Democracy is vital to our economy

By Chen Ming-chi 陳明祺  / 

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 8

A while ago, a group of academics and social activists met after the Wild Strawberry Student Movement protests to discuss the political situation and explore concrete ways to strengthen the role of civil society in protecting democracy.

At the same time, Huang Wu-hsiung (黃武雄), who has long been concerned with educational reform, launched an online signature drive for a 50-year cross-strait peace proposal.

It may not seem to be a good time to discuss how to protect democracy and peace when the economy is struggling. Take a closer look, however, and it is clearly relevant to solving Taiwan’s economic problems.

The key issue is determining Taiwan’s comparative advantage. Many Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) supporters mistakenly believe that the past 20 years of political and economic development in Taiwan are the result of poor governing by former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and that the new administration only has to “put things right again” for peace and calm to return to Taiwan. In economic terms, this view is reflected in Taiwan’s opening up to China and the hope that China will save the economy.

While Beijing has announced that it will invest 4 trillion yuan (US$585 billion) to boost domestic consumption, Taiwan’s government and Taiwanese businesspeople in China respond to plummeting exports and soaring unemployment figures by looking to China. China, they hope, is a panacea for Taiwan’s recession.

The problem is that even if the Chinese market has lots of potential, Taiwanese businesspeople have to fight competition from local Chinese investors adept at obtaining the authorities’ protection and European, US, Japanese and South Korean investors with superior brand names. Why should Taiwanese businesspeople come out on top?

The Chinese government at different levels has seen many years of market reforms, international pressure following the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre has waned and China no longer lacks knowledge about foreign markets. Will China fully open its markets to Taiwanese businesses? Where does Taiwan’s comparative advantage lie and what should Taiwanese businesspeople rely on?

What does Taiwan have that China doesn’t? It’s not labor or land and not necessarily capital or technology. Compared with China or the whole Chinese-speaking world, Taiwan’s most important asset is its lifestyle, with a small investor mentality and civilized society.

This is a lifestyle the Chinese middle classes aspire to and long for. The impression that Taiwan leaves on observant Chinese tourists is not that Taiwanese skylines are inferior to Shanghai’s, nor is it that Alishan and Sun Moon Lake are too small; it is the calm, civilized way in which Taiwanese interact with each other.

Taiwan is not run by a party-state government. Taiwan is the harmonious society many Chinese people long for. This lifestyle is the result of two decades of Taiwanese democracy. It is not a harmonious order imposed from above by a party-state system, but rather a social contract that developed from the bottom up through a democratic system that respects human rights and is based on equality.

The special characteristics of Taiwan’s music, publishing, art, advertising, tourism, leisure and restaurant industries, its public activities and even funerary traditions arise from a lifestyle centered on the individual but supported by an overall democratic and peaceful system.

This lifestyle constitutes a fundamental difference when Taiwanese businesses in the service industry want to find inroads into the Chinese market.

It could even be the factor that will help Taiwanese manufacturers move away from original design manufacturing and original equipment manufacturing and into marketing products in China that embody this lifestyle, much in the way the added value of a bicycle lies in the concept of a green lifestyle. A bike indicates that you value and respect the environment.

A government that invites the suspicion that democracy is regressing will suffer both political and economic consequences. Without democracy, Taiwan may seem to be another China, but with higher manufacturing costs. Protecting democracy is the way to save the economy.

Chen Ming-chi is an assistant professor at National Tsing Hua University’s Insatitute of Sociology and a member of the executive committee of the university’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON