During the past three years, several anguished and rather melancholy ‘Democracy Field Notes’ tried to analyse the causes of the Greek crisis and the terrible pain and misery unfairly inflicted on many millions of Greek citizens by European austerity politics.
Overnight, as if the local deities had suddenly decided to offer lavish comforting gifts to poor, picked-upon Greece, things have changed. Votes are still being counted throughout the country, yet it now looks certain that the Syriza coalition, with its refusal of rule by austerity and commitment to revive the spirit and substance of democratic politics, is headed for a near-absolute majority of seats in the Greek parliament.
To capture something of the mood of the moment, I reproduce below a short exchange of text messages with a dear friend and trusted colleague, who was among many tens of thousands of Greek citizens who returned to Athens, especially to cast their ballots.
‘My dear John!’, began the exchange, just over a day ago. ‘I’m already in Athens catching up on sleep, social life, politics.’ She added: ‘Exciting times also full of apprehension.’ Then came a playful afterthought: ‘Is it ethical to bet on the electoral results?:-)’
I wrote back: ‘Kalimera! never mind the gambling. Plz just make sure that Samaras & Venizelos & Papandreou are thrown out into the streets. Michaloliakos & his [Golden Dawn] friends should of course stay put [in prison]’. I added: ‘the deities know the rest :-) & wise citizens know something else: not to invest great hopes in elections. I shall be thinking of you good luck!’
My friend replied instantly: ‘I know! and older people suggest it feels like 1981 all over again [when PASOK, led by Andreas Papandreou, won a landslide victory and formed the first socialist government in the history of Greece] but with more depressed spirits. Let’s see.’
A few seconds later, an image of Alexis Tsipras, about to cast his vote, looking jubilant, came through from Athens.
Then up jumped the moment of elation, this morning’s early breaking news. My friend bubbled with joy. ‘U know i’m kind of blasé and don’t hold much hope for Greece’s future’, she wrote, ‘but today’s voting experience was really a religious one. The hope and the trepidation. A special feeling. And the moment I was thinking exactly that the Sunday morning church bells next to my parents’ flat started to chime.'
My fumbling reply tried to capture the moment when millions of Greeks trapped in squalour suddenly acted in solidarity, to reclaim their stolen democratic rights: ‘Kalimera! It’s dawn here - and dawn in Athens :-) just watching every channel I can get my eyes on, with great excitement (& I confess some tears of joy) a thumping victory! perhaps even an outright majority! Tsipras is surely right’, I wrote. ‘Whatever happens hereon, this is an important moment of dignity (and 'democracy, solidarity and cooperation’, he said) when the people who were the first to suffer and suffered the most are now the vanguard of a real european alternative to the widespread prevailing misery'.
As for the strangely mystical feelings that sometimes grip democracies at the moment of sweet victory in a hard-fought free and fair election, I could think of just these few parting words. ‘Transcendence yes & little wonder the bell ringers struck @ your heart it is an unforgettable democratic moment congratulations, dear citizen!’
On the day I left for home after an extended research stay in Europe and the Persian Gulf, news broke of the terrible attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I suddenly felt sickened and shaken, but I was not surprised. A violent media event of this kind - calculated, cold-blooded, daringly simple and staged in the heartlands of the secular West, for a global audience - has been on the cards for some time.
The Paris violence is part of a wider pattern, the latest phase in a longer string of attacks that were misinterpreted by French politicians and journalists as the work of ‘lone wolf’ and ‘disturbed’ individuals. It’s worth remembering that in late December, in Dijon and Nantes, more than 20 citizens were injured when men drove vehicles into crowds of pedestrians. In Joué-lès-Tours, a 20-year-old Muslim man armed with a knife and shouting praise to God entered a police station and wounded three officers before another shot and killed him. Then the violence hit Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercasher supermarket near Porte de Vincennes. More attacks are surely on the way.
