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    Greater China
 
     Nov 6, 2010
 

 

Centrifugal forces shape Taiwan's democracy
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 ballot box.

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 policies.

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 mainland.

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 country.

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 price.

Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA) at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
 
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