Chen Shui-bian's recent interview (registration required) with the Washington Post has been misinterpreted by both the Post and CNN Online. Both news services interpret Chen's comments as "press[ing] for independence" (CNN) or "press[ing] ahead with an aggressive agenda to develop Taiwan as an 'independent, sovereign country' despite the risk of war with China" (Post article by Philip Pan and David Hoffman). CNN Online begins its story (almost wrote "sortie") with the following mis-lead:
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- President Chen Shui-bian says he has been given a mandate to press for Taiwan's independence from China despite a razor-thin margin in his hotly-disputed re-election.
Chen has vowed to proceed with plans to write a new constitution, developing Taiwan as an "independent, sovereign country" despite the risk of war with China, he said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Actually, in the interview transcript, Chen said nothing of the sort. In fact, when discussing the new constitution that he wants to develop, he specifically said, "It is not a timetable for independence or any attempt to change our status quo." He later stressed,
These issues [legislative reform, protection of human rights, possible adoption of a three-branch government, and other issues related to constitutional reform] do not have any bearing on the independence or unification issue, nor will the constitutional reform effort violate our "five no's" commitment and pledge.
The Post cites this statement in its article on the interview, but buries it down in the seventh paragraph, after characterizing Chen's agenda as "agressive" and his remarks as "defiant." (The Post also summarizes this idea rather than quoting Chen directly; they thus "water down" the strength of his statement.) The CNN Online article, written in part by Mike Chinoy (who is often perceived here as pro-Beijing), doesn't mention the above quotation at all.
The phrase "independent, sovereign country" that the Post and CNN have jumped on in order to raise alarms about Chen comes from a statement he made in response to a question about China's "one China" principle. Chen argued that the one China principle is not settled from the perspective of the people of Taiwan because the PRC's "One China" can only refer to the PRC itself, and Taiwan is not part of the PRC. Chen continued, saying that
For the 23 million people of Taiwan, whether our country is called Taiwan or the Republic of China, it doesn't change the fact that we are an independent, sovereign country. We are not a local government of another country.
So this is the status quo. We want to maintain this kind of status quo. We certainly don't want Taiwan's current status quo to be changed unilaterally.
I believe Taiwan or the Republic of China is an independent, sovereign country. Even Mr. Lien and Mr. Soong in this campaign did not dare deny it. They don't dare say we are not a country. I think we have reached an internal consensus that insists on Taiwan being an independent, sovereign country. I think only Beijing cannot accept the fact that the Republic of China or Taiwan is an independent country.
As Chen notes, Lien and Soong have also spoken of the ROC as a sovereign country. After all, they were also running for president of the ROC, not for the position of a local leader of the "Taiwan Province." In the PRC newspapers, "President" is often put in scare quotes when applied to leaders of Taiwan, and some of the US papers (including the Post) imitate China's use of the term "Taiwan leader" (so much for independent thinking). But in Taiwan, we don't put "President" in quotation marks, and whatever disagreements people have over Taiwan's identity, the ROC isn't viewed as just a period in mainland history that ended in 1949. (At least not for the same reasons that the PRC views the ROC as an historical period!)
Now, it is possible for people to quibble with Chen's equivocal use of "Taiwan" and "the Republic of China" when naming the country. Certainly the PRC (and perhaps the pan-blues here) will make an issue out of Chen's slipping in and out of calling the ROC "Taiwan" (or is it calling Taiwan "the ROC"?). It appears Chen himself has raised the issue of what Taiwan/the ROC should be called, through paralepsis, the act of emphasizing something by seeming to quickly pass over it. He seems to dismiss the idea that there's any difference in what the country is called ("whether our country is called Taiwan or the Republic of China"), but by rejecting the difference a name makes, raises the name as an issue.
China has not yet responded to the "naming" issue, but the People's Daily has already responded to Chen's interview in their their best Darth Vader voice: "We have taken notice of Chen's remarks. ... We believe that the massive Taiwanese compatriots have also learned about it." (Makes you wonder who those "massive Taiwanese compatriots" are--are they the folks who go to McDonald's too much?)