Who Needs Pandas? China Needs Taiwan!

This is an essay by my friend Jerome Keating on why China needs Taiwan more than the other way around. Here it is in full:

As Lien Chan and Hu Jintao sat down, pundits were questioning who needs who more? Does the aging Lien who has never won a real election need Hu to salvage his image and even keep in the game? Does Hu need Lien for public relations and to put pressure on Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian?

The real question, however, is at a deeper level. Does Taiwan need China or does China need Taiwan? My view? China needs Taiwan, hands down.

Let’s forget about the fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) needs Taiwan so its submarines and navy can have immediate blue water access.

Let’s forget about the fact that China needs Taiwan to dominate travel between the East and South China Seas and so isolate Japan and the Koreas from their other Asian neighbors.

Let’s forget about the fact that China needs the cash cow Taiwan with its millions of Taiwanese investment dollars and businesses to help fuel its growing economy.

Let’s forget about the fact that China needs Taiwan because foreign companies don’t trust China’s rule of law and IPR protection and so use Taiwan as a safe place for their R&D investments and access to China markets.

Let’s forget these many pragmatic reasons. The PRC needs Taiwan because of the “D” word.

Yes, the “D” word, democracy! Democracy is not antithetical to those of Chinese heritage. China needs Taiwan to show that democracy can and does work. It needs Taiwan to see that its people can be trusted with the right to vote.

Chinese can live by rule of law.

Chinese don’t have to be treated like children, to be “protected” from themselves by a privileged hierarchical elite.

Chinese don’t need their religion and beliefs controlled. The Falun Gong have never posed a threat to Taiwan’s rule of law.

Chinese don’t need their press muzzled. A free press and access to information and differing points of view have made Taiwan vibrant, not destructive.

Chinese don’t need to be imprisoned if they question or challenge the government and its judgment. Taiwan’s many vocal dissident minorities freely stroll the streets.

Contrary to PRC propaganda, chaos is not the result of the above freedoms.

Taiwan has shown that free people with free elections and a free press can live harmoniously under rule of law even in little matters. When Taiwan imposed a motorcycle helmet law, many foreigners said, “It won’t work, Chinese think the law is for other people.” But it worked. When Taipei imposed a strict separation of garbage and trash, foreigners said, “Chinese won’t go into such detail for the environment.” But they did.

Believe it or not, Taiwanese have and continue to show the way for those of Chinese heritage. The issue is democracy not secession.

So maybe then, after more than a half a century since the People’s Liberation Army “liberated” those on the mainland, it’s time to start trusting the people.

Does China need Taiwan? You bet!

China needs Taiwan to understand its own people and culture.


Jerome F. Keating Ph.D. has lived in Taiwan for 16 years and is co-author of “Island in the Stream, A Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex History” and other books. Additional writings of his can be found at:


The Discussion: 25 Comments

Forgive me, but Mr Keating seems to idealise Taiwan society far too much for me to trust him on this point. This piece seems to be a little too lacking in proof and reasoned, logical argument. One thing it doesn’t lack is grandiose assertions hanging in mid-air with nothing to support them.

May 16, 2005 @ 9:34 pm | Comment

Chris, I’m not sure I agree. The motorcycle helmet is a good example, and I didn’t fiond the assertions grandiose. The main assertion is that Taiwan has a functional democracy and the PRC doesn’t and could learn from Taiwan’s example. While that may be simplistic, I don’t find the idea particularly outrageous or grandiose.

May 16, 2005 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

Me neither. Good post.

Yes, it is grandiose. Yes, Taiwan does have its share of problems…so it is simplistic. And while this would not be worth citing for any academic papers (lack of concrete examples besides the law ones), it really does not neeed the “proof” to state its position. The fact is, all of the assertions have been amply backed up before in countless other places.

It makes a point. Others are free to agree or disagree.

May 16, 2005 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

Essentially, it is a twist on the argument we hear often that the Chinese are not ready for democracy.

If that is the case now, when will they ever be ready? If you treat people like children, many times they will continue to act like children and not develop their own independence and sense of responsibility. Case in point, Hong Kong looks like it is certainly ready for democracy.

