Last week I wrote an article calling on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to take a clear stand by condemning the eccentric views expressed in the articles posted on the Internet by diplomat Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英).
Such a condemnation would confirm the government’s determination to uphold the civilized values of equality and mutual respect between members of different ethnic communities. Since my article was written, Kuo has admitted that he was indeed “Fan Lan-chin” (范蘭欽), the author of the online posts, confirming what many people already suspected and provoking a further public outcry. It now seems that the government and opposition are largely in agreement on the need to draw up an act on ethnic equality.
Although I said that Ma should take a firm position on the Kuo case, I now call on Taiwan’s political parties not to take their righteous indignation too far by giving the state excessive legal powers to interfere in the prejudices and differences that exist in our society.
The first thing to consider is that prejudice and inequality do not exist only between different ethnic communities. There is also discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, nationality, political affiliation and so on. If we really want to set legal limits on the expression of prejudicial and hateful views, it would be better to have an all-encompassing anti-prejudice law than one concerned with ethnic communities only.
Worrying excesses are frequently seen in the exercise of state power. This may be because Taiwan is a newly emerged democracy and bad habits from the old authoritarian system still persist, or perhaps because the idea of human rights has not fully taken hold. Even in the handling of corruption charges against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), many irregularities in judicial procedure have occurred, to the extent that they have aroused concern from international media and human rights groups. That being the case, it is reasonable to worry that serious infringements of freedom of speech may occur if the state authorities intervene in the expression of different opinions and prejudices that exist in society and seek to impose limits on the expression of discriminatory and hateful viewpoints.
Kuo, as a high-ranking civil servant, has already been severely punished by being dismissed for the extreme views he expressed. Although Kuo’s hateful articles were upsetting for most Taiwanese, it may be out of proportion to respond to these events by enacting an act on ethnic equality or an anti-prejudice act that seeks to impose excessive penalties. For Kuo, the place in history he has earned for himself will be a heavy enough burden to bear for the rest of his life.
A democratic system always has to find a balance between the values of political equality on the one hand and political freedom on the other. To maintain political equality, it is necessary to protect the right to take part in the political process without structural inequalities based on wealth, status or education. For political freedom to exist, on the other hand, the right of minorities to “sing out of harmony” must be guaranteed, however extreme and harsh on the ears their voices may be. There is no universally applicable rule as to how to find this balance between political equality and political freedom. It depends on the historical reality of each society and on the capacity of its political leaders for self-examination.