|The need to keep defending democracy and human rights - Speech by Mrs. Anita Schäfer MP on the occasion of the WLFD-APLFD General Conference on 18 May 2015 in Berlin|
|26.06.2015. Ladies and gentlemen,
As a member of the executive of the German chapter of the World League for Freedom and Democracy (WFLD) and chair of the German-Chinese Association – Friends of Taiwan – I am delighted to be able to welcome you all to Berlin. I am particularly pleased that the General Assembly of our association is taking place at the scene of my political activity as a Member of the Bundestag.
Last year when we met in Taipei, I was there too. As chairwoman of the Friends of Taiwan, I should like to look at the things that unite these two venues of Taipei and Berlin – Berlin, the capital of reunified Germany, and Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China on Taiwan, the beacon of democracy in East Asia.
The development of that Republic of China over more than a hundred years has been a long and arduous process, with many setbacks along the way.
This makes Taiwan a model for the East Asian region in many respects, even if that is not al-ways duly acknowledged by the official political community.
Nevertheless, as far as dialogue across the Formosa Strait is concerned, the most recent signs have been encouraging. At the same time, economic interconnections are becoming ever closer. That leads to exchanges, exchanges lead to rapprochement, and of course ‘change through rap¬prochement’ was one of the mantras that accompanied the elimination of the division of Ger¬many and Europe.
Nowhere is that more clearly visible than here in Berlin, which was likewise divided for almost 45 years and where the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 opened a new chapter in the his-tory of Germany and Europe. Unlike previous upheavals, the transformation was achieved without bloodshed and with the consent of neighbouring countries. For months, citizens of the German Democratic Republic had been taking to the streets to press their demands or had been voting with their feet by fleeing to the West via Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
They rose up against repression by the SED dictatorship; against the denial of civil and demo-cratic rights; against their imprisonment within their own country; against surveillance and har-assment by the Stasi, the state security service; against the lies of the state propaganda machine and against a Socialist economic system on the verge of collapse.
They all showed great courage and valour. They took a great deal upon themselves, driven as they were by the desire to change the situation and to take charge of their own lives. Their re-volution remained peaceful. Nevertheless, it was touch and go whether the state authorities of the GDR would resort to force in response to the peaceful protests of its citizens. The same state authorities had called in Soviet tanks to crush a popular uprising in 1953, had shot several hundred citizens at the Wall and the barbed-wire fortifications, had convicted 200,000 political prisoners and, until 1981, had still been carrying out executions for anti-government activity. But tens of thousands of people processing through the city, as happened in Leipzig on 9 Octo¬ber 1989, are also a force to be reckoned with.
Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, the GDR leaders could no longer hope for the backing of the Soviet Union. And this lack of backing was crucial as events unfolded. The firmness of the Western alliance at the time of NATO’s decision to modernise its INF forces had clearly shown the Soviet leaders that they could not win an arms race. In economic terms, the entire Eastern bloc was on its last legs. That brought it to its senses and paved the way for perestroika and the process of building a new peaceful order, although Vladimir Putin has recently been jeopardis¬ing that process.
In 1989, however, the freedom train was rolling unstoppably. The protests were followed by the opening of the Wall, its opening by its collapse. The GDR had run its course. Everything pointed to reunification. This unification was based on both the popular protests and the actions of politicians in East and West. German leaders, especially the Federal Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, immediately seized the opportunity that presented itself.
But we Germans have never had our history to ourselves. We have always been directly and in¬directly affected by developments in neighbouring countries and they, conversely, by events in Germany. So the transformation of that time not only affected the GDR and then Germany in its entirety but the whole of Eastern Europe. Revolutions took place there too, mostly without violence. The transition to Western-style democracy and market economics was also made there.
The process had its roots in a liberation movement that began with Solidarność and Lech Wałęsa in Poland. Without that, there could have been no liberalisation in Hungary and Czech¬oslovakia and hence no mass flight of GDR citizens to those countries and the resulting pres¬sure on the SED regime.
Another key contribution to the prehistory of the fall of the Berlin Wall is often forgotten, namely the CSCE Final Act of Helsinki, dating from 1975. It must be said that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was originally an idea of the Warsaw Pact, designed to supersede the existing alliance systems and so squeeze the United States out of Europe, but the West did not take the bait.
