|Centrifugal forces shape Taiwan's
By Sreeram Chaulia
TAIPEI - It is mayoral elections season in Taiwan and the
contending parties are leaving no stone unturned to woo
citizens before voting day on November 27.
The colorful hoardings and banners that span the urban
landscape and speeches and rallies with blaring megaphones
have lent a democratic hustle and bustle to the country.
Cafeterias and university campuses are busy with heated
debates about the relative strengths and weaknesses of
candidates, conveying a high degree of people's
participation and trust in the political process.
The robustness of Taiwan's transition from authoritarian
one-party rule to a full-fledged democracy is also evident
from a deepening of popular involvement in governance
issues. This correspondent met with a number of radical
civil society actors who believe that democracy is a process
and not just voters exercising their choices through the
Civic-minded citizens monitor elected legislators through
continuous social audits and whistle blowing. As one
Taiwanese popular organizer put it, "Our congressmen have
too much power in their hands and it is in the interests of
society to rein them in by exposing malfeasance or neglect."
Simultaneously, there is a realization on the part of
politically conscious Taiwanese that the legislature must be
strengthened to act as a check and balance against excess
concentration of authority in the executive branch. The
quintessential idea of separation of powers among organs of
state is now well ingrained in Taiwan's civic tradition, as
seen when voluntary associations campaign to demand
enhancement of congressional oversight of presidential
All these signs of maturation of Taiwanese democracy present
hopeful visions of a drastically different Chinese reality
in contrast to the regimented and tightly repressed polity
of the mainland. Although Taiwan's autocratic ruling elites
attempted to forge a separate Taiwanese national identity as
a bulwark against the tiny island's forcible absorption into
China, the former's successful adoption of democratic values
and procedures in the last two decades has generated a more
substantive set of differences to distinguish it from the
Democracy could be seen as Taiwan's main argumentative
justification for remaining an independent state, free from
the giant up north whose shadow is growing exponentially.
When Taiwanese opinion-makers loudly remind the public that
hard-won civil liberties, particularly those of speech and
expression, are "fundamental to Taiwan", the implication is
that they are now the raison d'etre for Taiwan's survival as
a separate entity from China.
Yet, it is ironic that despite its flourishing democracy,
Taiwan has progressively lost its worldwide diplomatic
standing and recognition in one national capital after the
other due to Beijing's pressure tactics and conditional
economic diplomacy. One Taiwanese intellectual remarked to
the author that the growing global chorus of accepting the
"one China" policy as the norm is a result of not just the
international community's pragmatic quid pro quos with
Beijing but also of widespread underestimation about how
democracy has taken firm roots on the island nation.
Worries that Taiwan is not reaping the due dividends of its
"democracy advantage" also extend to the younger
generation's confused approach to nationhood in a political
milieu where the current government of President Ma Ying-jeou
is promoting all-out economic and cultural integration with
the mainland. In numerous exchanges with Taiwanese students,
I observed that they did not view democracy as a cherished
trait or a basis for constructing the national self, defined
against the mainland Chinese "other".
There is a perceptible shift of youthful energies into
individualistic and materialistic aspirational channels,
away from the "Wild Lily" student spirit of the 1990s, which
had played a stellar role in ending dictatorship in the
Not even the sudden inflow of Chinese tourists and students
since relaxation of cross-strait travel restrictions under
Ma has caused young Taiwanese to take stock of the
privileges they enjoy by virtue of living in a democracy.
Several Taiwanese say that the visitors from the mainland
are taciturn about political subjects and that conversations
are choreographed to veer away from sensitive topics such as
the condition of human rights in China and the long-term
blueprint of the Chinese state vis-a-vis Taiwan's status.
Despite the existence of a free press that holds elected
officials accountable, one of the downsides of democracy in
Taiwan has been a culture of the media taking cues from the
government of the time on how to frame news and reportage
about developments in China.
A Taiwanese political scientist lamented that "barely 10% of
our people know about the awarding of this year's Nobel
Peace Prize to the dissident Chinese democracy activist Liu
Xiaobo". Television channels devoted hardly one day of
coverage to Liu's tribulations, as part and parcel of a
positive spin on China that enjoys official sanction from
the current regime in Taipei.
Well-educated Taiwanese I spoke to were surprised to know
that protests had erupted recently in the China's southern
provinces and in Tibetan-populated areas of western China to
oppose the central government's attempts to impose Mandarin
in their education systems.
The Taiwanese media underplayed these phenomena for what
appears to be political reasons. This week also witnessed an
uproar over the Ministry of Education's "suggestion" to the
National Taiwan University to deter its students from
indulging in politically motivated "gossip" on Internet chat
sites, an act criticized as a sign of the ruling party's
intent to steer minds in desired directions.
The irony of competitive party politics becoming entrenched
in Taiwan is that the winners who come to power have
attempted to mould the national identity as per their
respective ideologies. In the words of a perceptive
Taiwanese observer, "We are made to feel Chinese under the
Kuomintang, but we become Taiwanese when the Democratic
Progressive Party [DPP] is in control."
Part of the psychological ambivalence and uprooted quality
of national identity among college-going Taiwanese owes to
this peculiar condition of being buffeted by these two
opposite winds in the nation's political spectrum.
Likewise, the solidification of democracy in Taiwan has
blurred the clarity of the strategic doctrine of resolute
self-defense. The "Republic of China Armed Forces" have
bowed to the whims of the civilian politicians and
reinvented themselves more as angels to rescue the masses
from natural disasters rather than as traditional sentinels
averting an invasion and takeover by the mainland.
Compulsory military service by qualified civilian males has
been shortened since 2009 to just 12 months, and Ma's
government has further declared that conscription will end
entirely by 2014, leaving behind a rump volunteer army.
While some of this downsizing is explicable by the less
labor-intensive and more mechanized weaponry that the United
States is supplying to Taiwan, the generals and admirals
manning the island's frontiers have caved in to civilian
masters who claim to be spearheading "innovative,
non-military means" to avert a frontal Chinese assault.
Ma is preaching to his officers in uniform that military
strength is "insufficient to protect Taiwan" and that
"increasing cross-strait exchanges" is a more "viable
method". Healthy deference of the military to elected
civilians is obviously one more feather in the cap for
Taiwan's broadening democracy, but it has also meant greater
politicization of the fundamental idea of national defense.
Taiwan's democratic embrace has thus unleashed a
double-edged force that has the potential to either
crystallize its statehood or erode it through centrifugal
tendencies. In the context of China increasingly flexing
muscle over territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast
Asian rivals like Vietnam, strategic indecisiveness driven
by the multiplicity of stakeholders could be too heavy a
Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School
of International Affairs (JSIA) at the OP Jindal Global
University in Sonipat, India.
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