Working to defend the democracy of Taiwan

By Andrew Cheng 鄭泰安  / 

Sat, Feb 19, 2011 - Page 8

Chinese culture has been around for more than 5,000 years and, in that time, rulers have exploited Confucian classics as a way to keep the people in check. Confucianism is intimately linked to feudalism and the persistence of feudal culture has been blamed as a key obstacle to democracy in China, Taiwan and Singapore.

Even today, you can still see evidence of this mindset throughout Taiwan and academia is no exception. I’ve always wanted to write a book on the modern face of feudalism, exploring why it has managed to survive the march of modernization in Chinese-speaking countries. I have never got round to it, as I don’t really feel qualified to attempt such a project, given the paucity of my knowledge in the humanities. Perhaps when I retire I’ll devote some time to it.

Ever since the era of former US president Ronald Reagan, the US has assumed that supporting economic development and universal access to education in China would result in the rise of a Chinese middle class and that would consequently allow democracy to emerge there. This view has proved to be wrong. Political power in China remains concentrated within a small elite, passed down according to a proscribed line of succession.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is cut from the same cloth, the difference being that Taiwan’s power elite actually have to participate in the electoral process to stay in power. For this reason, the KMT has maintained, to a certain degree, democracy, freedom and human rights. Worryingly, however, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his government are gradually eroding democratic freedoms, albeit in subtle and sophisticated ways, trying to return the nation to feudal authoritarianism. This is what China wants.

The ruler of a small country sends an emissary to the court of a powerful empire and pledges allegiance to the emperor, recognizing his authority. In return for his allegiance, he is bequeathed a small territory — let’s call it Taiwan — to preside over, on condition that he pays tribute at regular intervals, a mark of his continued loyalty. Sounds like feudal China to me, although it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to transplant this scenario into the 21st century. The only difference is that now everyone wears suits.

To be able to reinstate feudal authoritarianism it is necessary to gain control of people’s minds. First, the Confucian classics have been made required reading for students. The next step will be to adopt various tactics to control the media. I can see from my previous encounters with the KMT that, deep down, they haven’t changed one bit. A fresh set of clothes does not a new man make.

Democracy has taken root in Taiwan and grown over the past 20 years, but who knows whether it can survive in the face of this threat. I really do wonder how much the people who voted for Ma understand about politics. My fear is that they will fall for his rhetoric a second time and repeat the error by re-electing him next year.

If Taiwan wants to follow the practice of Western democracies, we need at least two major democratic political parties of comparable size, taking turns in government. The KMT has never been democratic, so strictly speaking party politics has yet to officially take off in Taiwan.

One hopes that the recent revolutions that have set the Arab world alight will have some kind of effect in the Chinese-speaking world. I am, of course, thinking particularly of China.

Andrew Cheng is a researcher at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences.