Letter: Business and democracy

By Ben Goren  / 

Thu, Mar 15, 2007 - Page 8

Anyone who views CNN in Taiwan on a regular basis may have noticed a perceptible undertone to their programming. In spite of a number of reports aimed at presenting the cable network as humane, caring, pro-democracy and pro-freedom, the core ideology of the station is unadulterated pro-business globalization.

Beneath the sound bites and international slogans lie key unchanging assumptions about the nature of people and the importance of business in maintaining stability and harmony in the world. CNN's glorification and unabashed worship of business leaders demonstrate its belief that business is a reflection of nature, that business is nature in action and that to attempt to intervene in either is a folly that will and must be resisted. Its unspoken and underlying theory is that business will operate anywhere and anytime, regardless of political concerns.

Examples supporting this hypothesis are: IBM's dealings with the Third Reich, British colonialism and the exploitation of Africa's resources and the cozy relationship between the West's elite and Middle Eastern theocracies and dictatorships. Before 1991, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was purchasing weapons for use against Iran while supplying a steady stream of oil to his Western clients and handlers.

Any analysis of the investment strategies of multinational companies will reveal that rather than support democratic regimes where production costs are high, capital has instead flowed to autocratic and oppressive regimes that offer rich, untapped natural resources, low wages, or a potentially booming consumer market. The best example of this is China.

There is a number of reasons why understanding this is important for the future of Taiwan. Under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the fusion of party and state, combined with the oppression of dissent, the culture of "black gold" politics, along with some admittedly sound economic foresight and management, helped turn Taiwan from a country decimated by the arrival of the latest in a line of would-be colonizers to a country that has boomed. This economic progress has also been matched by a rise in standard of living and education, ultimately leading to the call for universal and free suffrage.

Taiwan now faces two of the most important elections in its history when Taiwanese must decide which direction they want to take. There are and will be no easy options. Maintaining the "status quo" is not an option because China is unlikely to accept that, as evidenced by passage of its "Anti-Secession" Law and its military buildup. Most importantly, the elections will involve decision-making by Taiwanese businesspeople since Taiwan is essentially an entrepreneurial society.

Given the threat of a Chinese attack, it is very likely that businesspeople could panic and opt for the KMT's vague assurances that only the party can guarantee economic stability and profit. The KMT may well argue that self-determination and democracy are overrated and unpredictable. It may also hint at how any sense of "Taiwanese identity" will quickly evaporate when Chinese missiles start flying, proving that people will choose any identity as long as they can still make money. Business sense could well then replace political sense, as Taiwanese flock to vote for their former colonial masters rather than stand firm for the country. This capitulation may well be?rationalized at the time as "pragmatism" and "sound economic sense." The public will no doubt be told "it's the economy dummy."

Once self-determination is sacrificed in favor of trade, how many more tragic events will take place before it once again finds a voice in this land. The decision rests with the Taiwanese, who have the responsibility to vote in the legislative elections in December and the presidential election in next March. Determining which of the two major parties can?fulfill?this responsibility will be difficult, as the pre-election rush will likely polarize their bases.

However, Taiwanese should not lose sight of their basic right, that is, to elect or remove from office any leader, and thereby determine and control their own polity, economy and environment. It will be the responsibility of business leaders to prove that democracy and sovereignty are not just "ideas" but essential business practices that are priceless and non-negotiable.

Ben Goren