Cross the Taiwan Strait – Interview with Richard Bush

Richard Bush is the Director of Center for East Asia Policy Studies of the Brookings Institution. He has served in the executive and legislative branches of U. S. government for 19 years, including Chairman of the board of the American Institute in Taiwan (1997-2002) and National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. Dr. Bush is still active in observing criticism about the international affairs in East Asia and published his new book Uncharted Strait this year. The Consul is honored to have Dr. Bush share his opinions on current China-Taiwan relations. This is one of the three serial interviews with Brookings experts that the Consul conducted during the summer.

The Consul: Recently there has been growing intensity on US-China relations. International trade, cybersecurity, South China sea, North Korea, education… more and more are added to the negotiation table between the two countries than a few decades ago when the major debate was about Taiwan. Do you think Taiwan has become relatively less decisive in US-China relations?

Bush: This is certainly one of the issues that will define, over the long term, what kind of relationship US and China have – whether it’s cooperative or competitive, or some combination. But I think the reason it’s less salient now is that the leaders in mainland and Taiwan has been doing a lot over the past 5 years to make cross strait relations more predictable and less threatening for each other. It’s no longer a situation of mutual fear. The progress we see won’t necessarily continue in the same pace and with widening scope, but for right now the relation is better, and the US has acknowledged and endorsed that.

The Consul: Regarding the current cross strait relations, how much do you think depends on influence of external support, versus the fundamental difference between the two societies?

Bush: I actually think that there won’t be a quick movement towards political talks. There are two reasons: first, the Taiwan public is not ready for those kinds of talks, and it’s partly because of the nature of the mainland system. It’s partly because of the fundamental unpopularity of One Country Two Systems. But it’s also because of Taiwan’s own particular history, and this has to do with the so called native Taiwanese, particularly those in the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party, 民主进步党). In their recollection of history, Taiwan had a very hard time with the last group of outsiders, Kuomintang. And they don’t want to have much to do with the other group of outsiders, particularly communists.

Secondly, what will be the political and legal identity of the government in Taiwan [if unification happens]? Is it a sovereignty entity? Essentially it is a question of how to do with the Republic of China. To the Kuomintang and people in the DPP, the Republic of China still exists, to the mainlanders, it ceased to exist in October 1949. That’s a pretty big gap. If there is going to be unification, how does an entity like Taiwan fits constitutional and substantively into the national union, in a way that both parties can accept. That’s tough.

I suppose that the fundamental problem is that mainland hasn’t won the minds and hearts of Taiwan people. Beijing just needs to figure out a better way to sell what it wants. I distinguished between mutual persuasion and exploiting power asymmetry. But I think Beijing now is more willing to stay more or less within mutual persuasion. I hope Beijing won’t become frustrated and go in the other direction – that will be counterproductive. [Some trigger events] might be if the DPP came back into power. Another would be a conclusive judgment on mainland leaders’ part.

The Consul: during this whole process of Beijing trying to persuade Taiwan to accept their negotiation items, do you think there’s also a factor of the economic integration?

Bush: Clearly that’s one aspect of the power asymmetry that can be exploited. However, sometimes the Taiwan economic dependency is having negative effects. For example, PRC tourists coming to Taiwan makes it more obvious to the Taiwanese people how different the two societies are. That raises the question of could we really get along in a close relationship. Secondly, even the beneficiaries of economic integration don’t necessarily change their political views. DPP farmers in the south are happy to be able to sell to the mainland markets and get preferential treatment, but they still vote for the DPP.

The Consul: If we step aside from the international relations for a while, there has been a lot of discussion about China going into a democratic transition, or at least the possibility for that in the future. Some people see Taiwan as a model of what’s the right way to go and something China can learn from, while some other people see it as a negative example, citing how chaotic Taiwan democracy is, particularly in the legislature. How do you think the Taiwanese democracy might impact mainland politics?  

Bush: I think it was strong in early 90s, especially after Tiananmen. The idea that an authoritarian Chinese political system could move towards an open arrangement in a more or less stable way over a relatively short period of time is really appealing. But as time went on, the policies that flowed out of that system caused people a lot of concerns. Certain parts of Taiwan’s democracy are more appealing than others. The electoral system did a pretty good job at registering the balance of sentiment in the society about basic issues.

But on the other hand, there’s the question of the system in meeting the most strongly felt desires of the public. The really negative example is the legislature. There are a lot of institutional defects with that institution. It’s not a good example for anybody, and the victims of that are the people themselves. Another negative institution is the media, because it’s too competitive, too fragmented, and it’s not interested in promoting a serious discussion of national vision and society’s directions.

Scholars looking at the experience of democratization from the globe have come to the conclusion that countries that have recently made the transition to democracy are more dangerous than mature democracies – except US under George W. Bush – and authoritarian countries. That is because the populist and nationalist sentiment overwhelms the system. In the long run I want a democratic China, but I think it will be a long time.

The Consul: Many people looked to Taiwan for an example. Do you think it’s the right place to look?

Bush: First of all, let me make a general point. In all political systems, whatever their types, the leaders need feedback mechanisms to understand whether they are doing a good job. Even in democratic systems, those aren’t the only ones. People in China have their ways of communicating with people in charge about what the problems are.  We shouldn’t have ideological divide on this. What’s important is the people that are served by the political system have a way of communicating how well they are being served, so that the system can change.

I the political development of any society, the sequencing can be very important. It’s much better to do rule of law first, including anti-corruption, and then moving towards what we associate with democracy, because I think the foundation of democracy will be much better. Also, you need to have a fairly strong state. If you have a weak state, and try to do democracy, and then the rule of law and then strengthen the state, the result will probably be bad. If you start with a strong state – and China has a pretty strong state and Taiwan has a pretty strong state in 1986 – and also build up the rule of law and protection of civil rights by eliminating torture, that’s a good thing for any society to do, whether you are democratic or not. It’s just the responsibility of a humane government. And then move to democracy. That’s probably a good sequence.

Hong Kong presents a really interesting model for governing large Chinese cities. It has a good government structure that performs pretty well. It has a strong rule of law. It has strong anti-corruption institution that’s separated from government. My idea is allow Hong Kong to move gradually towards full democratic system as the experiment, and then work out the problems.

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More interviews with the China experts from the Brookings Institution:

North Korea: is there a way out? – Interview with Jonathan Pollack

The Rule of Law in China – Interview with Cheng Li

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