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    Greater China
     Oct 12, 2011

Taiwan's Ma bares his centennial steel
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - The less prominent of the "two Chinas" - the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan - celebrated its 100th National Day on October 10. At a mass ceremony in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, President Ma Ying-jeou passionately promoted his pet project of reconciliation with the "other China" - the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Ma also did something the people haven't seen him do before: For the first time since taking office in 2008, he reviewed a grand military parade. Although the "Double Ten" show of force was likely a necessary formality, as Ma prepares to battle for re-election at the January 14, 2012, presidential vote, the opportunity to show firmness was timely.

Just over a century ago, on October 10, 1911, nationalist leader

Dr Sun Yat-sen launched the Xinhai revolution (the 1911 revolution, Xinhai is the name for that year in traditional Chinese chronology), which within two years had overthrown the last emperor and ended China's centuries-old dynastic history. After this event, October 10 became known as "Double Ten Day."

Sun founded the ROC in 1912, bringing his Kuomintang (KMT) party into power. But the republican euphoria didn't last long. Four years later, the ROC descended into the warlord era as regional military cliques battled for greater influence.

After a brief period of cooperation to conquer the warlords and unify the country, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started a military struggle against KMT rule in 1927. Ten years later, the Japanese invaded China and the CCP and KMT formed a united front once again to fight against the invaders. Shortly after Tokyo surrendered in 1945, civil war broke out between the CCP and KMT.

By 1949, communist troops led by Mao Zedong had triumphed over KMT troops commanded by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-sek, Sun's protege and successor. Mao proclaimed the founding of the PRC on October 1 that year, while Chiang fled to Taiwan where the ROC continued its existance.

When Mao nearly ruined the PRC between the 1950s and 1970s with grand modernization schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the KMT succeeded in turning Taiwan into a regional economic powerhouse.

The ROC's evolution into a stable democracy that firmly adheres to the rule of law and human rights made it easy for Ma's centennial speech to praise an East Asian success story. Ma was also able to present the ROC as proof that Chinese society and democracy are not mutually exclusive.

However, more contentious was Ma's assertion that between the "two Chinas", it is not the ROC model that should be adopted eventually by the mainland, and not vice versa.

"The aspiration of our founding father Dr Sun Yat-sen was to establish a free and democratic nation with equitable distribution of wealth," Ma said in Taipei.

Urging the mainland to "courageously move in that direction", Ma said it was the "only way for the two sides to shrink their gap".

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Ronald A Edwards, a China expert at Tamkang University in Taipei, said China taking on Taiwanese characteristics was an unlikely outcome. "On the mainland there is essentially one view of the ROC - it does not exist. The ROC died with the end of the civil war in 1949, and Taiwan is a part of China [the PRC]," Edwards said.

He argued that on the mainland - even among political dissidents - this is the sole prevailing view, while acknowledging that the situation is far more complex in Taiwan.

"In Taiwan, those opposed to closer relations with the mainland, such as the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP], dislike or even reject the ROC, and saw it as a symbol of oppression until fairly recently," said Edwards. The opposition identified the ROC with one-party rule by the KMT until the mid-1990s.

"However, those in Taiwan who support closer ties with the mainland, most notably the KMT, view the ROC as a proud symbol of the party's and the country's history."

Illustrating what an uneasy relationship the anti-unification DPP has with the ROC, Tsai Ing-wen, the party's chairperson and Ma's challenger in the presidential election, chose to refrain from participating in the "Double Ten" celebrations. Tsai was reportedly concerned over speculation she would sing the ROC national anthem and salute the ROC flag.

"The celebrations and historical moment provided Ma Ying-jeou with a major platform to bask in the sun. Although it is difficult to say how much, it will certainly help his chances of re-election," Edwards said.

Another expert sees the relationship between the ROC and the Taiwanese people as more straightforward. Jean Pierre Cabestan, professor and head of the Hong Kong Baptist University's Department of Government and International Studies, says that to the Taiwanese, the ROC is Taiwan.

"The ROC is culturally Chinese but politically Taiwanese. Or to be more accurate, a Taiwanized republic," he said, adding that everybody on the island was aware that there were three ROCs - the republic Dr Sun Yat-sen founded, the authoritarian period and later the democratized ROC.

Asked whether the ROC could be a role model for all of China, as Ma said in his centenary speech, Cabestan was less dismissive. "Among [the PRC's] intellectuals and reformists, Taiwan and as a result the ROC, Sun Yat-sen's ideas and the quasi-Western political model are an important reference, a useful experience and an inspiring precedent; a lot of mainland Chinese are encouraged by Taiwan's successful democratization," he said.

Cabestan said Ma's re-election chances would likely be boosted by the centenary, as he had not demurred to Beijing over its requests to jointly commemorate the event.

Two years ago, Beijing - which, too, still honors Sun Yat-sen and commemorates the Xinhai revolution - suggested that the mainland and Taiwan hold joint centennial celebrations this year. However, as the Chinese demanded the term "ROC" not be used, Ma's KMT rejected the idea, cementing an impression on the Taiwanese side that the party isn't steering the island towards unification as hastily as the DPP claims.

The DPP arguably has gained most of its political capital from accusing Ma's KMT of "selling out" Taiwan to China. However, that Ma has begun hitting the right tone, convincing the Taiwanese that he is not, is indicated by recent opinion polls.

Asked if "Taiwan will become part of the PRC sooner or later if Ma is re-elected", 60% of respondents answered in the negative. Also when asked "When facing threats from China, who do you think would best defend Taiwan's interests," Ma enjoyed a lead of almost 3% over Tsai.

His presence at the military parade likely extended Ma's lead in this regard, though apart from raising his voice for the slogan "the ROC protects Taiwan's safety", he took a strikingly soft-spoken tone.

Tsai Chia-hung, professor at the Election Study Center of Taiwan's National Chengchi University, said that while people were skeptical of Ma's determination to maintain national security, they agree Ma could protect Taiwan's economic interests. The military parade would not make a difference, said Tsai.

"It is like an Oriental ritual, showcasing the war chest before the arbiter," he said.

Tsai added that the DPP presidential candidate's perceived weakness on security could become a major advantage for Ma.

"Tsai Ing-wen may be not showing her blueprint or vision about national security enough yet. I don't think people understand her ideas about national security. That's why people put more trust in Ma than in Tsai in this regard."

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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