Whether or not we admit it, Taiwanese society remains extremely "Chinese," despite the desinicization rhetoric of the past decade. Nepotism, sycophancy, shirking of responsibility, joining cliques in search of individual profit, shameless egotism and other practices written about in the book Officialdom Unmasked (官場現形記) from the late Qing dynasty are perpetuated in modern Taiwan.
More than six years ago, people still had hope in President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), a man who was seen as representing Taiwanese honesty, but the hope that he would be a "local savior" was, strictly speaking, still very Chinese. Six years later, political corruption continues and anyone who is feeling disillusioned -- and is waiting for the next savior -- will surely be disappointed again, because this way of thinking is incompatible with the culture of democratic government.
If all the recent turmoil deepens a belief in the old maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps at least the corruption of the localized regime could have some benefit for the long-term security of Taiwanese democracy.
In order to strengthen democracy's hold in Taiwan, people must realize our biased cultural understanding of the human character. They must understand this to realize that eliminating corruption is not a matter of voting for one party or another. These kinds of things are bound to happen whenever anyone gains power.
The key to establishing a democratic system of government is to create a system that is prepared for the reality that nobody is capable of resisting the allure of power. The honesty that people may show before they gain power is normally false. This must become a basic understanding among all those who wish to promote democracy in Taiwan.
The core of Western constitutionalism is a system of checks and balances based on the idea that greed suppresses greed. This awakes the darker side of human nature by supposing that there is no way to stop humans from being corrupted by power, a more pragmatic approach than Chinese people's hopes for a savior.
Now that the Taiwanese have experienced firsthand how power corrupts, they should be better equipped to cast off the traditional way of thinking. We shouldn't be so concerned about people like presidential son-in-law Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘) overstepping legal bounds or about Chen's glib mouth, but should instead be considering how the current situation is a product of our cultural views.
This kind of reflection will lead us to the most fundamental tenet of the rule of law: Trust the system, not people.
To ancient paternalist civilizations, this may seem a bit cold. Taking a long-term view, however, belief in the system is a pragmatic approach when compared with the cycle of hope and disappointments brought by our flawed understanding of human nature.
Seeking to establish a system does not mean promoting skepticism or the destruction of our trust in society. It is instead a way of laying the foundation of trust in society based on the premise that human beings are unable to resist the allure of power, a strategy of dealing with ugliness head on before going on to a more enligthened way of life.
As we demand that the words and actions of the president and his family be laid out in plain view, this represents, from a traditional perspective, a lack of confidence in, and a humiliation of, the head of state. But when considering the need to establish long-term confidence in the presidency as an institution, this transparency establishes a foundation for trust between the president and society.
If Taiwanese people cannot learn to do away with their paternalistic view of those in power, whether they see their leader as "the son of Taiwan" or "the shepherd of the people," they will invite unrestrained corruption, and do themselves a terrible injustice.
Many people have called for a system to combat corruption. Examples have included criminalizing possession of assets of an unclear origin, a bureau to monitor government corruption, a code of conduct for public servants, a whistle-blower statute to protect informants, and even a national integrity system. This was one of the most important reasons for establishing Transparency International-Taiwan in 2003.
While pushing for system reform, we would like to remind everyone that such reform must be nothing less than a cultural revolution. In reality, a civilization that produced Officialdom Unmasked does not lack understanding of and criticism against corruption. To learn more about this, simply go to the Web site of Transparency International, where a variety of anti-corruption information is available.
However, the key to reform at this moment lies in whether the people of Taiwan have awakened culturally.
In addition to political corruption, there are many other corruption issues: corporate leaders engaging in insider trading while leaving shareholders in the dark, doctors accepting bribes and giving patients preferential treatment, school presidents accepting "red envelopes" for personnel appointments, professors networking in order to sell their own professionalism, baseball players taking money to lose a game and even non-profit organizations raising capital for private use.
If we justify our own behavior by arguing that such actions are "necessary evils" and a matter of maintaining relationships or social survival skills, then people have not understood who the real enemy of the anti-corruption movement is.
Corruption is not only a matter of degree but also a matter of cultural attitude. It is not limited to the political field. As we seek a way out for Taiwan's democracy at this crucial moment, we believe that an anti-corruption movement is in fact the cultural revolution required to build a better system.
Hopefully, all of Taiwan's people will work on this together.
Chen Don-yun is an active board member of Transparency International Taiwan and an associate professor in the department of public administration at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Marc Langer and Eddy Chang
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