Wed, Aug 16, 2006 - Page 8 News List

A chance for greater transparency

By Chen Don-yun 陳敦源

Whether or not we admit it, Taiwanese society remains extremely "Chinese," despite the desinicization rhetoric of the past decade. Nepotism, sycophancy, shirking of responsibility, joining cliques in search of individual profit, shameless egotism and other practices written about in the book Officialdom Unmasked (官場現形記) from the late Qing dynasty are perpetuated in modern Taiwan.

More than six years ago, people still had hope in President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), a man who was seen as representing Taiwanese honesty, but the hope that he would be a "local savior" was, strictly speaking, still very Chinese. Six years later, political corruption continues and anyone who is feeling disillusioned -- and is waiting for the next savior -- will surely be disappointed again, because this way of thinking is incompatible with the culture of democratic government.

If all the recent turmoil deepens a belief in the old maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps at least the corruption of the localized regime could have some benefit for the long-term security of Taiwanese democracy.

In order to strengthen democracy's hold in Taiwan, people must realize our biased cultural understanding of the human character. They must understand this to realize that eliminating corruption is not a matter of voting for one party or another. These kinds of things are bound to happen whenever anyone gains power.

The key to establishing a democratic system of government is to create a system that is prepared for the reality that nobody is capable of resisting the allure of power. The honesty that people may show before they gain power is normally false. This must become a basic understanding among all those who wish to promote democracy in Taiwan.

The core of Western constitutionalism is a system of checks and balances based on the idea that greed suppresses greed. This awakes the darker side of human nature by supposing that there is no way to stop humans from being corrupted by power, a more pragmatic approach than Chinese people's hopes for a savior.

Now that the Taiwanese have experienced firsthand how power corrupts, they should be better equipped to cast off the traditional way of thinking. We shouldn't be so concerned about people like presidential son-in-law Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘) overstepping legal bounds or about Chen's glib mouth, but should instead be considering how the current situation is a product of our cultural views.

This kind of reflection will lead us to the most fundamental tenet of the rule of law: Trust the system, not people.

To ancient paternalist civilizations, this may seem a bit cold. Taking a long-term view, however, belief in the system is a pragmatic approach when compared with the cycle of hope and disappointments brought by our flawed understanding of human nature.

Seeking to establish a system does not mean promoting skepticism or the destruction of our trust in society. It is instead a way of laying the foundation of trust in society based on the premise that human beings are unable to resist the allure of power, a strategy of dealing with ugliness head on before going on to a more enligthened way of life.

As we demand that the words and actions of the president and his family be laid out in plain view, this represents, from a traditional perspective, a lack of confidence in, and a humiliation of, the head of state. But when considering the need to establish long-term confidence in the presidency as an institution, this transparency establishes a foundation for trust between the president and society.

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