Making sense of the violence is imperative for citizens who care about our world. At a minimum, this requires a measure of detachment from the language of outrage and disapprobation that has swept through France and the rest of Europe during the past week. What the world has witnessed is without doubt savage acts of criminal violence. Barbaric they are. But, contrary to the prevailing media narratives, the acts of violence are neither simply ‘inhuman’ (as if ‘humanity’ has a perfect track record in the field of non-violence) nor best understood as an ‘attack against France’, as François Hollande and many politicians have chanted in recent days. Contrary to the dominant media narratives, the violent incidents are also not ‘lone wolf’ events. Nor is the violence to be understood in the terms of clinical medicine, as ‘jihadist cancer’, as Rupert Murdoch says, or as the work of mentally ‘unstable’ people, as the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has repeatedly claimed.
The barbarism of our times is different. It is political, and it must be understood as such, beginning with the chilling fact that what we are witnessing are acts of revenge by Muslim radicals angered by the rise of a new global bigotry: the fear and dread and despise of Islam. In many parts of the European Union, where more than 20 million Muslim people now dwell, Muslim baiting has become a popular sport. The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new anti-Semitism.
Most of my European Muslim friends and colleagues are disturbed and upset by the trend. They point out that rapturous praise of the sacred principle of freedom of expression – fiercely defended by French intellectuals in recent days – is regarded by most peace-loving Muslims as an alibi for insult. They accuse the champions of free speech of muddling the difference between speech that unsettles the powerful and speech that vilifies the powerless.
A careful genealogy of the principle shows that these Muslims are on to something. Think of John Milton’s insistence, in Areopagitica (1644) and other writings, that ‘the Turk upholds his Alcoran, by the prohibition of printing’, and therefore has no taste for liberty of the press. Then consider the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which discovered, to its cost, that liberty of the press is not just liberty of the press. There is no such thing as free speech without social consequences and political effects. And cartoons are not just cartoons. Parading as ‘free speech’, they can easily function as weapons of prejudice and denigration of the powerless.
Little wonder then that in 2012 much upset was triggered among European Muslims when Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, including one showing him lying naked on a bed, being filmed from behind, saying ‘My ass? And you love it, my ass?’ Pornography and brickbats of that kind cast doubt on the claim made by Philippe Val, former director of Charlie Hebdo, who told the BBC last week that the magazine was run by people ‘devoid of hate, of prejudice and was respectful of others’. That may be so - but many thinking European Muslims, for good reasons, don’t see things that way. For them, the doctrine of secularism, with its roots in the French Revolution, is an ideology of state power, just as it was throughout the period of European colonialism. For these same Muslims, the secularist insistence that ‘reasonable’ men and women must leave God not for other gods, but for no god, is a species of bigotry. It is a power move, an excuse to round on people of faith who refuse to let religiosity wither or be pushed away, into the obscurity of private life.
The Muslim rejection of secularism explains why French school officials who refuse to provide dinner alternatives to pork meat for Muslim pupils, or ‘kebabphobes’ who insist that ‘foreign’ grilled fast food is disappearing the baguette, are perceived by many Muslims as bigots: as hypocrites who pride themselves on ‘choice’ but dish out insult. Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe similarly feel insulted by the whipped-up controversies centred on the burqa and niqab and hijab and chador. They are dishonoured when people (who usually don’t know the difference among them) say these garments are incompatible with the modern way of life because they oppress women, whose weakness (oddly) makes them potentially dangerous accomplices of ‘terrorism’.
For most Muslims in Europe, even the most free-thinking among them, such talk is more than absurd, or weirdly contradictory. To them it smacks of political prejudice, which itself is the carrier of discourtesy. The resulting denigration produces a sense of felt humiliation. From here, they point out, revenge is just a few steps away. They are surely right, for when pushed to the limits, intimidation and humiliation can turn murderous. That’s a standard axiom of psychoanalysis, championed by respected practitioners such as James Gilligan and Adam Jukes, who have shown convincingly that vilification and disgrace are always the fuel of murderous acts. Murder is a crime, but it is rarely straightforwardly the un-political doing of ‘madmen’ or ‘crazy loners’.
