Editorial: Lien should be living in 2015, not 1945

Kuomintang honorary chairman Lien Chan. (Image courtesy of CNA)
Kuomintang honorary chairman Lien Chan. (Image courtesy of CNA)

by Taiwan News

So despite all the criticism from the opposition but also from his own camp and from President Ma Ying-jeou, former vice president and Kuomintang honorary chairman Lien Chan still traveled to Beijing and did attend the big parade on Thursday morning.

The event marked the 70th anniversary of the victory of the allies over fascist Japan, but the parade turned into a bone of contention between China and Taiwan and between Lien and just about everybody else on Taiwan’s political scene.

At the heart of the debate is China’s description of the 1937-1945 war of resistance against Japan, which in the West is generally seen as part of World War II, even though that war only started in 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.

In the Chinese option, it was the Chinese Communist Party, which at the time was basically still a rebel army, which led the fight against the Japanese invader while the Nationalist or KMT government stood idly by.

The Taiwanese or KMT option sees Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as the leader of China at the time and also as the leader of the war of resistance, the man who hit the pause button on the civil war with the communists in order to tackle the joint foreign enemy.

While the truth might lie somewhere between those two extremes, Lien’s surprising eagerness to travel to China in the face of so much domestic criticism has kicked up a storm.

Reporters often shout questions at the president as he passes on his way to some event, but last week Ma broke routine by actually stopping and giving his views against Lien’s visit, which had not started yet by then.

His statement emphasized that it was government policy to disapprove of any serving or retired government officials attending Thursday’s parade. The Ministry of National Defense and the Mainland Affairs Council issued similar comments, the former targeting mainly retired military officers.

Lien’s links with China dates back to his “ice-breaking” 2005 visit, though at the time he was the opposition leader, making it unlikely that his trip would have immediate consequences. He was later succeeded as KMT chief by Ma, who fostered closer economic and trade ties with Beijing.

Lien still visited China several times, meeting with leaders Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. While the trips were not specifically organized by the KMT, they did not meet with widespread rejection because they were not seen to lead to any significant changes, Lien being a politician described as beyond his prime. His title as honorary chairman has been largely just that, an honor also given to another former KMT chairman, Wu Po-hsiung.

Maybe Lien realizes that after he failed to win the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections and Ma succeeded him as party leader and won the 2008 and 2012 elections, his role in Taiwanese politics is finally over. Last year, his eldest son, Sean, still tried but failed to become mayor of Taipei City, dashing hopes for the family to remain influential.

When he made comments about the resistance war in Beijing, his aides even presented him as “brave” for daring to broach the topic of the KMT fighting the Japanese in China during the war.

Most Taiwanese begged to differ, and even a former KMT Cabinet official who expressed anger online. Opposition politicians called on the government to take away his generous state pension, but members of his own party also joined the call for disciplinary action.

As an honorary chairman of the KMT, there is very little the party can do beyond stripping him of the title or of his party membership. Unlike James Soong, who ran as his rival in 2000 and as his running mate in 2004, Lien did not try to relaunch his political career. That way, he has little to fear from the outrage he sparked inside Taiwan beyond losing a largely empty title.

Lien should have looked closer at the political and diplomatic environment in 2015 rather than keeping his head as it were buried in the 1945 victory.

While the issue became enveloped in Taiwan’s domestic politics, it also needs to be noted that the international community gave the Beijing parade a wide berth as well. South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye was the only leader of what could be considered a Western-style democracy, while other guests were Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and leaders of Chinese allies with dubious reputations such as Sudan and Myanmar.

One look at the guest list should have told Lien there was no chance the parade would turn into an international whitewash of his decision. The absence of major Western countries and regional democracies should have made him realize that the victory celebrations would be a one-sided ceremony in praise of the Communist Party’s war record.

Xi used the platform to announce a cut of its armed forces personnel by 300,000, but that move made little impression coming from a leader who has talked tough against most of his neighbors.

Of course, it also needs to be pointed out that the People’s Liberation Army will still be left with 2 million soldiers when and if the cutbacks are eventually implemented.

Overseeing a massive military parade while claiming to be celebrating peace and disarmament amounts to the summum of contradiction. If he had been serious, Xi would have told Lien at their meeting on September 1 or announced at the September 3 parade that he would remove the more than 1,000 missiles targeted at Taiwan, or that he would stop threatening military force to reunite the island with China.

The promise, how insincere it might have been, could have saved Lien the destruction of his reputation. Instead, Lien has been left with empty hands and with only a positive appraisal likely in China.

He can forget appearing as a bridge in cross-strait relations, because his presence at Thursday’s parade has effectively burned down the Taiwanese end of that bridge. The Ma Administration is unlikely to ever trust him again, while opinion polls show that the KMT is likely to move back to the opposition benches after next January’s presidential election.

Lien might have studied the 1930s and 1940s, but it’s his lack of insight into what makes Taiwan tick in 2015 which has sealed his political demise.

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