In remarks marking international Human Rights Day on Monday last week, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that it was important to earnestly put into practice the spirit of mutual respect and tolerance. However, Ma’s word was broken by members of his administration the very next day at a National Conference on Industrial Development held by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
It was clear to everyone in attendance that the “common opinions” reached at the conference had been decided quite a long time ago. Although labor and environmentalist groups protested against the charade, Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) and Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) paid them no heed and simply went on playing by the script.
Chen went so far as to say the protesters should respect other people’s right to speak. It would be fair to ask what kind of respect and tolerance the meeting’s organizers showed to those holding different opinions from their own.
Society is pluralistic by nature. Naturally there will be different opinions arising from different values, interests and ideologies. It is precisely for this reason that meetings and discussions need to be held. Those who take part in such meetings should be prepared to air their views frankly, but also listen patiently to other opinions.
This way, meetings can bring together the views of various groups and individuals in search of a consensus that may lead to solutions for social problems.
Leaving aside the views of the various participants in Tuesday’s meeting, the point is that if you hold a meeting and invite people to attend, then you should treat their opinions with respect and tolerance, and apply wisdom to arrive at common standpoints.
That is not what the meeting’s organizers did. Instead they just read through a list of predetermined conclusions. What is the point of holding a meeting like that? Who is it that really needs to show a bit more respect?
Genuine democracy should incorporate genuine respect and tolerance, and these phrases should be put into practice with sincerity, not just repeated like a mantra.
The sad thing is that, while those in government often talk about tolerance and respect, their way of operating is more often a matter of first deciding what the conclusions should be and then excluding any dissenting opinion. When there is a backlash, the authorities’ hired media hacks are set in motion to accuse dissenters of being impolite or irrational.
Last week’s conference is just the most recent example of this kind of behavior. Many other government-organized explanatory meetings, public hearings and discussions about proposed legislation and amendments tend to follow the same model.
A government that operates in this way could be called a closed-door government, and a democracy of this nature could be called a martial-law democracy, because it is not much different from the way things were done in the bad old days of martial law.
Hsu Shih-jung is a professor in the Department of Land Economics at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Julian Clegg