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Commentary: Referendum plays with fire
( 2003-07-11 07:39) (China Daily)

The threat of SARS has just been removed from the public's psyche in Taiwan, but a bigger story is looming large in the form of a referendum that the Taiwan authorities are pushing for with all their might.


Despite strong dissent from both inside and outside of the island, Taiwan is persistent in making the topic a focal point for international attention.

It is not difficult to see the true intentions of promoting Taiwanese independence and using it as an election ploy.

On top of the agenda is "gradual independence,'' which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has always advocated. Since it came into power, the DPP has relentlessly played up this policy on all fronts, and a referendum is a crucial step in the whole scheme.

Referendums as a so-called public policy and "a constitutional proposition'' are only a precursor for future voting on Taiwan's independence or unification with the mainland.

It can also be used as an opportunity to make a legal precedent for passing a "referendum law,'' whereby "revisions of national titles, flags or anthems'' as well as the vote itself can be made into provisions. Then, it can be used to spark cross-Strait tensions, reinforce public enmity towards the mainland, and sow the seeds of self-determination surrounding Taiwan's future.

And finally, it can be a means of expressing so-called "public opinion'' to the international community, creating an impression that both sides of the Taiwan Straits are independent sovereign nations.

Second on its agenda is using the referendum as an election tool. This is a multi-pronged attack: firstly, it can fortify its support base. Opposition towards independence and building nuclear plants are the DPP's secret trump- cards. If the referendum passes, the DPP can cash its political check and satisfy its supporters; if it fails, it can still dispel distrust from the faction inside the DPP that is questioning its resolve.

Another use of the vote is to create topics that will divert the public's attention away from the DPP's incompetence in running the government. As election slogans, the use of democracy, human rights, reform and love for Taiwan can serve as weapons to attack opponents.

If political rivals oppose the referendum, they would be labelled as "traitors to Taiwan,'' "anti-democratic'' or "anti-reformist;'' if tensions arise across the Straits, it can use the public outcry to win more support and close the gap in voting.

All evidence points to the fact that the referendum is actually a device that the DPP will use for the coming election and future "Taiwan independence.'' Democracy and human rights are just pretexts.

In the DPP's party by-law, a referendum has always been part of its push for "Taiwan independence.'' Referendums, in the DPP's hands, have been tainted by the notion of "Taiwan independence,'' so to speak. In the "Resolution for Taiwan's Future,'' passed with Chen Shui-bian's manipulation, the referendum is at the core, and most of its adherents are "Taiwan independence'' supporters.

In a sense, the referendum has become a political totem for independence seekers. And now, it has turned into an election instrument for Chen Shui-bian, though it has nothing to do with democracy or human rights.

Kaohsiung Port in Taiwan [chinadaily.com.cn]

It is even more preposterous to use the referendum for "changing of the national title'' or "the decision for independence or unification,'' as proposed by the DPP.

In international law, referendums can only be applied in specific cases, such as the changing of government, separation from colonial rule, self-rule of United Nations-trusted non-independent land or non-sovereign land. Taiwan cannot be considered in the same vein as any of the above cases.

Self-rule by referendum can only take place in a pre-specified territory, with approval by the central government and all of the people. Otherwise it would be seen as rebellion. Taiwan has always been part of China, as has been recognized by the international community. Taiwan's future can only be determined jointly by all of the people in China. When the DPP changes "the national title'' or calls for a referendum for "independence or unification,'' it amounts to an act of rebellion.

Referendum results do not represent a set of values, but rather, the choice of the majority. Therefore, the selection of the proposition must be democratic, and the public must have a full understanding of this proposition and any possible consequences. Otherwise, the principles of democracy and the rule of law would be hampered.

However, the way the DPP manipulates the propositions and the process have turned the referendum into a political symbol. The DPP administration has monopolized all powers concerning the selection of propositions, the initiation of the process and related promotional activities.

It also has the power to interpret the results or take actions based on them. It can even use them to the Party's advantage in future elections. So, where are the principles of democracy and rule of law?

The functions of referendum, besides showcasing democracy, are in seeking common grounds for public opinion and resolving dissent, so that controversial issues can be dealt with in a democratic manner.

The referendum, as promoted by the DPP, is also a mechanism for inciting discord and intensifying conflicts. Many topics currently under debate will only get more convoluted and more complicated.

Hence, a referendum cannot be the ultimate solution. Rather, it will be the new battleground for political clashes. It can be predicted that the victims of a DPP-operated referendum will be social stability, ethnic harmony, economic growth, political balance and even regional peace.

When DPP Chairman Chen Shui-bian won the last election, he did it by claiming to take the "new middle road.'' This includes one promise "not having a referendum for independence or unification'' during his tenure. But he quickly nullified that with the "one side, one country'' and "resolution by referendum'' campaigns. And now he has come full circle back to "referendum for Taiwan's future.''

With such reversals and inconsistency, how can he expect to win public trust?

Taiwan public has been seeking peace, stability and development. This is also the common wish of all Chinese, including those in Taiwan. With selfish motives, the DPP advances its goal of "Taiwan independence'' under the pretense of democracy and human rights, which will only lead to its own destruction. That's why its cause will be rebuked by the Chinese people in general, and those in Taiwan in particular.

(by Zhang Lihong, an associate professor with the Taiwan Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences)

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