Taiwan Speaks Up, Damn the Torpedoes

On March 26, 2005, the streets of Taipei were choked with people from all over the island, citizens of a nation still known legally as the Republic of China (ROC), citizens who’d gathered in force to protest a new anti-secession law that had just been passed by the much larger People’s Republic of China (PRC) less than 100 miles to the west. The wording of the law was purposely obtuse, but the general gist was crystal clear: any declaration of independence by the government of the ROC would lead to a swift retaliation by the growing military of the PRC.

Were there a million people, as ROC president Chen Shui-bian had hoped for for? Or was the number less, maybe half? Only people in helicopters or tourists gawking from the observation deck of the Taipei 101 observatory or the now low-rent Shingong tower can really guess. But there certainly were a lot of people, both dyed-in-the-wool independence supporters and ordinary Taiwanese who just don’t much like the menacing signals sent out by the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-secession law (referred to by some in these parts as the “Anschluss edict”).

The march began in a strange wagon wheel formation, with ten massive lines of people wearing green hats, blowing air horns, and waving banners starting at different points in the city and marching toward the presidential palace, where Chen Shui-bian, both ROC president and precariously perched high priest of “all that is good and pro-Taiwan, stopping just short of actually declaring independence” would either speak or not. There was some confusion over this, but all were certain that he would sing. A-bian enjoys singing, and the buzz in the papers was that he’d written a song especially for the occasion based loosely on Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”

The march began from 10 different points in Taipei city, with each point representing one of the clauses in China’s anti-secession law, and the line moved in toward the presidential palace. On each spoke, the numbers could have easily been in the high tens of thousands or more, making the total number on this island of 20-some million impressive regardless of whether it actually reached one million. Many marchers waved flags with images of the leaf-shaped island. Other groups wielded banners reading “Taiwan is not China” and “Germany 1935 = China 2005.” Some considered even this too subtle, choosing to voice themselves with the less eloquent but decidedly more direct message “F*ck China.”

But was this march really about declaring independence, an ominous move for all parties involved, maybe even the entire world? There were less-than-subtle clues to be found in the languages chosen by the sign-waving mob. Though the majority of signs were written in Chinese, every third or fourth sign was in English, with a few in French or some other language of the European Union. Indeed, much of the rhetoric of the rally seemed to be as much about making Taiwan’s collective voice heard as sending any real message to China. Barred from most international decision-making bodies and abandoned diplomatically by all but a handful of countries, the Taiwanese have a powerful desire to be recognized, and certainly the new anti-secession law gives the island ample cause to expect support from any nation paying lip service to the notion of democracy.

And what about this new law? Is it a step further in the direction of war, or is it, as Kyle Pearson, a long-time Taiwan-based expat argues, quite the opposite: a canny ploy by moderates in Beijing to appease the Chinese militarists by setting down as an absolute red line any declaration of independence, thus allowing the status quo to continue while helping to isolate the hardline independence advocates in Taiwan? And if Chen knows this, might the whole march just be a convenient steam-release to appease his own base?

In other words, despite the current tension, might cooler heads prevail?

The afternoon before the march, I’d been talking about just this with a fairly high ranking member of the Democratic Progressive Party‘s inner circle, a young political operative who asked not to be identified by name. I’d been introduced to “Mr. Wu” through a friend as an American journalist. This fact alone would have made most in the pro-independence camp, who (naively or not) see America as a stalwart defender of democracy feel quite comfortable about launching into the usual pro-independence spiel; Communist China is the great oppressor, democratic Taiwan the victim. So I was quite surprised when Mr. Wu started our conversation by telling me about a trip he’d just taken to Shanghai, comparing his last trip to others he’d taken during his university years and talking about how rapidly Chinese society was changing. When the discussion finally turned to politics, Mr. Wu was the picture of moderation. While neither confirming nor denying the protest-as-steam-valve theory, he said he felt that both the passing of the law by Beijing and the timing of the march in Taipei were largely political, meant more for domestic and international consumption than to indicate any real change in policy. He’d traveled around China and had had a good time, and he felt that the resolution of the situation across the straits – whatever that resolution might be – could and should wait another generation, with neither side making any potentially foolish moves.

Quite a different tone was present on the streets the next day as DPP trucks whipped the crowd into anti-mainland chanting. When the spokes converged, president Chen, who’d marched on one of the main spokes surrounded by police, appeared larger than life on a huge monitor erected for the occasion. As promised, he made no speech, but did join chants of “What do we want from China? Peace!” before leading the assembled throng in a song praising Taiwanese identity.

As the rally wound down, the masses dispersed in all directions, high on the buzz that good democracy ought to give those who take the time to participate. Snapping pictures in the post-rally glow, I – a conspicuous foreigner in a sea of green-clad Taiwanese faces – was thanked loudly and boisterously by no fewer than 30 people.

“Thank you for coming to Taiwan! Tell the people in your country who we are!” Heading back to my hotel, it occurred to me that this may well have been the rally’s main purpose; a public shout from the collective voice of Taiwan, a mass gathering to affirm to China, the world, and, most importantly, themselves that they refuse to be bullied in silence, damn the torpedoes.