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Ko Wen-je is solid on Taiwan, shaky on diplomacy

Ko Wen-je is solid on Taiwan, shaky on diplomacy

Ko Wen-je tapped into a vein of discontent among voters in his campaign for mayor last year, refusing DPP membership while leveling criticism at the KMT and supporting DPP candidates in other races across the island. During his first month as mayor he engaged bankers, large construction firms and businessmen in verbal jousting over launched challenges to entrenched interests in Taipei over generous BOT contracts with the city. Now with ruffled feathers smoothed and talks underway between the city and the builders, Ko is making waves in another direction – across the Taiwan Strait.

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine Ko waded into the murky waters of cross-strait relations, an area where political figures in Taiwan have offered proposal after proposal with formulas using the numbers one and two and words like ‘country’, ‘system’, ‘side’ and ‘entity’. Meanwhile China insists on ‘one China, two systems’, the formula proposed by Deng Xiaoping for relations with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Ko told FP that while people talk about "one country", it might be more appropriate to talk about "two countries, one system". In working out cross-strait relations, cooperation is more important than unity. If the two sides manage to achieve unification, he said, but are unable to cooperate with each other, nothing makes sense.

During the 2104 campaign Ko declared he does not support the 1992 Consensus, an elusive agreement between the CPC and the KMT in which both sides acknowledge there is only one "China" – i.e., mainland China and Taiwan are part of one China – but are free to define ‘China’ according to their own definitions. Ko’s tendency to shoot from the lip brought quick rejoinders from China. The mayor of Beijing stolidly insisted the Taipei-Shanghai City Forum should be conducted on the basis of the 1992 Consensus. Implied in the Chinese mayor’s statement was that the forum, which has taken place yearly since 2007, could be suspended or completely abandoned if Ko refuses to bend on the consensus issue.

Ko is unequivocal in his support of the two-city forum, saying it should be expanded to include forums between Taipei and other cities like Tianjin and Shenzhen. Figures in the DPP advise Ko to set up a City Hall committee to exploit city-to-city relations between Taipei and counterparts in China, as Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu has done.

Ko has demonstrated several times that while he is quick to comment, he is also a quick study. On cross-strait relations, he says closer ties are good, but the two sides must understand each other and respect each other’s viewpoints rather than relying on defaults like the 1992 Consensus. Ko tossed out his own cross-relations formula as "two countries, one system”. Whether his comments may disrupt or derail cross-strait exchanges for Taipei is uncertain.

For its part Beijing is staying low-key, saying its position on the matter is clear. In Taiwan, the KMT rebuked Ko sharply for his comments on cross-strait relations, saying they expose the depth of his belief in Taiwan independence, and advising him not to place his personal political philosophy above the welfare of Taipei citizens.

Similarly, Zhou Zhihuai, Director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, advises Ko to tread softly in the corridors of diplomacy. He cautions that if Ko repeatedly advocates "one system, two countries," it could adversely affect future exchanges between cities on the two sides.

Liu Guoshen, Dean of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, also advises Ko against the "two countries, one system" theme, pointing out that reactions from the Chinese side have been "unfriendly and negative." Liu suggests that before expounding on cross-strait relations, Ko should attend first-year political science courses at NTU to understand what a "state" is. Otherwise, he said, Ko should return to the medical profession.

Former President Lee Teng-hui also advises Ko to muzzle himself on cross-strait relations. Lee, who served as both Taipei mayor and ROC president, discourages Ko from entertaining thoughts of a presidential campaign any time soon, focusing instead on being a good mayor. Lee said until Ko has experience as an administrator at the municipal level, he should throttle any aspirations he or those around him might have for higher office. Lee opined that if Ko were to deliver a presidential speech at this point it would be nothing but “chaos”.

All of this is perhaps a bit rough on Ko. He has made mistakes during his first month of OJT as mayor and it is understandable he might make a few more in talking about cross-strait relations.

At the same time, Ko is spot on in his take on how people in Taiwan feel about their land and their people. The latest poll from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University showed 23.9% of respondents indicating they support Taiwan independence while 60.6% said they identify themselves as Taiwanese, record highs for the survey. In addition, 32.5% identified themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese while only 3.5% see themselves as Chinese, both historic lows in the survey. Everything in the survey pointed to a growing sense of national identity among Taiwanese.

In many ways the gap between China and Taiwan is as wide as it has ever been. Despite progress in business ties and breakthroughs in areas like Chinese-Taiwanese pairings in sports and cooperation in the production of things like television dramas, China’s stance is as hard and resolute as ever – blacking out the ROC flag on a car in a solar-power race in Africa and warning international business associations against allowing Taiwanese organizations to represent themselves as Taiwanese.

The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong exposed China’s view of the former colony as simply another part of China to be crushed under the weight of the PRC’s totalitarian heel. Can anyone possibly imagine Beijing might have found the patience to permit students to occupy Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan for a month?

Ko Wen-je is right in saying the two sides must work to gain a better understanding of each other’s cultures and beliefs. It has been 120 years since China had any kind of real control over Taiwan, an interval marked by 50 years of Japanese colonialism and another 70 years in which the people finally managed to find their feet and move toward democracy with popular elections and legitimate political parties. The path has not been easy, but no one in Taiwan will say it has not been worth the struggles and the sacrifices. And that is too much to throw away in dealings between the two sides of the strait.

Updated : 2021-09-20 07:33 GMT+08:00