Recently, Taiwanese have sunk into a feeling of anxiety as the country’s economic indices fall behind South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. We now have to settle for being bottom performer of the four Asian tiger economies, and the extent to which Taiwan lags behind South Korea is a particular cause of vexation.
Constitutionalism, democracy and rapid economic growth are the tools that nations must carry to pass through the tunnel of modernization. All three are essential. It is just that after passing through the modernization tunnel the scenery looks very similar to how it was beforehand. At the same time, once a nation has adopted constitutionalism and democracy, these conditions come to be taken for granted just like air and sunlight. This makes it easy to forget that constitutionalism and democracy are the foundations of economic growth and the guarantors of the fruits of that growth.
Among the four Asian tigers, only Taiwan has passed through the modernization tunnel driven by its civil society. Hong Kong and Singapore have only experienced a commercial type of economic growth, while constitutionalism and democracy have not rooted into those places and they have not developed into civil societies.
South Korea, for its part, has US troops stationed on its soil and North Korean troops facing it across the border. In addition, South Korea has historically gone through endless love-hate relationships with Japan, China and Russia. Consequently, the country has had to work hard to remain in modernity. Resentment is the central concept for understanding South Korean society, and resentment is something that takes a lot of hard work to shake off. The external expression of this resentful mentality is super-strong nationalism and pride. Such a society is not well suited to constitutionalism and democracy and in economics it follows a path of state-led developmentalism.
Following Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster last year, not only Japan, but other nations, including Germany and Italy, and even Taiwan have reconsidered the question of whether to keep nuclear power or not. However, South Korea is still moving ahead with nuclear energy and is building more atomic power plants. Besides, South Korea has also been keener than countries such as Taiwan, Japan and China to negotiate economic partnership agreements and other multilateral and interregional economic cooperation and trade deals, and it does not balk at sacrificing its national interests to achieve them. In other words, economic growth is South Korea’s undisputed national goal.
A country like that is too idealistic and its goals are too clear-cut, so it does not stand much chance of moving into the postmodern age. There is therefore no need for Taiwan to compare itself with South Korea. It is neither possible nor necessary to make such a comparison.
From the wide perspective of world history, Taiwan’s policies of a diplomatic truce, cross-strait detente, ending conscription, halting construction of the Kuokuang petrochemical plant and reconsidering nuclear power policies are not ideas suddenly thought up by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration. Rather, they are tangible signs of Taiwan’s entry into a postmodern stage.
Some national goals will inevitably be lost. While the nation state has not yet been formed, countries we once took to be our enemies no longer occupy that role. That is a bad thing for the national imagination, but is a good thing for getting Taiwan out of modernity. The next thing to happen will be that Taiwan’s invisible sectors will be highly activated. Social problems that have stayed concealed in subterranean aquifers will come gushing out — things like the widening gap between rich and poor and the breakdown of family values. All these problems will challenge the legitimacy of those in government and the essential value of democracy. Finally, the ideology that places economic development above all else will also be challenged. In other words, people will rethink the idea that happiness depends on modernity.