All of this “Chinese are not ready for democracy” coming from the powers that be on the mainland seems just delay to allow the CCP time to indoctrinate the populus to its positions and claims to be the only authority in China for now and for “ever.”

May 16, 2005 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

The article does not idealize Taiwan. It simply agrues that Taiwan can be an example of change and a partner to CCP.
In Taiwan, the media is unruly, the opposition party does not handle it’s role responsibly, and election is noisy. But basic pieces of democracy are all in place. The voter turn out is a proof that Chinese can be very passionate about election. Keating’s proof is plentiful.
When and if CCP can drop the middle-kingdom syndromeand view things objectively, it will find plenty of examples supporting democracy in China.

May 17, 2005 @ 2:53 am | Comment

Picking up on your comments, Pete, I recall the Party saying that China was too populated, too poor and too ignorant for a democracy. Hong Kong is rich, small, and well educated. Unfortunately the Party must have different criteria for Hong Kong…

Richard this is a great post – I’m linking to it if you don’t mind.

May 17, 2005 @ 2:54 am | Comment

Alright, I started off wrong, but the article still annoys me. I stand by my statement that it idealises Taiwan: The noise and unruliness Michael mentions don’t seem to be discussed much in the article. Mr Keating also seems to go out of his way to knock the Mainland, especially in his “Let’s forget…” statements, but also right through the article.

Well, ultimately I agree that China needs Taiwan, and for some of the same reasons Mr Keating suggests. But I suspect the real situation is rather more complicated than he suggests. It would be interesting to see how Taiwan would fare without the Mainland.

May 17, 2005 @ 3:56 am | Comment

I dont think Taiwan mode is that great for China, after all, while it is trying to separate itself from China, today it looks like they would sonner seperate from each other within their”country”. Imagine what will happen if China as a whole act like Taiwan, last but not least, Taiwan got its prosperity BEFORE it got a western-style-democracy, and ever since then, it didnt make any big progress either.

May 17, 2005 @ 4:14 am | Comment

I once had the opportunity to live in taipei after several years in china and it was wonderful. Wonderful people who can actually accept alternate views to their own. NOBODY in china can debate and/or accept views that go against the party line.

I once explained my militant green independence-supporting views about taiwan to a taxi driver in taipei. He complimented me on my knowledge of taiwan and said my views were credible and worth listening to……and then told me he was the son of mainland parents and a member of the KMT. Wonderful people.

Moving to taipei was such a breathe of fresh air and it made me realise that I’d been in china for too long and was all too willing to give china and the chinese people the benefit of the doubt and accept their dreadful xenophobia, superiority complex, racism and victim mentality.

Let’s face it, 1.3 billion with the same basic opinions is a bit scary. At least it should be.

May 17, 2005 @ 4:24 am | Comment

Ron,the very things that you mention are the reasons that I decided to settle in Taiwan.I have to agree with what Prof Keating is saying.

Chris,you say he idealises Taiwan.Well,he lives there and he’s pointing to the positives,what’s so wrong with that?It’s those positive things that many expats see ,and it’s those things that make us want to stay here.

May 17, 2005 @ 8:28 am | Comment

I wish you well in Taiwan Mark, I’m very envious.

May 17, 2005 @ 10:30 am | Comment

I’m with Chris here. These situations are so complicated and with so many variables that there’s no right or wrong answers. Simple quick solutions to complex problems usually end in disaster. Being brought up in a Western country such as Canada, I was taught to believe that a liberal democracy is the best form of government. Even now I have a hard time trying to believe that any other form of government would be of greater benefit to the people. Looking at all the problems facing the world such as massacres in Central Asia, insurgencies in Iraq, AIDS and poverty in Africa, would a democracy solve their problems?

The article by Keating makes the claim that democracy would be of great benefit to the Chinese people that it would also be easy to implement and maintain. While I agree in principle and hope democracy would come to China someday, I wonder if now is a good time. It seems that our western media and government have a belief that a vibrant, liberal democracy applied to any third world or developing country would bring prosperity and happiness. In other words, a cure all. Democracy in Iraq would bring understanding and a fair sharing of power between the three ethnic groups. There was literally hundreds of columns written about the elections in January and how they would lead to change for a better future in the Middle East. Did it now? I remember reading a Toronto Star columnist a few years ago who was ecstatic that democracy was coming to a majority of African countries and progress was going to be made. Years later Africa is still a mess and the democratic countries are sinking fast. Democracy hasn’t brought an end to corruption, tribalism, or the scourge of AIDS.

