Sun, Oct 08, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan on the road to civil society

By Ben Adams

The term "civil society" has been bandied about a lot in recent weeks in relation to the campaign to oust President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Some commentators have claimed that it is a genuine outpouring of civil spirit, while others say it is the latest manifestation of blue-green rivalry.

However, like most political commentary in Taiwan, the truth is often buried, or sidelined, by the personalities involved and their political agendas. Both sides are guilty of this. In the midst of this muckraking, obstinance and sheer bloody-mindedness, the truth of civil society is lost.

What is meant by "civil society"?

The term was popularized during the late 1980s and early 1990s against the backdrop of a disintegrating Soviet Union and the collapse of authoritarian regimes across Eastern Europe. In many respects, it was a woolly way of explaining the sudden resurgence of bottom-up political action that swept the region, and evolved out of a liberal-democratic capitalist thesis that put the middle-classes at the heart of struggles against authoritarian states.

While civil society was not considered to be the exclusive preserve of the middle-classes, they tended to dominate the myriad of social organizations such as sports clubs, business associations, environmental groups and organized labor that comprised it. This is the essence of civil society. It is not in itself political. Taiwanese politicians please take note.

So how does a motley collection of apolitical groups enter the political arena?

Generally, civil society becomes politicized, and rebels, when its civil space has been eroded -- usually by illiberal regulations and authoritarian dictates. However, such a civil rebellion is not inevitable.

First, groups must have a pre-existing sense of them-selves, their social rights and roles. Alternatively, an existing authoritarian regime that had previously crushed all civil movements could relax its hold on society allowing space in which new civil groupings could emerge. These are important distinctions that define the boundaries of any conflict between society and state or between different civil factions.

Given all this, how should we consider the recent unrest in Taiwan? Is it a truly civil action? Are the actors genuine representatives of social groups? Is there a real possibility of it escalating into a nationwide grass-roots movement? How relevant is Taiwan's own democratization moment to the current situation?

Taiwan's current political situation is colored by the remnants of the previous Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime. The country, to use a metaphor, has a hangover and needs to completely rid itself of the toxins that dampen the mood of the nation and affect the very behavior of its people.

That said, the withdrawal of the state into a more prescribed role has been widely praised. The military has distanced itself and reaffirmed its focus on external threats. Elections at all levels have started to embed the notion that political competition is not a zero-sum game.

Unfortunately, not only does this seem to be restricted to the political realm, but even here groups, mostly with ties to the older KMT regime, have had problems accepting this idea.

Together, these elements have led to an explosion in the number of civil groups throughout Taiwan. But these have generally been absent from the rallies and commentary.

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