US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei made headlines and reminded the world of Taiwan’s importance to China. But Taiwan should also concern the democratic world.
It is no secret that the Chinese Communist Party wants to unite Taiwan (which it considers a breakaway province) with the mainland. The United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China in 1979, and Western powers have largely refrained from recognizing Taiwan as a separate country since then. This one-China policy and the increasingly nationalist mood in the People’s Republic of China make the island’s annexation seem almost inevitable in the coming decades.
Some Western commentators say Pelosi was reckless in her visit to the island. However, they ignore this and why Taiwan is also important to the future of democracy and China itself.
The burden of Chinese history
Many Western observers today believe that China will not be a democracy for the foreseeable future due to its highly authoritarian political culture. According to this view, the “individualism” of the West stands in stark contrast to the Chinese Confucian tradition, which stipulates a strict hierarchy not only in the family but in all areas of society. It follows that the Chinese are more willing to take their place within a predetermined system of power, and therefore less willing to participate in democratic politics.
For this reason, political scientist Samuel B. Huntington once said that “the thesis that traditional Confucianism is either undemocratic or anti-democratic is uncontested by science.” More recently, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates wrote: “All of these Chinese regimes are hierarchical and unequal…America is bottom-up (i.e. democracy) and optimized for the individual. China is run from top to bottom and optimized for the group..Democracy as we know it has no Roots in China.
It is easy to see how the past 2,500 years of Chinese history support this thesis. China experienced many revolutions and the rise and fall of many powerful dynasties. In the absence of democratic politics at all these times, many assume that China will continue to be led by a strong leader running a top-down system, and that Chinese government propaganda eagerly reinforces this view. Chinese newspapers and political commentators constantly compare the efficiency of the Chinese system to the faltering politics of the West, while pointing out that it is more in line with Chinese values and culture.
Counterexamples Hong Kong and Taiwan
Is it actually? Culturally, Hong Kong and Taiwan are cut from the same cloth as mainland China, but they have completely different political systems. Until the CCP’s crackdown on Hong Kong in 2020, the SAR was in the process of building an active democracy. Taiwan is more revealing. A strong democracy with broad public participation has developed there since the 1980s. The Taiwanese system was not created and developed by elites, but by students and other ordinary citizens who demanded and continue to demand more democracy.
It appears that democratic participation in Taiwan has increased over the past six years. The island’s dominant party for decades was the Kuomintang Party, founded by Chiang Kai-shek, a Chinese nationalist who fled the mainland with his loyal forces and some 1.5 million supporters after their defeat at the hands of Mao’s communist in 1949. The current government, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, arrived to power in the 2016 general election after widespread protests against the KMT’s efforts to advance a trade deal with China against significant opposition. During the protests, the student-led Sunflower Movement occupied Parliament.
This was not just a passing fit of anger and protest. The Taiwanese are at the forefront of digital democracy. The rule is the active political participation of various sectors of society. That’s why Taiwanese governments routinely consult the public on important decisions.
The link between culture and politics are inseparable?
Taiwan also hosts a “presidential hackathon” where citizens can submit suggestions directly to the president. The digital platform provides data from most of Taiwan’s ministries with the express purpose of encouraging civil society to improve government work. In the face of Covid-19, the Taiwanese government has come up with an effective response through democratic consultations, close cooperation with civil society, and new digital tools for testing and contact tracing.
Taiwan exhibits these strong democratic tendencies, not because it has undergone cultural westernization. Until the year 2000, the Kuomintang system used Confucian values to distinguish itself from the communist system in China, and subsequent surveys showed that Confucian values are more present in Taiwan than in the mainland.
Thus, Al Jazeera emphasizes a point we made in our previous work: it is wrong to claim that there is an inextricable link between cultural values and political systems. All cultures, especially Confucianism, must be viewed as highly adaptable to changing conditions. Political systems can benefit from many cultural frameworks.
Another political path for China
While Confucius said that “citizens do not discuss government affairs,” he also asserted that “the state cannot exist if it loses the trust of the people.” Confucian thought recommends respect and obedience to leaders only when they are virtuous. It follows that an unvirtuous leader can – and should – be replaced. This perfectly correct interpretation of Confucian values is the basis of Taiwanese democracy.
In contrast, CCP propaganda claims that Confucian values are completely incompatible with democracy and that there is no viable alternative to one-party rule. This is just plain wrong. Democracy is possible in China as well as in Taiwan. No matter how fierce the Chinese Communist Party gets, it will not quell people’s desire to participate in politics, complain about injustice, or turn away politicians who behave unacceptably. Taiwan is important because it represents an alternative political path to China – the path that has so long enabled freedom and prosperity in the West.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.
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