Last week’s murderous violence is political in yet another sense. It’s a reminder that civil society and its rules of peaceful civility and the public embrace of difference are highly fragile constructions that have no historical guarantees. The Je suis Charlie solidarity rallies that have sprung up in France and elsewhere show that these precious civil society values are alive and kicking. But they also show just how gossamer-thin they are, especially when confronted by the darker sides of European civil societies, which are less than civil, not only in their maltreatment and humiliation of Muslims, but also in the way, through unregulated black markets and freedom of movement of people, they facilitate access to Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers, for just a few hundred euros.
War and Terror
Armed men dressed in black balaclavas are the new symbols of a shameful fact: the global light arms trade is potentially the killer of civil societies everywhere, in Ottawa, Sydney, Mumbai and Peshawar, and now in Paris. There’s another political fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. It may be unpopular to put things this way, but the bitter truth is that barbarism of the Paris kind is the poisonous fruit of the so-called war on terror. Just a few hours after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Bernard Cazeneuve, again quick off the blocks, said that the attacks confirmed the need for a widened ‘global war on terror’. A few days ago, at an ‘international meeting against terrorism’, he repeated the point: the ‘fight against terrorism’, he emphasised, requires a ‘global approach’. This way of thinking contains an inner flaw that is literally fatal. It stirs up feelings among many hundreds of millions of Muslims world-wide, for whom the war on terror includes American-led military violence of a frightening kind: drone attacks and B1-B strikes that kill innocent civilians, torture and humiliation at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, dragnet surveillance, support for brutal dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Put bluntly, the terrorism we witness is the twin of the war on terrorism. That’s why talk of a global war against terror should be refused, countered by the brave remark scripted by Sasha Baron Cohen in Borat (2006), a comedy film that says it well in just a few biting words: this permanent war on terror is more like a war of terror, drone-led hostilities that are experienced by many Muslims as an all-out war targeted at all Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Gaza or Cairo or Kabul, or Copenhagen, Hamburg or Paris.
There’s a final and much more depressing reason why the Paris attacks matter politically. The violence we witness represents a black swan moment when democratic values and institutions are being challenged frontally by the spread of militia thinking and militarised politics, into the heartlands of what was once known as the secular West.
The Cold War through which I lived my early years always felt strangely distant. Its gravest moment, the feverish Cuban nuclear missile crisis of October 1962, threatened planetary destruction, our way of life, but it did so from afar. Due to changes of weaponry and military tactics, and the advent of multi-media abundance, this new global war of terror is potentially everywhere. It feels as if it could swoop down onto any public space, any bus or train, or any business or public building, at any unexpected moment. The Paris events, we could say, confirm that wars of terror in faraway ‘foreign’ places are now coming home.
In responding to this trend, many French commentators have noted in recent days how the Paris murders are an assault on ‘democracy’. They are indeed, especially because the new barbarism robs innocent citizens of their lives and spreads fear and self-censorship throughout civil society. But the state antidote to violence is arguably just as threatening. Dawn police raids, red alerts and security checks are bad for democracy. So are helicopters hovering over our heads, troops on the streets, gun battles and, worst of all, the military siege mentality that is settling not just on Muslim minorities, but on the democratic rights of each and every citizen.
The way things are going, democracies in Europe and elsewhere will soon resemble garrison states. It must be noted that the trend sickens the stomachs of many European Muslims. From their point of view, the star of democracy no longer shines. Democracy means lying politicians like Tony Blair and double-standard hypocrisy (‘be kind to America’, reads one of my fridge magnets, a gift from a Muslim friend, ‘or else it will bring democracy to your country’). It stands for unemployment, job market discrimination, second-class citizenship, or no citizenship at all. Democracy is disappointment, a dismal affair, a codeword for Gaza, Libya, Syria and Iraq. At home, in Europe, it means hostile media coverage, street snubs, silence and suspicion, and growing state repression.
