Harvard professor emeritus Ezra Vogel recently visited Taiwan for the release of the Hanzi edition of his new book on former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). During his visit, Vogel said Taiwan’s democracy was inspiring for China and could serve as a model for China’s democratic development.
While I fervently hope that China will become a democratic country, I cannot agree that the Taiwanese experience can serve as a model. First, Taiwan’s transition to democracy was very much due to the unique situation in Taiwan during the 1980s. The majority of Taiwanese had been disenfranchised during four decades of martial law under the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration and rose up to claim their right to a representative government. It is therefore very much a democracy with a Taiwanese character.
The situation is similar to the US’ experience: Americans are proud of their democracy and how they achieved it. No one on this side of the Atlantic would say that the US was the “first democracy on British soil.” US citizens do not deny their British heritage, or Irish, or Italian, or Afro-American, but emphasize that US democracy is the result of combined influences from many different cultural backgrounds.
The second reason is that the Chinese need to find their own unique way to achieve democracy. This cannot be spoon-fed or “inspired” by an old arch-enemy. Imagine if the US had sent an emissary to London in the early 1800s and told the British that the US presidential model should be inspiring them to do away with the House of Lords and Commons and set up an US-style congressional system. That would not have sat well with the British, who are proud of their history.
A third element of importance here is that of mutual recognition: The UK and the US are now the best of friends because they respect the others’ system of government and recognize each other’s sovereignty. The British queen has been the guest of honor at the White House in Washington, while the US president is a welcome guest in London.
As of now, the situation between Taiwan and China is still less than rosy: the latter claims sovereignty over Taiwan, although in the long history of the island it has never been ruled by China, while Taipei is twisting itself into “mutual non-denial” concoctions which are little understood, even to close observers.
As I have argued before (“Taiwan deserves normalized relations,” March 6, page 8), the best solution is for the international community — including China — to normalize their relations with Taiwan. This requires visionary leadership, in Taiwan itself and among the leaders of the US and Western Europe.
However, it is possible: This year, the US is commemorating the War of 1812, when the British returned to the US and burned down the White House and US Congress. Nobody thought 200 years ago that there would ever be mutual recognition, but now the US and the UK are the best of friends. There are even joyous celebrations in Washington titled “British Invasion Week.”
In the same way, Taiwan and China need to move toward mutual recognition. However, since China is big and Taiwan is small, the international community needs to be more supportive of Taiwan and prevail on China to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbor, just like the British eventually came to terms with the existence of the US.
That would be a good model for China to follow.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.