China: Referenda on Taiwanese National Identity

2003

Dr Baogang He

The last eight months of campaigning for Taiwan’s 2004 presidential elections has seen Taiwanese politicians treading on dangerous waters. In a bid to secure more votes for itself in next year’s elections, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has introduced a number of initiatives including the use of referenda to resolve Taiwan’s national identity question and Taiwan’s national status; to change Taiwan’s official name and Constitution; to determine whether to seek membership in the World Health Organization (WHO); and to advance its desire to regain a seat in the UN. On 28 September 2003 during the Party’s 17th anniversary celebrations, Chen said that the DPP and the 23 million people of Taiwan would jointly push for a new Constitution in 2006 through a referendum.

These calls for a referendum on Taiwan’s future are viewed by China as the first step towards a public vote on Taiwan’s independence. China has always regarded self-governing Taiwan as a breakaway province which should eventually be reunified with the mainland. To that end, it has stated that it is prepared to resort to military force. Any move for a plebiscite on the future of Taiwan is thus a frightening scenario that could bring disaster to Taiwan.

To China, Chen’s referendum proposal is a deliberate attempt at angering and inviting Chinese hostile reactions and at the same time arousing Taiwanese nationalist feelings to bolster his electoral support. On 11 October 2003 in the China Daily, mainland Taiwan studies experts said that ‘ideologically minded and selfish’ Chen is betting on tense cross-Strait relations to serve his re-election bid at the cost of the fundamental interests of Taiwanese people. However, Beijing says that it will accept a referendum on social policies, but not on national identity. The Bush government has not supported any referendum proposal. The US badly needs China’s support for its international campaign against terrorism. It will not take the risk of supporting the referendum principle and thereby jeopardize the currently sound Sino-US relations.

The remaining question is how, when, and where to hold a referendum and on what issue. On 5 December 1998, an experimental referendum was held on the future of Taiwan. Looking ahead, it is likely that a national referendum on the fifth nuclear power plant will be held in 2004. Chen may also test China’s patience to see whether Beijing will tolerate a referendum on Taiwan’s new Constitution or Taiwan’s WTO membership. China’s self-exercised constraint and the US’ opposition to Chen’s referendum proposal are thus crucial to the politics of referenda in Taiwan.

WATCHPOINT: China will be closely watching Chen’s next move. Any decision to go ahead with a referendum and the specific focus of that referendum will have to be the result of careful political calculations.

 

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