It is exactly this trend the hooded gunmen want to strengthen. Contrary to what has frequently been said during the past week, jihadi actions do not prove that ‘Islam’ is humourless or that Muslims have a genetic dislike of satire and frank speech. Equally misleading are the claims that the Paris attacks are symptoms of a ‘clash of civilisations’ or a regression to the ‘Middle Ages’ (Xavi Puig, co-founder of El Mundo Today). The substance and style of the new violence are thoroughly twenty-first century. Its key aim is strategic: it is designed to trigger tougher anti-terrorism laws, tighter surveillance, the militarisation of daily life, more Muslim baiting.
The point of the Muslim radicals is to accelerate the decline of democracy by demonstrating to their uncommitted sisters and brothers that democracy is a dying sham. We could say that the ultimate aim of the Muslim gunmen is to finish off European democracies that are already in a parlous state. In this aim, they are strangely succeeding, thanks to the perverse fact that they find themselves twinned with populist movements that opportunistically take advantage of Europe’s civil and political freedoms, so as to press home their bigoted claim that Europe is being swamped by Muslims.
We don’t yet know, but perhaps the most disturbing consequence of the Paris murders will be the way they fuel the growth of populist backlashes against Muslims throughout Europe. High on the opium of general discontent with the status quo, the new populism finds its multi-media voice in settings as dynamic and different as local newspapers and radio stations, Facebook and Twitter (where #KillAllMuslims is trending) through to quality television and high-brow literature.
Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission is a prime example of the new literary populism. Published just last week, it is the most talked about novel in Europe. Understandably so, since in literary form it captures the growing political disaffection with mainstream party democracy that is spreading throughout the continent. Soumission is a genre-bending dystopia, a middle class howl against Muslims, a literary anticipation of the year 2022, when a thumping majority of voters reject the French left and right. In a surprise move, in a second round of voting in the presidential elections, the good citizens of France throw their support behind Mohammed Ben Abbes, who becomes the first elected Muslim president of France. Ben Abbes legalizes polygamy, agrees trade deals with Turkey, and brings the veil and shariah law to secular France. The change of government triggers obeisance, toady submission like that of the principal character, a dreary academic who happily wins promotion at the rebranded Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne and enjoys the pleasures of owning several wives.
Houellebecq has denied that he’s helping bellow the fires of anti-Muslim feeling yet, in the next breath, he confirms that the scenario sketched in the novel ‘is a real possibility’. At the street level, in neighbouring Germany, it is exactly this anti-Muslim sentiment that fuels the rise of the Pegida movement. Led by Lutz Bachmann, a convicted criminal and son of a Dresden butcher, Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) is much more than a Dresden or a German phenomenon. Pegida is many different things to many different people. Pegida is a rejection of the complacent post-politics symbolised by Angela Merkel. It speaks to the unsolved European political crisis and serves as a barometer of the growing public disaffection with mainstream parliamentary democracy.
Yet Pegida is much more than a protest against the dying party systems of Europe. It is also a Pied Piper of the new anti-Muslim bigotry, the feeling that Muslims are taking over Europe. Remarkable is the movement’s knack of plumbing the depths of civil society. The typical Islamophobe who attends Pegida rallies (‘evening strolls’ they’re called) each Monday evening is an ‘angry citizen’ (Wutbürger) drawn from many different walks of life. In the ranks of the movement are football fans, educated middle class people and opponents of factory farming. There are neo-Nazis, Christians, Putin sympathisers, street hooligans and the rich upper middle class.
Pegida supporters and sympathisers may seem a motley crew but they share important things in common. They are annoyed with politicians and the political establishment. They curse the ‘lying media’. They’re sure the prevailing party system doesn’t represent either their material interests or their gut feeling that their own nation is drowning in the rising tides of Islam. Pegida people see no need for a New Deal with Muslims, which is what the whole European region now so urgently needs. They don’t much like people of the Muslim faith. They say they’ve had enough of Muslim asylum seekers, including those who come from the war zones of Syria and Iraq. Pegida people like people like themselves: good, white, upright and hard-working citizens who now want their homeland back.
