Fri, May 25, 2012 - Page 8 News List

See China as yesterday’s Taiwan

By Ian Inkster

Such a heading is provocative. It is used to remind Taiwanese commentators and masters of rhetoric that their main complaint against China concerns its failure to liberalize its politics to match its undoubted success in economic growth. For most Taiwanese, China is seriously at fault, and therefore a real and present danger, in not allowing the growth of markets and greater commercial freedoms to be matched by growth of personal political, cultural and social freedoms.

Some go beyond this in their fear that the resulting contradiction between economy and polity in China will soon enough burst out into a wholesale failure of the great compromises of the Chinese system, slow-down in growth and political unrest, this in turn resulting in a rise once again of the armed forces and the old communism, leading to a direct armed threat against Taiwan itself.

It’s possible as future fact. However, it is not very effective Taiwanese rhetoric, given that we now enjoy a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government that for 50 years laid strong hands on the economy, enjoyed spectacular economic growth and viciously retained authoritarian governance from 1949, toward transition from 1986, with the lifting finally of martial law in 1987 and free elections during 1991 and 1992, and finally the first direct presidential election in 1996.

Taiwan suffered 38 years of martial law. Only Syria managed more, and during it many tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned, maybe 4,000 or more were executed, the older Taiwanese political and cultural elite was decimated, all of which spelled out the White Terror in Taiwan. When anyone in Taiwan waxes didactically about human rights in mainland China, as with the present Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) case, let them not entirely forget the White Terror of suppression that attacked all democrats, communists and supporters of Taiwanese independence. This does not reduce the importance of what is going on with Chen — it heightens it. Taiwan was very like China on such matters in the past.

So the one-party KMT had almost 50 years to move its fast-growing economic system into multi-party democracy. If we judge the real post-Maoist growth of China to have been from around 1978 (economic reforms led to an annual average growth rate about 10 percent from 1978 to 2010), it’s clear that we are asking more of communist China than was accomplished by capitalist Taiwan. If we add the 38 years of KMT dictatorship in Taiwan to the year 1978 we arrive at 2016 as the year in which we might expect the beginning of transition to democracy in China, assuming an approximate parallel with Taiwan. Even the suggestion seems utterly audacious. However, it makes more sense than most present political rhetoric.

So do we have any right to condemn China so unabashedly? We do have a right to be fearful for ourselves, as well as to share a normal human concern for all people under illegal restriction, isolation or powerlessness. That is clear. However, we should be wary of thoughtlessly blackening China, for thereby we blacken ourselves. On a small, well-endowed island, protected by the most powerful nation on Earth, Taiwan’s economy grew fast just as its polity descended into a dark age.

However, we can push even further in some effort to gain historical perspective on present political conversation. We might indeed argue for greater leniency toward China in our simple bilateral comparison.

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