One of the commitments made in the Final Act by all participating States was that they would respect human rights. This was a pledge to which Eastern European leaders could henceforth be held whenever they violated human rights, and it put particular pressure on the GDR with its border regime. As a result, it became possible in the years that followed to agree on relaxations, such as family reunifications, arrangements for local border traffic and the removal of mines and automatic firing devices. These relaxations also fostered intra-German exchanges.
The contradiction between the commitments and actual practice in the realm of human rights led to a growing legitimacy problem for the GDR. Its citizens were aware of this gap between pretensions and reality. That also contributed to the revolution that eventually swept across Eastern Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We hope, of course, that this history of demise of authoritarian regimes will continue through-out the world, and that ‘change through rapprochement’ will prove to be a successful recipe in relationships such as that between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, it is true that the difference in size in the latter case is rather greater than between the old Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR. What must not happen is that the system of the far larger People’s Republic stifles freedom in Taiwan.
For this reason, we in Germany must not relax our efforts to maintain awareness of Taiwan’s situation either, especially at a time when its relations with the People’s Republic are improv¬ing. For all the benefits of such a development, it must not result in people forgetting all about Taiwan. A vital role attaches in this respect to non-governmental organisations like our own.
For almost 60 years the German-Chinese Association, founded by Members of Parliament and by people from all walks of social, cultural and economic life, has been campaigning constantly for good relations between Germany and Taiwan. At regular events and in regular publications the Friends of Taiwan, to use the tag that the Association has been appending to its name since 2003, provide information on developments in Taiwan. We also initiated the establishment of the parliamentary friendship group that my colleague Petra Ernstberger has already introduced.
I have chaired the German-Chinese Association since 2008. My term of office has coincided with rapprochement between Taiwan and People’s Republic of China. When I first took office, I pointed out that a more relaxed situation, while beneficial for Taiwan, could result in the issue slipping down the political agenda in Germany. The public tend in any case to disregard issues in these bilateral relations until a crisis arises, such as an explicit threat from Beijing to use mil¬itary force against Taiwan.
It has therefore been my aim to sustain awareness among both politicians and the general pub¬lic of the special nature of the situation. One of the main tasks in this respect is to highlight the function of the Republic of China that now exists on Taiwan as a model for the mainland, a function that was re-emphasised three years ago by the peaceful and democratic Taiwanese elections.
Last year, our association issued a publication on this subject, entitled Taiwan in Bewegung – 100 Jahre Republik China (‘Taiwan on the move – 100 years of the Republic of China’). In it, German and Taiwanese authors deal with the history and the present development of the idea of a Chinese democracy, as realised in Taiwan. I am pleased that we were able to recruit twelve writers for this purpose from the academic world but also from the realms of business and jour-nalism to address various aspects of this subject from diverse political perspectives. In addition, President Ma Ying-jeou and Su Tseng-chang, who led the opposition at the time, sent contribu-tions of their own.
When I visited Taiwan on the occasion of the centenary celebrations for the Republic of China, I was able to experience at first hand the atmosphere that prevailed during the election cam¬paign at that time. Regardless of winners and losers, these elections reaffirmed once again that Taiwan is a firmly established Asian democracy. As a free, stable and successful economic power, it also refutes the argument frequently advanced by authoritarian regimes in East Asia that Western values are incompatible with Asian values.
In view of the size difference, the hope that this democracy could be a model for the People’s Republic often seems like a pious wish. In every respect, indeed, the People’s Republic is the biggest undemocratic country in the world today. The example of Taiwan, however, shows us that economic success will always eventually generate demands for greater freedom and politi-cal participation. It is now more than 25 years since the transition from one-party rule to a plu-ralist state based on the rule of law was initiated in Taiwan.
In mainland China too, we are now seeing more and more instances of the rapid but unevenly distributed growth of prosperity fuelling the development of a new political awareness. This is reflected in the numerous local mass protests against environmental pollution, against the en¬richment of state functionaries and against the demolition of entire urban districts and the im¬plementation of building projects to the detriment of local populations. These protests, moreo¬ver, are increasingly proving successful.