Surely the strangest political fact of all is that Pegida supporters consider themselves democrats. They think of themselves as people of The People, as champions of the shortest of short textbook definitions of democracy as self-government of the people, by the people, for the people. Pegida people seem wilfully ignorant of the historical fact that since 1945 the norms of democracy have been democratised. Democracy has come to mean much more than winning elections. It now stands for the refusal of grand ideologies (including the whole idea of the coming-to-be of the Sovereign People defended by Martin Heidegger in his Freiburg lectures of 1933/34) and opposition to arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised. Democracy nowadays ideally means the public accountability of power, political humility, respect for diversity and complexity, and the refusal of all forms of bossing, bullying and violence against flesh and blood people, wherever they live.
These democratic norms uniquely belong to our age of monitory democracy, but strange and striking is the way Pegida supporters and fellow travellers want to turn their backs on them, and to do so in the name of the old and discredited Sovereign People Principle. Never mind that their definition of democracy is exclusionary and potentially murderous, and that it has no room for Muslims. When these authoritarian populists speak of democracy, what they really mean is ‘you don’t belong here because you are not one of us’.
Pegida populists are in this sense recidivists. They want Europe to turn back the clock, to move forward by stepping back in time, into a world where The People supposedly once ruled. ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the People), they shout at their Monday evening rallies. Just as bigoted people shouted on the streets in the years before 1933.
This is the final contribution to a five-part series of field notes covering the background dynamics and global significance of last Saturday’s fiercely fought ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.
The great choosing day in Taiwan is over and the results, to put things mildly, have flung a whopping majority of its citizens into a state of surprised euphoria.
The unexpected outcome is of historic importance. For the first time since the lifting of martial law, the grip of the ruling KMT party on local government has been fully broken; multi-party democracy and the principle that government power should periodically be rotated have finally taken root throughout Taiwan. The standard bearer of the military past has suffered a country-wide rout. The KMT managed to capture only one of the six big cities. Its overall vote plummeted to 41 percent (compared with 48% for the Democratic Progressive Party and a sizeable 9% for closely-aligned independents). New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu, whom many regarded as a strong KMT candidate for the 2016 presidential election, was re-elected, but merely by the skin of his teeth. Premier Jiang Yi-huah and KMT secretary-general Tseng Tung-chuan both resigned. Then came (breaking news) the most highly-prized scalp: President Ma Ying-jeou announced his resignation as KMT chairman, his reputation badly soiled by rumours that he cannot last – that he will be forced from the presidential palace before his term expires in May 2016.
Mainstream media coverage has understandably played up the landslide defeat of the KMT, but these ‘nine-in-one’ elections have a richer significance, not just for Taiwan but for the wider region. On the ground as an election observer, I was struck by the way these elections have shown how the resilience of Taiwan’s uniquely post-sovereign democratic polity does not stem ultimately from economic growth, or gun barrels (Mao Zedong), or from the cool charm of government ‘soft power’ advertising. The resilience of its polity has deeper taproots: Taiwanese democracy rests ultimately on its citizens’ belief in democracy.
Last weekend’s elections serve as a reminder that a political order is ultimately propped up by people’s attachment to it. Potestas in populo is the classic Roman summary of this equation. The Chinese version might be: water that floats boats can overturn them as well (shuǐ kě zài zhōu, yì kě fù zhōu). In other words, what the KMT party machine has learned from this election is that command and obedience are tricky ingredients of any given political order, which always rests upon a silent or unwritten contract (mo xŭ) between governors and governed. Power over others functionally requires that citizens feel comfortable with those who rule them. The inverse is equally true: the powerful are only powerful insofar as they win people’s trust and support.
