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Suspicious Timing on Human Rights Day

Tim Suen and Sonya Huang

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the United States, which takes place this week and includes a lecture at Harvard tomorrow morning, is no small matter. Wen is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the United States since Hu Jintao became President of China in March. The most pressing concerns on his agenda involve the sovereignty of Taiwan. Specifically, he wants the White House to declare that it opposes the independence of Taiwan and any efforts the government of Taiwan might take in that direction. Rather, China maintains that it has the right to “regain” control of this “renegade province” by force if necessary. This attitude toward Taiwan deeply disturbs Taiwanese Americans and should unnerve people of democratic nations worldwide.

Wen’s assertion that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China is unsettling on several counts. First, it is historically inaccurate. Second, no communist nation has a reasonable claim to a developed and thriving democracy. Third, in its interactions with Taiwan, China has proven itself to be an irresponsible caretaker. Fourth, China continues using threats of violence to intimidate the Taiwanese people and deny them their right to self-determination.

Taiwan has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China and has not been a province of China for over a hundred years. After being occupied by the Dutch in the 1600s, Taiwan remained a backwater territory that received little imperial attention for over 200 years. It was not until 1887 that Ching officials declared Taiwan a province of their empire. Only eight years later, however, China ceded Taiwan to Japan after losing the Sino-Japanese war. Taiwan then became a colony of Japan until the end of World War II. When the Chinese Nationalists lost the civil war in 1949, they fled to Taiwan and established control of the island. Thus, Taiwan’s government, military, and economy have been separate from those of China since 1895.

The difference between the two is that Taiwan has evolved into one of the most advanced democracies in Asia while China not only remains undemocratic but also shows aversion to any attempts towards democracy under its jurisdiction. While Taiwan institutes progressive reforms, such as the Gender Equality Labor Law, China continues to refuse its citizens their freedom of expression and religion, cracking down on political activists and spiritual groups such as the Falun Gong. Chinese oppression of the East Turkistanis has worsened and treatment of the Tibetans remains reprehensible. Not only has the government of China repeatedly violated the basic human rights of its inhabitants, but it has also made a point of ensuring that democracy does not go unmolested. Only a few years after China’s accession of Hong Kong, Chinese officials enacted measures against existing democratic programs, such as popular elections in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government has also interfered repeatedly with the democratic process in Taiwan. China ran military exercises along the coast in an effort to intimidate voters during Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996 and repeatedly threatened to use force during the 2000 polls. As Taiwan prepares for its next presidential elections in 2004, China seems eager to replicate its past behavior. Recent referendum laws allowing the people of Taiwan to vote on constitutional and other public policy changes have already elicited threats of violence from Beijing. In fact, laws enabling the Taiwanese to decide their own future have so enraged Chinese authorities that they claim willingness to wage war without regard to the economy and people of China.

Nor has China convinced us that it is capable of managing affairs beyond its corporate hubs in Shanghai and Beijing. When the 1999 earthquake claimed the lives and homes of thousands in Taiwan, the Chinese government impeded relief efforts from Red Cross international, insisting that Taiwan’s disaster relief was China’s own concern. Yet the aid that Taiwan finally received from China, long delayed by bureaucratic processes, was not even comparable to the independent donations. This scenario was repeated when SARS struck the region early this year. Many lives were lost and the epidemic lasted months longer than it should have, when China prevented World Health Organization from dispatching assistants to Taiwan. China’s insistence on prioritizing political nomenclature above human lives casts serious doubt on the possibility of improving living conditions in any region it seeks to claim.

What remains unclear, amid heated debates and military tension, are the reasons behind China’s persistent need to stake political claim over Taiwan. Rather than demonstrating any foreseeable benefits that might result from the unification of China and Taiwan, China argues that the only alternative would be disrupting “peace” and “stability” of the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the threat to regional stability will not be the result of any initiatives Taiwan pursues toward independence per se, but the attack that China promises in response to such initiatives. Instead of allowing peaceful means of resolution, China would rather resort to violence to ensure an outcome in its favor. The 500 ballistic missiles aimed directly at Taiwan today is just one of China’s tactics to distort the prospect of independence.

On the eve of World Human Rights Day and Premier Wen’s visit to Harvard, let us consider the freedoms we take for granted and stand up to preserve the rights of those around the world.

Tim Suen and Sonya Huang are members of the class of 2005.