We are also seeing people campaigning against the pervasive censorship and demanding more rights. And we are seeing initial government responses to this public pressure, such as the re¬cent official abolition of the re-education camps. It remains to be seen, however, how genuine and lasting these changes really are.
Besides, the People’s Republic of China, like the former Soviet Union, is a multi-ethnic state that is becoming increasingly difficult to hold together, for many ethnic groups invariably means many diverse interests. As in the former Soviet Union, the key requirement in the Peo¬ple’s Republic of China will be greater awareness among its leaders that there is a firmer foun¬dation on which to base their power than bayonets – which are not needed, after all, to defend China’s external borders but are used to impose internal stability. And that, as we all know, will only work for a limited time.
It could certainly be said that the Chinese leaders, through their dealings with Taiwan, have al-ready learned a thing or two about the workings of democracy – for example that loud warnings against the election of an inconvenient government, such as those voiced in 2004, have exactly the opposite effect on voters in a democracy. According to some, of course, the main lesson China learned from this is that it must manipulate more subtly. And we saw in the context of the demonstrations for genuine democracy in Hong Kong last year that Beijing is still not seri¬ously prepared to entertain such demands.
Nevertheless, everyone no doubt remembered how the previous student protests in China had ended. Twenty-five years before, the regime had sent tanks into Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In Hong Kong, the showpiece of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, this clearly could not have been done so easily – not least because the city has far more global links, because it is far more exposed to the eyes of the world and because the economic implications for Beijing would have been far more serious in that location.
Fortunately, everything remained largely peaceful, although it is regrettable that the Chinese leaders more or less ignored the students’ demands. Talks between the movement and the Hong Kong regional government are certainly said to be continuing. Where they will lead remains to be seen. The protests, however, have undoubtedly shown that there are still people on the Chinese mainland who are calling for democracy and are prepared to stand up for their convictions.
In some way this is confirmation that economic prosperity will always lead sooner or later to demands for a greater say in decisions. On the other hand, quite specific economic problems in Hong Kong also contributed to the protests. The period since the handover to China has seen a rise in corruption and nepotism. The city, moreover, is now in far more direct competition with the rest of China, particularly with other special economic zones like Shanghai. The income gap has widened, and employment opportunities have become scarcer, especially for young people.
This is why the demonstrators have not only been calling on Beijing to honour in full the promise of democracy it made in 1997 and to allow the people of Hong Kong to elect their parliamentary representatives without a prior approval requirement; they also want transparency and good governance in all decision-making processes.
For Taiwan, the example of Hong Kong is instructive in many respects. One lesson concerns Beijing’s attitude to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, because that principle, after all, is supposed to apply in the event of any reunification with Taiwan. And Taiwan, as we know, is already an established democracy in its own right, whereas Hong Kong was a British colony before being handed over to China. How would the two sides deal with this antithesis?
The economic development of Hong Kong should make us stop and think. Last year, Taiwan had its own student protests. One factor in that case was the anxiety of the young generation about their future prospects in the light of the free-trade agreement with the People’s Republic.
We have always welcomed the process of rapprochement between the two sides, because mutual links are always better than threats, let alone armed conflicts. But for any major development, the people must be taken on board. And in that respect a stable democracy like Taiwan, with all of its scope for public consultation and participation, will always trump an authoritarian regime like the one in Beijing.
That, too, is something worth defending and preserving. Vigilance, then, remains the order of the day – not only as regards relations between China and Taiwan but worldwide. I believe that the connection between economic development, freedom and democracy is indissoluble, and in that respect the global trend is encouraging. The city in which we are gathered today is a shining example of that connection.
Our World League has campaigned for the freedom of all people since time immemorial. The last few decades have brought great successes in that struggle. But a large majority of the countries on our planet are still under authoritarian regimes. And the trend towards democracy in individual countries is not irreversible.
Winning the battle to establish freedom and democracy is not enough – they must also be defended time and again. This is an aim to which all of us should be committed, both now and in the future. I hope that this conference will send out another signal to that effect from Berlin.
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