Taiwan as a model for China

This article in today’s CSM is sure to ruffle the feathers of my friends for whom the notion of an independent Taiwan is sacrosanct – a notion I fully understand but have never actively lobbied for, as I believe the realpolitik of the situation makes it unrealistic and perhaps an invitation for major headaches. (As much as it hurts, I remain in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it school,” at least for now.) The article, written by Fei-Ling Wang, a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, seems to me hopelessly optimistic.

Since the time of its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, China had been under centralized, authoritarian rule. But when the ROC was formed in 1912, hopes were high for democratic political change. However, external and internal wars, self-serving warlords, and abysmal ROC leaders tragically retarded China’s political progress. In 1949, a peasant rebellion influenced by communist ideology created the PRC and drove the ROC offshore to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the self-proclaimed new Qin Shihuang, perpetuated and intensified mainland China’s despotic political tradition.

Today’s China is once again on the verge of parting from its Qin system. Yet democratic reform in the PRC is still far from a certainty, much less a success.

Fortunately, there are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, the ROC has survived since 1949 and is prospering today. Over the past decades, the Taiwanese have proudly proven that Western ideas of capitalism, freedom, and the rule of law can thrive together with Chinese culture. Taiwan has gradually but successfully transformed from an authoritarian, one-party system into a young democracy, driven by the combined force of bottom-up and top-down efforts, as well as conducive foreign influences. The Taiwan story of economic growth and political change should be considered a great success story for all Chinese, on and off the island.

Unfortunately, the Taiwan story has been grossly discounted and marginalized by leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Rather than viewing Taiwan as a viable force of political opposition and a model of successful political change, China sees the ROC as just a local regime taking refuge under foreign protection and seeking independence. And Beijing’s stubborn refusal to enact political reforms has made full independence even more attractive to many Taiwanese. Beijing has also successfully portrayed Taipei as an anti-China traitor that has harmed and divided the Motherland. Many Chinese are therefore simply led to despise and reject Taiwan’s story of success.

This dreadful situation must change. The political rivalry from Taipei should stimulate rather than stifle, China’s democratization. Instead of propelling China into imperialism and militarism, Chinese nationalism could become a powerful driving force to constrain rising Chinese power and reorient it toward democracy. Taiwan must act as a catalyst for this because only with a democratic, free, and peaceful China as a responsible stakeholder in the international community can the Taiwan story securely continue. And only by assisting the peaceful rise and change of China can Taiwan solidify lasting support from the US.

To successfully help China change politically and rise peacefully, the Taiwanese craving to declare independence – while understandable – must be sacrificed.

Well, simply saying this awful situation has to change doesn’t mean very much. Sometimes awful situations, like Stalin’s tyrrany, go on and on, spanning generations. The professor goes on to praise Ma’s approach of upholding the one-China priciple if, and only if, the PRC’s government becomes accountable to its people. Well, it sounds good on paper, but to me it seems awfully dreamy. It concludes:

Only when the Chinese government is accountable to its own people can (and should) there be a peaceful rise of China. Toward that end, the democratic, free, and Chinese Taiwan will work wonders when it genuinely – but conditionally – unites with China.

What can one say aside from “Don’t hold your breath”? As it stands, the idea of unification with the PRC draws snorts and snickers from nearly everyone I’ve spoken with in Taiwan. I would be way more optimistic if the PRC were truly living up to its agenda of reform and not heading backwards in the area that matters most to the people of Taiwan – freedom of expression and government accountability. They like their freedom to protest and demonstrate here, and to choose the media that appeal to them (11 cable news channels in a country of 23 million!). Until such freedoms become a given in China, the idea of unification will be laughed at by most Taiwanese. And sadly, I don’t see the PRC coming around to Taiwan’s model of individual liberty anytime soon.

The Discussion: One Comment

One major flaw with this view is that the folks from Taiwan (and Hong Kong) who have the greatest contacts with the mainland are the most likely not to give a rat’s ass or be directly opposed to democratic reforms back home or on the mainland.

Xinhua can severely curtail/eliminate media competition through political lobbying, as can mainland film and tv producers. “Rent-seeking” via corrupt autocracies/plutocracies is easier than competing in a free and open market and the “chaos of democracy”. (see K Street’s rapid hiring of Democrats recently as the “chaos” could create a disruption in the amount of influence available to the current staff.)

A democracy in the mainland might bring independent trade unions with teeth or independent courts that could cause “chaos”. Much better the current worker’s paradise with a single state-run union and courts that assures Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen low low wages and no trouble in the workplace or courtroom.

September 19, 2006 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

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