As I’ve said, these situations are so complicated that there’s no easy solutions. Would democracy bring a solution to China’s many problems? Democracy is more than just freedom to vote every few years or having a free media to say your opinions. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia became a democracy literally overnight without changing their economic or bureaucratic structure. They also opened the markets to foreign competition without giving time for their local companies to prepare. This shock therapy brought about an economic collapse that has brought hardship and misery to most Russians but at least they’re free to vote.

It seems to me a fully functional prosperous economy with an educated populace is essential for a workable democracy. Applying democracy to a poor underdeveloped country and you usually end up with a corrupt oligarchy with the rituals of democracy. The corrupt oligarchies like the Brahmin Caste in India, the elite landholders of South America countries manipulate social and economic policies to maintain their wealth and power. Meanwhile the landless or poor masses continue to suffer. China is an authoritarian dictatorship but at least we have no pretence of her human rights violations. Thousands of civilians have been mistreated or killed in Kashmir by the Indian army but the western media turns a blind eye to their sufferings since India is a democracy.

Can China become a democracy today and be successful? I don’t know and the person who does is a fool. China would need institutions like an independent judiciary. China seems to be implementing such reforms or trying to but most experts believe it would take at least one generation for them to be effective.

May 17, 2005 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

I don’ tthink anyone’s in favor of instant demoicracy for CHina, as it would be a farce. It has to be a slow transition, though not as slow as the CCP would have us all believe. And a key part of the journey will be learning what makes a democracy succeed or fail. And they’d be very smart to take a hard look at its neighbors Taiwan and South Korea, just as Kristof suggests in the post above this one.

May 17, 2005 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

I think the point isn’t that China could (or should) follow the Taiwan model for democratization exactly – but that there are plenty of things that could be learnt from it. However, while China continues to demonize anything to do with Taiwan politics (because of the link to independence movements), they blind themselves to the possibilities.

For the record, the transition from Dictatorship to Democracy in Taiwan is one of the big success stories of the 20th century. I can’t think of a country that managed the change more smoothely or quicker (much less violent than e.g. the U.S. or France, about 100 times quicker than the U.K.). Of course there are still (quite major) problems – but there is every reason to believe that those will be addressed in the future. So, from that perspective, shouldn’t we say that the Chinese are *uniquely* suited to democracy?

There are plenty of pointers that the PRC could look at: how there was a slow loosening of the grip by the KMT (first just allowing a few independent lawmakers, then allowing opposition parties, then increasing the number of directly elected seats, and so on until direct presidential elections), the relaxation of control of the media (full control, to just letting independent magazines, reducing the power of the ‘information office’, to allowing fully independent TV stations/newspapers).

An interesting parallel is what happened in 1990: a year after Tiananmen, Taiwanese students held an almost mirror-image protest in the centre of Taipei – demanding reform of the National Assembly (which was a bunch of unelected 80+ year olds). In contrast to the PRC, the Taiwanese government listened, and made reforms: the end result was full democracy 6 years later – and the National Assembly is due to be completely disbanded next month. I wonder where China could have got to if those 1989 protests had ended differently …

May 17, 2005 @ 8:23 pm | Comment

David, beautifully said. Thanks.

May 17, 2005 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

David,well said.

wkl,just to touch on democracy in Africa.Possibly the mess in Africa is due to the lack of democracy,not because of it.


May 17, 2005 @ 11:03 pm | Comment

Let’s add that 1.3 billion people with the same opinions also are boring.

May 17, 2005 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

My two cents. I do sometimes feel that people come to a reading with personal agendas they feel obligated to defend. For the life of me, I can’t see where Chris feels I idealize Taiwan society. I would be the first to admit we have our food fights and fist fights in the Legislative Yuan. Perhaps it is my saying that we live in harmony–I feel we do have as much harmony as the polarized post-Bush USA.

