The path of Taiwan's democracy

By Lee Teng-Hui (李登輝)  / 

Fri, Oct 28, 2005 - Page 8

Editor's note: This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the National Press Club in Washington on Oct. 21.

Ladies and gentlemen: I am delighted to have the opportunity to come to the United States of America, a country built upon the spirit of democracy and freedom. Several hundred years ago, your forefathers braved dangers to reach a new land. In 1776, they adopted the Declaration of Independence, which provides that all men have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are formed to secure these rights upon the consent of the governed.

When our ancestors came to Taiwan, they may not have had a Mayflower Compact, but they possessed the same intention of pursuing freedom and happiness. This ideal of the Taiwanese people was gradually realized, step by step, in 1989, the beginning of Taiwan's democratic era.

As with its economic miracle, Taiwan's democratic reforms have been a success story that has won the attention of the world. During the democratization process, I led a KMT [Chinese Nationalist Party] government that listened carefully to the people's demands, to respect the will of mainstream popular opinion and to become the main force for promoting reform. At that time, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also advocated reform, and therefore both parties, though competitors, worked together shoulder to shoulder on political reform. Through tenacious efforts, authoritarian rule gradually gave way to the boulevard of democracy. The ethnic tensions that materialized in the 1940s also dissolved under the harmony of democracy.

In the year 2000, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the DPP candidate, won the presidential election. However, the victorious DPP government faced the predicament of a legislature controlled by opposition parties and the consequent boycotts of its policies. Furthermore, this inexperienced administration was not tolerant enough, leading to major clashes between political parties and re-igniting ethnic tensions. What is regrettable is that the present ethnic tensions in the new political environment, combined with China's divisive efforts, have worsened into a conflict on national identity. Therefore, I have put forward the idea of the "new-era Taiwanese," which promotes the use of the spirit of democracy to overcome internal disparity.

During the last decade of the 20th century, the tidal "third wave of democratization" that began in the early 1970s swept over Taiwan. We accepted our baptism into this third wave of democratization through a "quiet revolution" without bloodshed, though there were inevitable social tensions and conflicts. Taiwan's democratic experience earned the attention of Professor Samuel P. Huntington, the renowned political scientist.

Yet, as Professor Huntington has noted, some of the countries that were part of the "third wave of democratization" face obstacles, and thus, may not become full democracies.

Where do the threats to Taiwan's democracy come from? There are certain political parties in Taiwan that are anti-democratic. These remnants of the authoritarian era, which are unwilling to give up their vested interests or face the fact that authoritarian rule has crumbled, attempt to baffle the people using ideology in an attempt to usurp the choice of the people. In Taiwan, this anti-democratic force is quite rampant and supported by the Chinese totalitarian regime.

China, across the Taiwan Strait, has never wavered from its ambitions to annex Taiwan, although its tactics may have changed. For example, in the past they launched missiles to threaten Taiwan, but the Taiwanese people stood tall.

Now they adopt softer tactics such as economic profits to attract Taiwanese, however the substance is still the same. As long as Taiwan is not subsumed into China, Chinese tyranny will never cease offering incentives and applying coercions. The anti-democratic forces, with their ideological wrappings inside Taiwan, quickly became good friends with the authoritarian Chinese. With the support of the Chinese, their anti-democratic actions become less restrained and less hampered. The interplay of these internal and external factors has led to complexity and confusion in Taiwan's national identity. This is the most significant threat to Taiwan's democracy.

Some Asian leaders advocate so-called "Asian values." Asian traditions are not irreplaceable, yet the political process of some countries shows that "Asian values" ultimately are used as an excuse to deprive the people of human rights, and so become a major stumbling block in their path to full democracy. Fortunately for Taiwan, the influence of Confucian traditions is not entrenched enough to create this problem.

Currently, the major issue for Taiwan to resolve in its path toward full democracy is the confusion in its national identity. Various surveys show that more and more Taiwanese people see themselves as being Taiwanese or do not deny that they are Taiwanese. This is proof of the assimilation of different ethnic groups in Taiwanese society under democracy.

Regrettably, those political groups that have been rejected by the voters use political maneuvers to fracture social harmony and stir dissent over national identity. They want to adopt the "Greater China" ideology -- used in the authoritarian period to amass power -- to subvert modern, democratic Taiwan. Today, their support comes not from domestic voters, but from the hegemonic arguments, military threats and economic tactics of China across the Taiwan Strait.

Undeniably, Chinese national power is growing, and "bringing Qing soldiers through the gate," or using a Trojan horse, which refers to those political groups' cooperation with the communists in order to control Taiwan, worsens the nation's predicament.

For Taiwanese people to overcome these challenges, they must first strengthen national identity. If we look closely at Taiwan, we find that the Taiwanese people of over 50 years ago and the Taiwanese people of 50 years hence have undergone a qualitative change.

In the past, after being brainwashed by outside regimes, Taiwanese had no choice but to deem themselves Chinese. Today, more and more people have come to realize that this was both a fabrication of fact and history.

In reality, during the process of democratic reform in the last decade of the 20th century, we frequently asked ourselves, "Who am I? Who are we?"

Professor Huntington also mentions in his new book, Who are We?, that many countries face various national identity issues, albeit in varying form and substance, adding that in Taiwan, the national identity of the people is in the midst of dissolution and reconstruction.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said: "... man, being condemned to be free, carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and himself as a way of being."

Speaking of which, I cannot help but think of the philosophy established by Immanuel Kant's three major critiques. My inspiration from his philosophy is this. Humans must understand their own limitations in order to manage self-reliance and motivation so that life is elevated to a higher purpose and becomes more worthwhile. If we take his analysis to a higher level, we find that what Kant said, "Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law," to be very significant. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1966 undoubtedly represent modem interpretations of this proposition. It is the obligation of the Taiwanese people to themselves and the world to strive for the realization of international human-rights standards delineated in these covenants.

"New-era Taiwanese" ought to engage in such philosophical analysis and take action to practice it, starting from invigorating their minds to realize Friedrich Nietzsche's "revaluation of all values" (Umwertung aller Werte) so that they can shape an all-encompassing spiritual transcendence and cultural renewal.

It would not be difficult for such enlightened Taiwanese to break the shackles of historical fabrications and develop a firm and resolute national identity for a democratic Taiwan.

Only upon this new foundation can democracy eradicate lingering ethnic conflict, prevent anti-democratic political forces from stirring up unrest out of self-interest, and stop the political warfare arising from the hegemonic "Greater China" ideology from gaining the advantage.

A national identification based on democracy is the best guarantee for Taiwan's democracy. Like some of the other countries involved in the third wave of democratization, Taiwan has also lapsed into a worrisome democratic cadence in recent years. This is a situation that cannot be ignored by friends who are concerned about Taiwan's democratic development.

In the future, whether the democratic achievements that Taiwan has made in "the third wave of democratization" will be further consolidated or instead take an unfortunate step backward will affect the expansion or contraction of global democratic values. In other words, how democratic countries can support each other deserves everyone's close attention.

From a geopolitical point of view, the strengthening of Taiwan's democracy is an important link in the democratic front line of defense in the Asia-Pacific region. Once this line is broken, it will be devastating for global democracy and peace.

Yet I would like to make an optimistic prediction that the threats to Taiwan's democracy will not be fatal as long as we do not lose confidence in democratic values, as long as our democratic functions do not head off track, as long as our legal institutions improve and as long as the 23 million people of Taiwan eventually deem their national identification with Taiwan to be natural and proper.

At some point in the future, Taiwan will march with even firmer steps toward the goal of becoming a full democracy.

Lee Teng-hui is the former president of Taiwan.