A recent experience proved the spirit of Taiwan’s democracy is still alive and strong; unfortunately, polarization followed closely behind seeking to thwart its achievements.
Earlier this month, leading Taiwanese and foreign academics attended a symposium in Taipei to discuss Taiwan’s international status. I was lucky enough to be invited. From the opening remarks and personal introductions, both sides’ enthusiasm to learn from the other filled the room, creating an atmosphere of scholarship and goodwill.
The circle of professors, research fellows and political advisors from around the world conversed as a diverse yet collaborative intellectual body about Taiwan’s political climate, policies and agenda for the future. Ideas were presented, assessed and enhanced from different perspectives. This scene demonstrated the vibrancy and vitality of Taiwan’s democracy.
However, when the symposium moved toward discussion of Taiwan’s domestic politics — specifically, the friction between its two main political parties as the primary impediment in the advancement of its national agendas — the positive dialogue abruptly degenerated into baseless accusations and irrelevant misrepresentations.
The furor was incited by the following question, posed by a foreign academic: “How can the KMT [Chinese Nationalist Party] and the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] move toward reconciliation?” Instead of continuing their collaboration, the Taiwanese panel began arguing among themselves over a response.
The foreigners watched, uncomfortable, perplexed and ultimately ignored as panel members presented their own critiques of parties and politicians. It was clear to me that the panel members were not listening to their guests or to each other.
I saw a room full of whiny schoolchildren desperately trying to redirect blame from themselves onto others. My appreciation quickly turned to embarrassment and most of all, frustration.
Had one foreign academic not boldly interrupted the dispute and requested a return to order, the Taiwanese likely would have continued their debate, wasting the opportunity to learn from their guests and embarrassing themselves further. While order was eventually restored, the outburst changed the tone of the symposium. It turned the foreign academics into disciplinarians rather than colleagues.
If Taiwan wishes to be taken seriously on the international stage, its leaders and opinion makers must go all-out to ensure the chaotic scene I witnessed is not repeated. They must not allow personal sentiments and party allegiances to consume progress or tarnish Taiwan’s international reputation.
Especially now, with its international status facing rising challenges, Taiwan’s leaders must learn collaboration and unity from within before they can expect to achieve the same abroad.
Ideology as bad tricks?
When the plaque of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂) was put back by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government, the debates about Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) totalitarianism and democracy rose again. Just two years ago, the decision by former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration to rename the hall as the “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall” provoked a fierce protest. This time the Ma government kept a low profile in changing the plaque. While such action might be interpreted as low-key, it does not stop the ideological debate over how Chiang and his era should be evaluated.