Taiwan's liberal democratic political culture has set it far apart from the autocratic, authoritarian political culture of China.
Let's first look at China's political culture. Even though many Chinese may perceive the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a modern state, historians such as Philip Kuhn of Harvard and Ross Terrill of the University of Texas see the PRC as an empire rather than a modern state. As a matter of fact, Terrill's 2003 book is appropriately titled The New Chinese Empire.
Kuhn, who published his Origins of the Modern Chinese State in 2002, pointed out in his recent talk on China's historical experience of "Empire and Nation," that in China "empire is still alive in some guise or other in the Chinese body politic and probably in the minds of many Chinese."
Beijing clearly has not relinquished all the modes of empire. The relationship between the rulers and the ruled in China today is indeed little different from that during China's imperial times. In spite of Mencius' view that only a government that respects the people is a just government, political legitimacy in China has never stemmed from the sovereignty of the people. Not unlike their imperial predecessors, the Chinese Communist rulers today look down upon the people.
Mao Zedong (毛澤東), for example, famously regarded the people as "poor and blank," and thus considered them easy to mold in the way that the Chinese leaders would see fit.
Likewise, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) has justified the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rejection of democracy on the pretext that the Chinese people are poorly educated and thus far from being ready for it.
Jiang had conveniently ignored the fact that democracy prevails in places where its people are not necessarily better educated than the Chinese. Thus regardless of its official name of the "People's Republic," the Republic is not "of" the people, it is more "by" and "for" the CCP than "by and for" the people. More than a century after Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) borrowed Lincoln's concept of government "of the people, by the people and for the people," the Chinese leaders still have no intention of embracing popular sovereignty.
The words "freedom" and "equality" are virtually absent from Chinese political writings that have instead stressed "duties," "status" and "hierarchy" since the time of Confucius. It is no wonder that the Chinese government not only has rules and regulations for censoring Chinese publications and electronic networks, but has also compelled foreign IT networks to remove from their Web sites such western terms and concepts as "freedom" and "democracy." These terms are perceived as subversive to China's socio-political stability and order.
This was the reason why the Beijing government moved to brutally crush the student protesters demanding democratic reforms at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. For the same reason, Jiang and his successor are persecuting Falun Gong followers in China and spying on those abroad. International human rights organizations are particularly critical of Beijing's violation of human rights against Tibetans and Uighurs, as well. In short, Chinese Communist leaders have ignored popular will only because they are not truly elected and are not likely to be elected in the foreseeable future.
In contrast, Taiwan's political culture has evolved over the years to become liberal democratic, ie, more western than Chinese. True, for decades in the post-World War II era Taiwan was under Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) dictatorial rule. Chiang was as much imbued with the perception of China's past imperial glory as Mao was. His Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was as Leninist as the CCP has been.
Chiang had won power through the barrel of a gun in the late 1920s even though the territory under his rule was only about a quarter of what China is today. Not having come to power by the will of the people, the KMT party state was thus unable to move away form the Chinese authoritarian tradition.
Having lost the Chinese civil war to the Mao-led CCP in 1949, Chiang and his followers ended up in exile in Taiwan. The people of Taiwan elected neither Chiang nor his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). The two Chiangs had paid lip service to popular sovereignty. Both of them, however, were nominated by the KMT, the ruling and only meaningful political party in Taiwan, and consequently their elections by the rubber-stamp National Assembly were automatic.
It was only due to changing political situations in the 1980s, particularly by the efforts of Taiwanese pro-democracy activists and US pressures, that the KMT ultimately had to yield power in the late 1980s. Chiang Ching-kuo wisely tolerated the formation of an opposition party in 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and in 1987 lifted the Martial Law that had been in existence since the early 1950s.
Today in Taiwan, the people directly elect all representative officials from township heads to the president. Two presidents have been elected this way. The election of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2000 and then again last year are of particular significance because voters rejected the KMT candidates that made up the ruling party of Taiwan for over half a century.
That popular sovereignty is embraced in Taiwan cannot be questioned. According to New York University law professor Chen Lung-chih (陳隆志), with the direct election of the president since 1996, Taiwan is now a new sovereign and independent nation. Chen Lung-chih referred to the institution of direct election of the president in Taiwan as "effective self-determination" at the annual meeting of the North American Taiwanese Professors' Association at Salt Lake City late last July.
In this new nation Taiwan, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and more are guaranteed. Taiwan is no longer the party-state it was under the two Chiangs. The island nation has a multiparty political system institutionalized in a pluralistic society. Unison in thought is not encouraged like it was during the KMT era; Taiwanese spoken languages other than Mandarin are now also offered at school. Human rights and human dignity are generally respected.
As a result, for the last decade or so the US-based Freedom House has ranked Taiwan as one of the three freest nations in Asia, while China is ranked as one of the least free. Taiwan's successful democracy is seen by China as "a monster," Kuhn said.
It is crystal clear that the difference between Taiwan's political culture and that in China is like day and night. Not only do the people of Taiwan value their freedom and democracy, but they should also be able to expect the freedom-loving people of the world to support their aspiration to remain free and independent.
This is not to say that Taiwan does not need a military defense. On the contrary, as a sovereign, independent nation, Taiwan's defense is on the shoulders of its people. Friendly nations such as the US and Japan will come to its aid only if they are convinced that the people of Taiwan are determined to defend what they have struggled to secure over the past half century.
Chen Ching-chih is a researcher with the Los Angeles-based Institute for Taiwanese Studies.
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