There’s a second reason why the election results are much more than a re-aligning local election, to use a hackneyed phrase favoured by political scientists. Impressive was the way the losers left office gracefully, sometimes tearfully, but usually sporting a smile. On the great choosing day, 60,000 police officers were mobilised throughout the country. The presidential palace was wrapped in rolls of barbed wire, metal barricades and troops armed with machine guns. There was a similarly heavy police presence outside and inside the Central Election Commission, where I watched at close range the tallying of the votes. These security precautions proved quite unnecessary, simply because those who run for office in Taiwan have embraced in quick time a principle that took old Europe centuries to learn: elected office is not the private property of the elected. Those lucky enough to be elected understand that their victory is only temporary. When their time is up, they quit, with a farewell wave, not a clenched fist.
Sean Lien, the KMT loser of the battle to win the coveted office of Taipei mayor, demonstrated just how far Taiwan has come in this respect. Several hours after the polls closed, flanked by his wife and campaign staff, he arrived at campaign headquarters. Supporters applauded, then fell silent, to hear his departing words. Lien bowed slowly, not just once, but six times, before delivering a short speech. It included the usual stuff that defeated candidates say. ‘Although we lost the battle, we did not lose the war’, he said. ‘There are more formidable challenges ahead of us’, he added. ‘We have to continue to seek support for the values and ideals we believe in.’ But then came the heartfelt apology, the moment of humility when the big man fell to his knees, to admit he lost. ‘I am really sorry for failing to meet your expectations’, he told his wet-eyed supporters. ‘I take responsibility for the defeat. It’s because I didn’t work hard enough to win, and I apologise’.
A third striking feature of the fiercely-fought elections was their high level of integrity, certainly when measured by global standards. Citizens showed remarkable self-discipline and respect for the rules of the game. The tens of thousands of young people who travelled by bus back to their home constituencies, courtesy of civil society bodies such as the Taiwan Citizens’ Union (TCU), observed the strict election rules by not displaying party banners, blowing whistles, handing out leaflets or shouting out slogans. At the Taipei polling station I monitored, an elderly KMT supporter who’d gathered to witness the counting of ballot papers seemed spellbound by the incoming bad news; he was incredulous, not riotous. Throughout the country, winners were joyous. Losers were gracious. Even President Ma Yoing-jeou sounded chastened. ‘Every ballot represents the love that citizens have for Taiwan’, he said. ‘The poll results have reminded us that those in power must also be humble listeners.’
By local election standards, turnout was high (67.5 per cent) and passions ran deep, yet voting irregularities were minor, almost comical in their banality. In the south-western city of Pingtung, a 22-year-old university student was cautioned after tearing up his ballot paper, reportedly because he couldn’t decide which way to vote. Further north, in Greater Taichung, another citizen cast his vote for mayor then tore up the ballot paper for the city councillor and borough warden. He later told polling station staff that he’d done so because he wasn’t much interested in casting his vote for them, and just needed to know where to place his torn-up ballot paper. And in the town of Puli, not far from beautiful Sun Moon Lake, another honest citizen was cautioned by polling staff after they heard the sounds of camera clicks. He apologised, offering the explanation that he’d just wanted to record for posterity the largest and most important local elections in Taiwan’s history.
Technically in breach of electoral laws that strictly prohibit the use of recording devices inside polling stations, the good citizen with a sense of history had a point: these elections demonstrated to the wider region, above all to Beijing, that Taiwan has come of age, that in east Asia free and fair elections and open public monitoring of power are sustainable practices. These elections proved that citizens and their chosen representatives can shake off the old habits of one-party rule, that a vibrant monitory democracy is not just possible but is a superior way of removing slovenly, unpopular or corrupt governments.
The Taiwan result has not been lost on the citizens of Hong Kong. Thousands there are being punished with batons, pepper spray, tear gas and arrest simply for demanding publicly what Taiwan already has managed to achieve. The KMT rout is intimately bound up with the political destiny of China. It is a small but significant victory for the local Sunflower movement that earlier this year rang the alarm about growing Chinese Communist Party influence in Taiwan. The huge vote against the KMT is also a message of solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong. It is a thank you gift to them as well: recognition of the way the pro-democracy protests of the umbrella movement affected the mood of many Taiwanese citizens, persuading them of the precious importance of freedom of communication and free periodic elections as weapons for refusing and controlling manipulative arbitrary power.