WKL seems to feel I am saying democracy is easy to implement and life is more complicated. I don’t see anything in my writing that says China should adopt Taiwan’s model in two weeks, two month, two years or any time frame. If anyone has read any of my other writings on Taiwan’s democracy you would see that it was not easy to implement and its path is strewn with dead bodies, imprisonments, torture, white terror, blacklists etc. etc. you name it, but it has been far from simplistic. I am sure there are many hard core KMT who are cut of the same cloth as the hard core PRC and who would love to have had WKL in their camp telling the world Taiwan isn’t ready, it is too complicated etc..

As others have noted, I am simply saying that Taiwan is a Chinese example that has worked. It gives the lie to many of the standard arguments such as the chaos theory, “if we don’t control them the dreaded chaos will take place.” Or, “our confucian culture cannot and should not adapt to democracy.”Or as Pete so aptly put it “we are not ready yet for democracy.”

I admit that even Sun Yat-sen said there must be a period of tutelage but that was in the 1920’s; we are now many generations later, I don’t see China any closer to government by the people. And I don’t quite see that beating or imprisoning people like the Falun Gong or others as proper tutelage. As I point out, we have never had a problem with the Falun Gong–they are some of the gentlest people I know.

David points it out well, Taiwan is a success story.

Am I knocking the PRC by the list of statements “Let’s forget about. . .” I don’t see it as such. I see it as putting the facts on the table. They are in my mind the real pragmatic reasons behind the hard core PRC. (not the pap of history says or we are all brothers across the TAiwan strait that is fed the idealistic young) I can understand those practical reasons very well. Most countries operate out of self interest, China should be no exception. I just put it on the table.

I also don’t say anything about democracy solving problems; anyone knows that the quickest way to solve problems is to have a benevolent dictator; but while the world has an abundance of want to be dictators, I have found a shortage of benevolent ones. And most people feel better if they are involved in the process of solving the problems and not just being dictated to.

However, I would hope that there are some in China who are serious about moving their country out of a one party dictatorship and see therefore that instead of suppressing Taiwan, they should examine it.

May 18, 2005 @ 9:20 am | Comment

Jerome, it has been interesting watching others put words in your mouth. WKL says:

The article by Keating makes the claim that democracy would be of great benefit to the Chinese people that it would also be easy to implement and maintain.

I really appreciate WKL’s intelligence and respect his viewpoint, but he should snip where you said that, because I just don’t see it.

May 18, 2005 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

Let’s all calm down here! This is the Internet here and many things are written sometimes carelessly. With apologies to Mr. Keating, the phrase I should have used in that sentence was ‘implying that it would be easy to implement and maintain’. I like to think of myself as a careful writer but everybody makes mistakes. Let’s not get into a nitpicking war where every sentence is scrutinized and attacked.

May 18, 2005 @ 9:33 pm | Comment


great essay! taiwan is absolutely a great gift to china for the purpose of her democratization. i am not saying the taiwan experience could be transplanted to mainland china, considering all the different settings, that could be dangerous, but taiwan set a good example to the rest of china that what democracy could achieve to chinese people and that democracy is not a luxury but a necessity to china.

i hope more and more people could see the reunification between mainland and taiwan from similar positive perspectives.

May 19, 2005 @ 12:42 am | Comment


When did Jerome talk about reunification,or am I not seeing it?


May 19, 2005 @ 1:26 am | Comment

wkl, I really don’t mean to nit. But I disagree that Jerome implied what you say he did. You inferred it. But you’re right, it’s easy for these discussions to get overheated.

May 19, 2005 @ 10:22 am | Comment

“”When did Jerome talk about reunification,or am I not seeing it?””


jerome didn’t talk about reunification in his essay.

here is my point, with a reunified taiwan, the chinese political ecosystem will be greatly changed and democratization will get new momentum, this wouldnt happen when mainland and taiwan are still separated politically.

May 20, 2005 @ 6:57 pm | Comment


Would a reunified Taiwan really do that for China,or would China just swallow up Taiwan’s democracy?I don’t believe that “reunification”would benefit democracy,it would destroy it.How about being really democratic and asking the people of Taiwan what they think of all this?


May 22, 2005 @ 11:59 pm | Comment

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