Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How Taiwan's Democracy Threatens China

Jan 21, 2012

Add another B to the 'Taiwan threat'
Ballots, that is. Smooth election on island raises tough questions in China
By Peh Shing Huei

BEIJING: For more than 60 years, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has viewed Taiwan as the source of two major threats to the mainland. Pithily put, they are: bullets and break-up.

In the early decades after the end of the Chinese civil war, bullets were the chief concern as the communists feared a military invasion by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops with the help of the Americans. To 'retake the mainland' (fan gong da lu) was the defeated Kuomintang leader's war cry as he and his defeated forces retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

But as Taiwan broke free of the shackles of martial law in the 1980s, the mainland was confronted with the second feared B: break-up, as pro-independence leanings grew on the island, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

Most recently a third B has emerged in Taiwan to join the list : ballots. Specifically, it has to do with the outcome of the Taiwanese presidential election last weekend and its significance for China.

The election - the island's fifth successive one - exhibited many signs of a maturing democracy. It was a sharp contrast, a challenge even, to the authoritarian controls on the mainland.

The vigour of the contest, with its noisy campaigns, televised debates and rousing rallies, was witnessed by millions of Chinese across the strait. Many took note too of how it concluded after all the sound and fury. As a Chinese netizen asked: 'The textbooks teach us (Western) democracy is not suitable for China, but isn't Taiwan part of China?'

That observation highlighted a striking contradiction in the Communist Party's propaganda, placing two of its key tenets at odds with each other. On the one hand, the CCP has insisted that China is not suited for Western-style democracy. But on the other hand, it has maintained that Taiwan is a part of China.

As the island's democracy matures, the CCP will have to find a way of getting out of the corner in which it has painted itself ideologically.

In the recent past, Beijing could point to the messiness of Taiwanese democracy as a good example of why it is folly to go down the Western route of voting for one's leaders.

But last Saturday's polls have shown that chaos, and violence even, are not in-built traits of democracy on the island.

Both the incumbent, Mr Ma Ying-jeou, and opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen steered clear of personal attacks, focusing instead on which side is better equipped to build up Taiwan's economy and improve the people's lot.

Compared to elections past, negative campaigning on the ground was much reduced. Thankfully too, voters were spared histrionic last-gasp tactics of kneeling for votes and public sobbing.

Widespread fears of another shooting incident, which roiled the 2004 polls and sparked much controversy over its role in Mr Chen Shui-bian's election, were also not realised. What Taiwan got instead was a calm and dignified conclusion to a hard-fought contest.

Ms Tsai, who lost, conceded quickly and graciously when it became clear the results were not in her favour. 'I know a lot of supporters will feel heartbroken by what I have to say. But we still have to congratulate President Ma,' she said. 'We hope that in the next four years, he will listen to the voices of the people, govern with his utmost effort and treat every single citizen fairly. Please do not let the people down.'

No protests, no spiteful comments. The people of Taiwan have spoken and the candidates respected their choice. Ms Tsai took responsibility for her defeat by resigning as the chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party. Mr Ma was similarly gracious in victory, promising to hold semi-annual meetings with opposition leaders.

These developments did not go unnoticed by the mainland's 500 million-strong netizens. Millions watched the election online, marvelling at the real-time reporting of the vote count and how smoothly and safely the contest went. It was inevitable that comparisons were drawn with China's politics.

An online user by the nickname of Brother Xiang Times pointed not just to the fact that the Taiwanese had the ballot and mainland Chinese none, but also to other aspects of the relationship between the leaders and the led: 'Mr Ma had his whole family come out, with everyone under the spotlight working their butts off, begging for votes. On this side (of the strait), any information about the family members of President Hu (Jintao) is considered 'state secret'; if one uploads a photo of his daughter, it would be immediately deleted.'

The online clamour in support of the Taiwan model grew so loud that the state media stepped in, with the Global Times dismissing the validity of the comparisons. 'The systems designed for modern countries are not exactly suitable for gigantic countries like China,' it said in its editorial on Tuesday. In short, China is too big for democracy.

But Taiwan's presidential election has shown that democracy is not some alien and incompatible Western import, and that is leading many mainlanders to raise discomforting questions for their leaders.

One Chinese netizen asked pointedly: 'The Taiwanese people already govern their own country, how long do the Chinese people have to wait?'

The 'China exceptionalism' argument against holding free and fair elections is consistent with the CCP's views on politics. But with Taiwan as a counter-example, it will be increasingly tricky for Beijing to convince its people that what is practised and celebrated on the island is somehow not appropriate for the mainland.

Short of saying Taiwan is fundamentally different - which would then raise the even more unacceptable issue of secession - Beijing has to consider political reforms if it wants to realise its dreams of a grand reunion with the island.


[Interesting commentary and analysis. Taiwan may "win" by spreading democratic ideals to the mainland, and the Communist Party on the mainland will either have to explain or adapt. Adapt might be easier. Again, they may turn to Singapore for inspiration as to how to implement their ideas. Or not.]

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