The deepest significance of the KMT rout is that it has flung Beijing’s silent takeover strategy into crisis. The great choosing day in Taiwan has effectively turned Ma Ying-jeou into a lame duck president whose entire China integration policy has been holed by the reef of public opinion. Since 2008, under his leadership, nearly two dozen separate trade deals have been agreed with China. Beijing, supposing markets rather than guns are the best weapon for taming Taiwan, has funded ‘contact people’ from Taiwan’s various city and county governments to visit China, to attend workshops for which they received direct or indirect mainland government subsidies. Academics, students, doctors, war veterans and local leaders have been targeted by Beijing. Taiwan’s Village and Township Alliance, founded in late 2011, has also been heavily lobbied by Chinese officials. There has been much talk from Beijing of the need for ‘free economic pilot zones’ to relax restrictions on the flow of Chinese goods and services and the entry of specialised Chinese workers into Taiwan. Taiwanese businesses operating in China have reciprocated. Through such bodies as the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland (ATIEM), their members have become fifth columnists of CCP rule. They want more flights, more Chinese tourists, more Chinese investment in Taiwan. Their ‘peaceful unification’ philosophy is simple: carrots from China are better than sticks.
Such market thinking and business strategy are designed to give China a footing on Taiwan’s political ladder, to persuade Taiwan’s citizens that Beijing is a friend with money, not a foe with guns. The strategy was supposed to culminate in a high-level meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, but that option has now been decisively vetoed by a thumping majority of voters. These elections have sent a clear message to the CCP rulers that in matters of political emotion Taiwan is now lost to Beijing. The great choosing day turned out to be a celebration of free elections and monitory democracy. It was a reminder to Beijing that geopolitical realities are changing, that things are going badly for Chinese power on the fringes of its polity, that the grip of the CCP has been radically weakened on four fronts: Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and now Taiwan.
How the Chinese rulers react to these election results is the critical question. Unfortunately, their first responses are not encouraging. ‘We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world’, Xi Jinping told a high-level Communist Party meeting on foreign affairs on the eve of the Taiwan elections. Defending ‘socialism with distinctive Chinese features’ (code words for the leading role of the Party), Xi said China had to keep abreast of regional and global developments and to cultivate ‘deep understanding of the underlying trend of the times’. He went on to say that just as China’s dependence on the world and its involvement in international affairs are deepening, so is the world’s dependence on China. In global affairs, China is coming of age. That is why, he concluded, China would strive to ‘act in good faith, value friendship, and champion and uphold justice’. It stands for ‘the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs’. China respects ‘the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries’ and everywhere favours the ‘peaceful resolution of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation’.
Unfortunately, Taiwan received no mention by name during Xi Jinping’s address. Its silent dismissal is normal, for what happens in Taipei is always considered a domestic matter in Beijing. ‘We should firmly uphold China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity’, Xi said in his address. When decoded, this sentence means: ‘Do not have illusions, people of the province of Taiwan. Your talk of autonomy is misguided. Do not imagine you can decide things for yourselves. You are part of a greater China, and together we shall prevail. Recognise your destiny. Embrace national unity. Acknowledge our common territorial sovereignty. Work for unification with the motherland. Support the CCP, the true representative of the whole people of China.’
The trouble is that Taiwanese voters have just resolutely refused this vision. And so a new spectre haunts China: intransigence from the centre, tougher resistance from the margins. Will the CCP deal with this contradiction by altering its policies towards Taiwan? That is most unlikely. Equally improbable is the willingness of the citizens of Taiwan to trade in their democracy – to buckle under mounting pressure from Beijing. Something will surely have to give for, to quote Chairman Mao Zedong, the time has come for the correct handling of contradictions among the people, using the democratic method, of course.