Beijing did not disappoint following the death of former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) on July 30, at the age of 97. The passing of the politician—who ushered in an era of democracy in Taiwan and fathered the “two-state theory” (兩國論) for Taiwan and China—was a moment of great sadness for the people of Taiwan. Yet across the Taiwan Strait, Lee was a much-reviled figure, whose participation in Taiwanese politics both in and out of government was seen as a driving force behind what Beijing regards as “separatism.”
No sooner had condolences from around the world begun coming in than China’s foreign ministry felt compelled to repeat its usual platitudes and warnings. Following a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Wang Wenbin (汪文斌), a spokesman at the foreign ministry in Beijing, asserted at a press conference that “we have taken note of the statement. Taiwan secessionism is a dead end, and the reunification [sic] and national rejuvenation of China is the trend of history, which is unstoppable to any individual or force.” He continued: “We urge the relevant countries to uphold the ‘One-China Principle’ (一中原则) to cautiously handle the matters about Taiwan, and not to send wrong information to Taiwan separatist forces.” This is a misleading statement, given that most states have their own “One-China Policy” (一中政策) and do not abide by Beijing’s so-called “One-China Principle.”
In an editorial published on the day after Lee’s death, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tabloidesque mouthpiece the Global Times referred to the former president as the “godfather of Taiwan secessionism,” adding that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would likely seek to “capitalize” on his death to promote its political agenda while deepening ties with “enemies” of China, such as Japan and the Trump administration.
The editorial epitomizes everything that is wrong with the CCP’s perceptions of Taiwan, and shows us why a negotiated resolution to the longstanding conflict, along lines which would be acceptable to both sides, will remain elusive as long as the current leadership in Beijing is in charge.
In the article, the Times almost immediately launches a tirade against Lee. It accuses him of denying his Chinese identity, which was “heavily criticized by Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” The sobriquet “godfather of Taiwan secessionism,” meanwhile, is due to his “flattering attitude toward Japan.” Kinship with Japan, therefore, is tantamount to support for Taiwanese independence in the eyes of the CCP.
To support its argument, the Times then extensively quotes Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), a professor at the National Taiwan University and a reliably pro-Beijing voice in Taiwan. In the very sentence introducing Chang, the paper describes him as a member of the “pro-reunification Kuomintang,” which mischaracterizes the nature of the party today. Years of localization, democratic development in Taiwan, and markedly different paths taken by the countries on both sides of the Taiwan Strait—all legacies of the Lee era—have forced the KMT to adjust its policies so as to better reflect public expectations. For reasons that probably have much to do with the CCP’s need to deny the very possibility of alternatives to its despotic rule, Beijing cannot openly admit that the KMT may no longer be a party that is committed to “reunification.” While there are undoubtedly some elements within it, particularly the old guard, that remain attached to the idea of a union of some sort at some point, the idea that the mainstream KMT is “pro-reunification”—and that it favors unification on Beijing’s terms (no other terms are possible at the moment)—is a gross mischaracterization of the party’s modern ideology. Indeed, the KMT has become a party whose current leadership now questions the viability and usefulness of the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) and which has stated that the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula for “reunification” offered by Beijing is unacceptable to the Taiwanese. And for all its faults and past crimes, the KMT has largely internalized the rules of democracy, in that it has respected electoral outcomes and is committed to fielding candidates in that democratic contest. Furthermore, in describing the KMT as “pro-reunification,” the Times was contradicting some of the key thinkers in China, who in recent years have bemoaned the KMT’s lack of commitment to collaborating with the CCP on “reunification.” Whatever the reason for mischaracterizing the nature of the KMT, the Times (and the CCP, presumably) is creating false expectations and maintaining the illusion that only a small number of people (i.e., the DPP and its allies abroad) are committed to “separatism.” Logic follows that, once such people are gotten rid of, there should no longer be any obstacles to “reunification” and the “great rejuvenation” of China—Xi Jinping’s (習近平) aspiration. What the Times provides is a lie, a version of the KMT that hasn’t existed for decades.
The Times then fires its next salvo, arguing that Lee’s “separatist tendencies in the 1990s almost caused a military conflict between the mainland and the island [sic], after he broke with the “1992 Consensus” and the “One-China Principle” to promote separatism for the island.” There is a great deal that is downright wrong with that sentence. First and foremost, it wasn’t Lee who almost caused military conflict in 1995-6. Rather, it was Beijing, which used provocative military exercises to warn Lee against giving a talk in the United States and, the following year, to influence Taiwan’s first direct presidential election (the latter effort backfired and helped Lee win the election by a wide margin, forcing Beijing to rethink the value of military coercion and to refrain from resorting to this type of behavior until very recently). The notion that Lee broke with the “1992 Consensus” is a naked act of revisionism, given that the alleged consensus—which Lee never recognized—wasn’t until 2000, by Su Chi (蘇起), a KMT politician, and had never been a variable in cross-Strait negotiations until Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) became president in 2008.
In his reliably pro-Beijing fashion, Professor Chang Ya-chung then hits all the standard tropes in his attack—again in the same article—on Lee and the democracy he helped build. “The West praised Lee for transforming the island into a democracy, but don’t know [sic] that the democracy built by Lee is based on dividing the local people in Taiwan and people from the mainland [sic] who have been living on the island since 1949, when the KMT authority was defeated by the Communist Party of China, and retreated to Taiwan.” Chang, who lives in a democracy, evidently doesn’t understand that democracy doesn’t compel, but rather provides options. What Lee gave the people of Taiwan is the ability to choose for themselves. And today, more than 90 percent of the people in Taiwan—including large numbers of people who vote for the KMT—choose either the “status quo” (de facto independence) or de jure independence. Lee’s leadership may have encouraged that trend, but it never came at the end of a barrel of a gun, or under the tracks of a tank—a far cry from what Beijing imposes on its own people.
Chang then adds that another “cost” of Lee’s “democracy”—the latter quotes are the Times’—in Taiwan was corruption. “Lee started to engage with the local forces in power-for-money deals to increase localism and separatism,” he argued, adding that “these are the evil facts hidden behind the ‘democracy’ Lee established on the island.” Although corruption does occur in Taiwan, the notion that it was the result of “Lee’s democracy”—or democracy in general—is downright false. One need only look at the astounding amount of corruption that exists in China, which Xi has vowed to root out. Decades of CCP rule in China have resulted in levels of corruption that Taiwan cannot even approach. Surely, then, Lee’s democracy is not the cause of whatever corruption exists in Taiwan.
In his closing remarks, Chang then states that following the announcement of Lee’s passing, “people in Taiwan were divided […]. Why some are celebrating and some others [are] praising him […] is a proof of the dividing society that he created.” Some people indeed celebrated. A group of people set off firecrackers outside Taipei Veterans General Hospital when his death was announced. And others, like the marginal pro-unification New Party’s Wang Ping-chung (王炳忠), welcomed the news (“Finally!”). What Chang and his friends back in Beijing, ostensibly, don’t get is the fact that Lee didn’t divide; what he did was allow people to express themselves freely. He gave them the freedom to support him, to oppose him, and to resent him, even to the extent that they would celebrate his death. For all its power, the CCP doesn’t even have the confidence to allow its subjects to criticize it.
This is proof—if proof ever was needed—that Lee was more powerful a figure than any of the CCP leaders who have used censors, law enforcement, paramilitary agencies, the courts, gangsters, proxies, tanks, and armored personnel carriers to silence, disappear, and crush their critics.
The main point: The Chinese Communist Party could not remain silent on the passing of its nemesis, Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui. Its response highlighted everything that Beijing gets wrong about Taiwan.