama did transfer its recognition over to China last year, but the other 20 remaining diplomatic missions remained in place. China made it impossible for Taiwan to attend the annual World Health Assembly gathering in Geneva the past two years. But, Taiwan continued to be an active participant in APEC, the ADB and other groupings to which it had long belonged.
In the nearly two years that President Tsai has been in office, the island’s economy slowed a bit, but much of this reflected the regional economic trend, rather than some direct result of cross-Strait developments. As this article is being written, Taiwan is still demonstrating respectable economic growth (2.4 percent for the year 2017, but a more robust 3.3 percent for the fourth quarter of 2017, according to The Economist’s figures on its March 13, 2018 edition. The same source reported 0.6 percent inflation in consumer prices, and unemployment rate of 3.7 percent as of the end of last year).
In February, much focus has been placed on the apparent initiative by Pope Francis to reconcile the Catholic Church with Beijing after nearly 70 years of estrangement. Following the 1949’s communist victory, all types of religions were systematically suppressed by the Mao Zedong, the militantly atheist first leader of the PRC.
I recall as a boy living in southern Taiwan, meeting priests and missionaries there who had fled China following the communist victory. Many of them had initially hoped to continue their work in China. But the onset of the Korean War in June, 1950 deepened Mao’s efforts to suppress all western influences in China, religious and otherwise. The father of one of my good friends back then, a Methodist priest, had fled to Taiwan via Hong Kong sometime in 1950.
Chinese believers of many faiths continued to worship quietly when they could, despite suffering great repression during the Maoist era. Considerably later, following measured liberalization of society under Deng Xiaoping, the communist regime in Beijing established state-run organizations to closely oversee all religious activities, as religion made something of a comeback. Yet, small pockets of resistance remained.
When I was covering internal political affairs at the US Embassy in Beijing during the early 1990s, I traveled extensively around China. When I could, I met with Christians, Muslims, and other believers, still practicing their faith as best as they could. I attended a few underground church gatherings in scattered locales around China, and met with the embattled underground priests struggling to serve their congregations.
I visited the Catholic Cathedral in Shanghai, for example, and met the clergy there. They were working under significant constraints, but still following their calling. As had been my experience working in the Soviet Union on an earlier assignment, many of the believers appeared to be older. Neverthless, they kept on coming up with each new generation.
I also met Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun (陳日君), the longtime head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. I later saw him regularly when I served as US Consul General to Hong Kong just a few years ago. Cardinal Zen was born in Shanghai, but fled to Hong Kong shortly after the communist victory in the mainland.
I was continually impressed by his abiding faith and indomitable spirit, in the face of so much turmoil in neighboring China. Cardinal Zen was also active in Hong Kong politics, advocating for greater respect for the territory’s autonomy from China and supporting calls for expanded democratization in the former British colony. Though he stepped down from his leadership role in the Hong Kong Catholic Church in 2009, replaced by Cardinal John Tong, still today while in his mid-eighties he remains a towering figure in Hong Kong society.
While serving in Taiwan, I had frequent exchanges with leaders of the Catholic Church there, as well as their diplomatic mission. The Vatican Embassy in Taiwan was not headed by an ambassador level representative from the Vatican (Apostolic Nuncio), but rather by a slightly less formal Chargé d’Affaires. I was told quite frankly that this decision was meant to signal the Vatican’s willingness to return to the mainland whenever the circumstances permitted.
This pragmatic policy has made sense from the perspective of Vatican politics. With estimates of up to 12 million Catholics worshiping in China, the dream of being able to return has always held great allure in Rome. So, I am not all that surprised to see stepped up efforts now to find a formula to mend the 67 year old breach between the Vatican and Beijing.
The only question will be the terms. Recent suggestions that Beijing may finally be prepared to bend a bit on the subject of appointment of bishops to the Vatican indicates a breakthrough could be in the offering.
To be honest, I find it mildly surprising that Taipei has been able to hold on to its remaining 20 diplomatic partners for so long. True, the Taiwan Government has been quite generous to these remaining ‘allies,’ with ample foreign assistance and favorable trade agreements. Ideology may play a role too, in some of the devotedly Catholic countries that retain embassies in Taipei.
I have respectfully told many of my Taiwanese friends that their most important partners continue to remain countries like the United States, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the EU and others. This is despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, since like Washington, these nations long ago shifted their diplomatic recognition across the Taiwan Strait for pragmatic reasons.
Relations across the board, from trade to tourism, investment to personal relationships, have continued to flourish in the absence of formal ties. But, I also understand the symbolism of these remaining formal diplomatic partners to the Taiwan government and its people.
Those with strong ties to the Vatican must surely be watching the minuet currently being played out between Rome and Beijing. China could replace much of the assistance currently lavished upon many of these small economies, if it decided to make this a priority.
But Taiwan can weather any such further storms. Its remarkably resilient democratic system, open society, and innovative economy, have allowed it to prosper now for decades, in the shadow of its huge neighbor 90 miles to the west. More even than Hong Kong or Singapore, Taiwan shows that a society that has been historically, ethnically, and culturally Chinese can flourish and become a modern, open and democratic nation. One can only wish that the PRC and its benighted leadership would be more open to this example just across the Taiwan Strait.
The main point: Despite Beijing’s continuing unhappiness with President Tsai, there has been little change in Taipei’s small stable diplomatic partners since she took office nearly two years ago. The Vatican may be seeking sufficient assurances of its continued ability to minister to Chinese believers to shift its mission, but it hasn’t happened yet. Overall, Tsai’s Taiwan continues to hold its own in both economic and political terms.