Fri, Feb 23, 2001 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan must defend its democracy

By Bonnie Hsieh

One cannot help but feel a little sad these days, with the state of the economy and the chaotic political situation. Not so long ago, however, many of us were riding high on the wave of optimism that swept through Taiwan following the election of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The election results moved pundits here and abroad to describe A-bian's (阿扁) victory as an event unprecedented in Chinese history and a remarkable democratic feat. They even lauded Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the man known as "Mr Democracy," who presided over the peaceful transfer of power, for his part in engineering a smooth end to 50 years of KMT rule. Overall, the success of "Taiwan's own son" (台灣之子) in snatching the presidency away from the arrogant KMT amazed everyone. Most felt this event truly constituted a watershed in Taiwan's history.

Only a few nations in Asia can rightfully claim the democratic mantle and Taiwan should be proud to be on that short list. Japan's political system is flawed, and some might argue that even today Japan is not a truly democratic state. The Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) virtually uninterrupted hold on power and its intimate relationship with the state bureaucracy have made it nearly impossible for any opposition party or coalition to wrest power away.

In this respect, the LDP's reign is similar to that of the KMT in its later years. No longer able to use the threat of force, the KMT had to rely on its exclusive powers of patronage, a massive party machine, and "black gold" politics to keep the people in line. The LDP continues to rule in much the same way.

Malaysia's democracy also suffers from the one-party blues, for those in power have so effectively corrupted the government and judicial apparatus that opposition forces have little hope of electoral victory. Singapore also claims to be a democracy, but in truth, its system merely proves that when it comes to silencing political opposition and muzzling the press, a judge's gavel in a libel court is just as effective as a police baton on the street. Sadly, seriously flawed democracies such as these are all too common in a region best known for its authoritarian regimes.

Asian authoritarians argue that their people have values different from those held by citizens in Western democracies. The Western emphasis on individualism and individual rights is supposedly alien to an Asian tradition that emphasizes hierarchy, paternalism and consensus. They say Western democratic politics would simply result in chaos if exported to Asia and democracy activists from Western countries should therefore leave Asia alone. Asian authoritarians have even disparaged their Western critics as "neo-imperialists" who seek to impose their own cultural values on others.

From the authoritarian standpoint, 50 years of KMT rule should not be condemned, but rather praised as the source of the political stability that allowed Taiwan's economic development. Furthermore, it is their opinion that Taiwan's current political and economic troubles are the inevitable consequences of trying to impose an alien democratic system on a fundamentally Asian culture. The essence of this argument is that Asians do not know how to handle the responsibility that comes with individual freedom and democracy. To introduce Western-style freedoms in an Asian nation is to create havoc and let slip the dogs of social, political and economic disorder. Prosperity requires peace, order and good government, which to an authoritarian in Asia mean paternalistic one-party government and a suitably docile populace.

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