Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dr. Joseph Wu: Taiwan May Export Freedom

Compared to many countries in the world, Taiwan has an impressive economy. The country’s economy grew 4.6% in 2006, and it also has the world’s third-highest foreign currency reserves. In addition, less than 1% of Taiwan’s 23 million people live below the poverty line, and unemployment is about 3.9%.

However, the question mark is Taiwan’s growing dependence on China. Regardless of arguing if it is a bad or good thing, one major focus of debate in Taipei is about whether or not wealth and economic development will bring democracy to China.

China considers Taiwan a part of China rather than a sovereign country. Moreover, it has installed about 1,000 short-range missiles a little over 50 miles away across the Taiwan Strait, and it has even threatened war if Taiwan declares independence.

Meanwhile, Taiwan business—often guided by the profit principle rather than political ideals—has invested as much as $150 billion in China. At present, about 1 million Taiwanese—most of them are business people—live in China.

In the last two decades, Taiwan’s government has been trying to limit such investments, but the efforts are all in vain.

“It hasn’t worked,” said Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador to the United States—Taiwan does not have a formal diplomatic tie with the US, so Dr. Wu’s official title should be “Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” in Washington.

Dr. Wu, who got his doctorate in political science from Ohio State, has weighed the debate about economic growth and democracy throughout his career as a government official and academic. Now, he senses some changes are happening in China.

According to Dr. Wu, during the last couple of years, people have seen indications showing that the people in China desire to have more freedoms, such as freedoms of thought, speech, religion, and more economic freedom particularly. “There are a rising number of human rights lawyers in China, similar to Taiwan’s situation during the 1970s and 1980s. China might be on the verge of becoming more liberal politically, so economic growth might be the best tool to open things up,” Dr. Wu said.

Nevertheless, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which has Taiwan’s independence as its ultimate goal, wants to go slow with deepening economic ties to China. The Chinese authorities, instead, have been wooing the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and in so doing have created tensions between the DPP and KMT. The two sides will face off in a presidential election in 2008.

It is noteworthy that China will replace Canada by 2010 and become the largest trading partner of the United States. There is also an unsettled debate here in Washington over whether China should be seen as a strategic partner or a competitor of the US. The roots of the debate have the same flavor as Taiwan’s. In other words, it hinges on whether or not economic growth will bring democracy to the Mainland.

The question is existential for Taiwan and certainly has crucial implications for the US as well. Since late 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party has been trying hard to achieve rapid economic growth, while at the time surrendering little political power to its people. Some people worry that Chinese communism has found its path to permanence.

Dr. Wu suggested that we should wait a while longer. In his view, China deserves criticism for jailing religious dissidents, lawyers and journalists, doing too little to curb the Sudanese government’s barbarisms in Darfur as well as blocking Taiwan’s search for better economic and diplomatic ties with the world. “But, Chinese visitors from China go home impressed with the freedom and vigor of Taiwan’s democracy,” he said.

A patient Taiwan could wind up exporting something much more precious—namely democracy and freedom, Dr. Wu stressed.

(Excepts from The Dallas Morning News)

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