Democracy in Asia has experienced a downward slide. The leader of Myanmar's democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been detained by Myanmar's junta since early last month after a bloody incident during a demonstration. The Hong Kong government has been trying to enact the infamous Article 23, which would have a devastating effect on the freedom of the people of Hong Kong. Their freedom has been eroding since the handover to China in 1997. More than 500,000 people marched last week to protest the proposed law. The prospects for Asian democracy at the beginning of the 21st century seem bleak.
The people of Taiwan have been jolted by a different matter. According to press reports, the US was trying to dissuade the government from holding referendums, out of concern that this could lead to a plebiscite on independence.
The issue of whether the US government had voiced opposition against Taiwan's domestic affairs was not addressed for almost a week until American Institute in Taiwan Director Douglas Paal clarified Washington's position. This clarification was made after a poll was released, which showed that more than 60 percent of respondents would support holding a referendum even there was external opposition.
The three seemingly unrelated events are all about Asia's democratic progression. The Hong Kong protesters were trying to protect their eroding freedom, Suu Kyi represents the difficult path toward Burmese democracy and Taiwan's case is about how to consolidate its democracy. The threat to democracy in the three cases can be traced back to the same source: China.
Beijing has demanded the Hong Kong government pass a national security law. China has provided the critical economic and international support for the Myanmar junta to survive and continue its oppression against democratic activists. The Chinese threat of military escalation is the reason behind the US govern-ment's concern that Taiwan might hold a referendum. These three places are connected by a com-mon concern for democracy and the common threat from China.
Thus, supporting democracy seems to be more important than ever. While the international com-munity needs to continue to urge the Myanmar regime to release Suu Kyi and the Hong Kong government to reconsider enacting its version of Article 23, the international community should encourage Taiwan to take the necessary steps to consolidate its newly established democracy. Denying a people the opportunity to hold a referendum is not compatible with democracy.
But there are other important reasons to support a referendum in Taiwan. First, voices for referendums have not receded over the past 10 years of democratization. This phenomenon that there is an apparent defect in the democratic apparatus, which shows that a gap between the elected representatives and public opinions is widening. The public is frustrated at being increasingly alienated from the political process.
Referendums, which enable direct public political participation, could help to address this issue.
Second, the SARS epidemic exposed the weakness in people's commitment to democracy -- given the complaints from leading figures that democracy itself hampered the efficiency of the nation's crisis management. A popular exercise of democracy will not only reinforce people's belief in democracy, but could also serve as an effective tool to address fears about democratic governments' abilities to deal with crises. The SARS episode strengthened the people's feeling of international isolation.