Fri, Jan 10, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Preserving liberty is the priority

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎

Shortly after arriving in the US from a jail in China, Xu Wenli (徐文立) wrote an article for the Washington Post about what democracy means. In it he wrote that democracy is not just a political system, but a way of life.

For supporting democracy in China, Xu has suffered many years in jail, and -- now that he is free -- he seems eager to resume his crusade.

He faces a changed atmosphere in China. The growing middle class on the eastern coast now seems more interested in a lifestyle based on money, not on individual opportunity and open governance.

Even in Taiwan, where democracy already exists, a considerable number of the younger generation seems more willing to give up some of the country's hard-earned freedom in order to pursue the same objective -- money.

If such thinking persists, the rationale used by Beijing's leaders -- that democracy is not compatible with Asian values -- will be greatly strengthened, and the ability for Taiwan to maintain its liberty will be lost.

My personal experience with democratic countries is that this line of thinking is erroneous. In my half a century living in many non-Western countries, I witnessed the democratic way of life adapt under a set of fundamental human rights to a diverse set of circumstances.

Among some 12 overseas assignments I had, six were democracies.

In my first years in the Foreign Service, I was a diplomatic courier. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, I often traveled in Eastern Europe on the Orient Express. I also spent considerable time in Helsinki, where one could fly to Moscow on what was then the only Aeroflot plane that flew outside the Iron Curtain.

In the days spent in those communist countries at that time, the air itself always seemed stultifying. One could immediately feel the difference on returning to Helsinki. Democratic Finland, despite its difficult position next to the powerful and very undemocratic Soviet Union, managed its relationship with its neighbor very carefully and successfully. Most importantly, it kept its democracy.

I lived in Manila for two years. In recent times, one often errs in seeing the post-Marcos period as the time when the Philippines became a democracy. In fact, the country was a democracy before Marcos.

When, during that time, president Ramon Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash, without political debate or media pressure, the vice-president -- who was in Australia at the time of the incident -- immediately flew back and was sworn in as the new president.

That was an unusual event in much of the world in those days. Some years later, democracy in the Philippines was lost. Corruption and bad politics influenced the people to give up some of their freedom for stability. It took several years and continuous struggle to return to democracy. Eventually, the people showed that corruption and bad politics cannot trump individual freedom.

In the 1970s, I spent two years in Tokyo. Democracy there was well established -- a more disciplined type perhaps, but the people had the right to press for change, even when government opposed it. Crony politics and the entrenched bureaucracy were (and remain) formidable obstacles to change.

Until recently though, Japan's democracy was seen as an exception in Asia. The political reform of its election system and the coming of democracy to South Korea and Taiwan has changed that thinking.

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