Chairman Ma: To Support Hong Kong Democracy, Support Taiwan's and Free Chen

Jack Healey, the Founder of the Human Rights Action Center

Even the best possible world of media will make mistakes and omissions from time to time. We live in a complex world and the sheer quantity of trying to keep track of things will sometimes flood the most devoted news junkie. In the past few days, there have been tales tugging at your eyes for attention about serious subjects. The Ebola virus continues to concern domestically, while extremists of various stripes incite fear internationally, and emails are flooded with forecasts to garnish your votes for next week's elections. With all of this happening, there's probably not much happening now that that Hong Kong thing or whatever it was has stopped happening, right? Wrong.

Hong Kong is still happening. It's only getting bigger for its next eruption into media and the streets. When the People's Republic of China coated Tiananmen Square with its own citizens' blood for nonviolent protest, it did not end dissent there but only drove it underground to grow. Twenty five years later, we've seen protests erupt in Hong Kong and Macau and, first of all and most inspiring to Hong Kong and Macau, in Taipei. The Sunflower Movement there demanded accountability from the Legislative Yuan -- Taiwan's unicameral legislative branch -- and occupied it and shut it down. A successful student-initiated nonviolent movement, the Sunflower Movement demanded that there be transparency and review in an agreement negotiated by the Kuomintang (KMT)-led Pan-Blue Coalition that was thought to threaten sovereignty, human rights, and democracy in Taiwan. They received direct and indirect aid from democracy activists in Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas communities and, importantly, were successful. Before the Umbrellas, there were Sunflowers who pioneered the use of FireChat, organized cleaning/recycling, and took care to explain goals to all facets of Taipei and visitors. You see, it's about more than Hong Kong alone. There are ramifications for all of the so-called Sinosphere and it has Beijing frightened and it should.

Let's look at Ma Ying-jeou's Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement. The wildly unpopular sitting President of Taiwan has called for the PRC to allow democracy in Hong Kong as a test. From the man who is both President and also the head of the Kuomintang (KMT), the only legal party in Taiwan for many decades and one which held human rights in contempt instead of respect, the statement's sincerity and motivation should be viewed skeptically. He'd like you to believe that he's a progressive backer of democracy and multiculturalism, and that seems dubious coming from a man who has spent his career cultivating ever-closer ties with Beijing and continuing to deny freedom to his predecessor. It is impossible to see his calls for Hong Kong's democracy to be respected without seeing the measures he's gone to in undermining democracy in Taiwan itself.

On the face of it, the call is a decent start to a policy statement. A better one would have been to call on China to honor its already-made and already-delayed promises to grant full democracy to Hong Kong and to begin a timetable to convert to a multiparty democracy throughout China, but it was a decent start for a realpolitik and it is hoped that the rest of the club of world leaders build on that statement to make it more complete. Why not "great" instead of merely decent? Well it was great PR for Ma. It was "great" in the sense of distract-and-divert. You see, Ma's call for Beijing to allow Hong Kong human rights got him media coverage that distracts from the fact that his approval ratings have been at historic lows (no small feat when your party used to be The Party in the Big Brother sort of sense) and Taiwan's voters have been wanting change of their own. Ma's statement allows his to continue to muddy waters to forestall change in 2016. We aren't confused by his attempts to confuse and aren't buying his motivations and you shouldn't either if you want to support human rights.

The only non-KMT presidency since the end of single-party rule was Chen Shui-bian, who stood up clearly for the interests of Taiwan on its own terms and for two full terms, the maximum allowed in Taiwan. In his career as Mayor of Taipei and then as two-term President, Chen Shui-bian instituted a number of policies and initiatives, many of them proven so popular with voters and so signally memorable to visitors to Taiwan, that have been continued and even embraced by the KMT itself after they regained the presidency in 2008 as voters reacted to economic rumbles with a change of party (as is the case globally in voter response). Unfortunately for a Taiwan only beginning to emerge from brutal authoritarian rule and a political establishment recently contemptuous of democracy, the KMT did not return to power with grace nor order. They embarked on a witch hunt against Chen Shui-bian, Annette Lu, and other former officeholders, associates, and supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and others in the Pan-Green Coalition.

As has been said so often before and regrettably bears repeating again: speech matters and symbols are speech. Chen Shui-bian was convicted by zealous prosecution on corruption charges and with considerable judicial irregularity. His incarceration has failed to meet international standards of minimal medical care such that his health has been made dangerously worse. While involvement and expressed concern has resulted in some improvement of his prison conditions, he is likely to die in jail and his family and associates have been subject to attacks on reputation and, as he stated himself in the last visit to Taiwan by an HRAC representative, "a prison with golden bars is still a prison."

The message has been sent: If you dissent from Ma Ying-jeou, you will be targeted. Like any threat filled with menace, the message has been received by the KMT itself (the wealthiest political party in history -- no mean feat when you consider that includes the PRC's own Communist Party as well as that of the former USSR in wealth controlled even with vastly larger territories and populations) who feels ever pushed to adhere to Ma Ying-jeou's personal dictates or suffer the consequences as here and here. It has been received by the DPP, who have members who have shown fear to speak up on behalf of their own party's champion and founding leader when seeing what has been the price continued to be paid. These are chilling and terrible omens for Taiwan's future. They are dark portents for human rights, for democracy, for pluralist politics, and for any desired culture of change. If Ma Ying-jeou is not to be judged a liar in his statement calling for democracy, then why does he insist on denying freedom through medical parole, clemency, or house arrest to a man who has been accused of zero political violence of his own or through his party (the same being untrue of the KMT itself)? Is this a message of orderly transitions of power to visit on the only successful challenger to the KMT owning the presidency as a piece of its turf like a bratty gang member? Or is this a message of Ma Ying-jeou talking out of both sides of his mouth like the PRC has shown it does on Hong Kong's democracy?

What can you do? You can support organizations and projects that call for better monitoring of human rights in Taiwan, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau. These are the toeholds of human rights and freedoms in a sphere being pressured to adhere increasingly to dictates from Beijing in direct contradiction of their own commitments and promises both explicit and implicit. There are many worthy of your attention and assistance. You can write directly to your Representatives and Senators both right now and after next week's elections and you can tell them that the issues of protecting commitments to freedom and democracy where it exists and has been promised internationally is important to you and that your vote is connected to it. After all, America should see protecting the democracy and human rights that already exist as at least as important as the fuzzier idea of expansion in places where they do not.

Support America? Then you must support democracy and human rights. Support democracy and human rights? Then you must support protesters in Hong Kong. Support Hong Kong? Then you must support Taiwan. Support Taiwan? They you must support freedom for Chen Shui-bian as well as the empowerment of the Sunflower Movement. Free Taiwan. Free Chen Shui-bian. Free Hong Kong. Free elections there and everywhere. The longer he remains in prison, the greater the risk that he'll die there, and that Taiwan's democracy will be stillborn after all.

Follow Jack Healey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HRAC

10/31/2014 11:13 am EDT Updated: 10/31/2014 1:59 pm EDT