Such a heading is provocative. It is used to remind Taiwanese commentators and masters of rhetoric that their main complaint against China concerns its failure to liberalize its politics to match its undoubted success in economic growth. For most Taiwanese, China is seriously at fault, and therefore a real and present danger, in not allowing the growth of markets and greater commercial freedoms to be matched by growth of personal political, cultural and social freedoms.
Some go beyond this in their fear that the resulting contradiction between economy and polity in China will soon enough burst out into a wholesale failure of the great compromises of the Chinese system, slow-down in growth and political unrest, this in turn resulting in a rise once again of the armed forces and the old communism, leading to a direct armed threat against Taiwan itself.
It’s possible as future fact. However, it is not very effective Taiwanese rhetoric, given that we now enjoy a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government that for 50 years laid strong hands on the economy, enjoyed spectacular economic growth and viciously retained authoritarian governance from 1949, toward transition from 1986, with the lifting finally of martial law in 1987 and free elections during 1991 and 1992, and finally the first direct presidential election in 1996.
Taiwan suffered 38 years of martial law. Only Syria managed more, and during it many tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned, maybe 4,000 or more were executed, the older Taiwanese political and cultural elite was decimated, all of which spelled out the White Terror in Taiwan. When anyone in Taiwan waxes didactically about human rights in mainland China, as with the present Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) case, let them not entirely forget the White Terror of suppression that attacked all democrats, communists and supporters of Taiwanese independence. This does not reduce the importance of what is going on with Chen — it heightens it. Taiwan was very like China on such matters in the past.
So the one-party KMT had almost 50 years to move its fast-growing economic system into multi-party democracy. If we judge the real post-Maoist growth of China to have been from around 1978 (economic reforms led to an annual average growth rate about 10 percent from 1978 to 2010), it’s clear that we are asking more of communist China than was accomplished by capitalist Taiwan. If we add the 38 years of KMT dictatorship in Taiwan to the year 1978 we arrive at 2016 as the year in which we might expect the beginning of transition to democracy in China, assuming an approximate parallel with Taiwan. Even the suggestion seems utterly audacious. However, it makes more sense than most present political rhetoric.
So do we have any right to condemn China so unabashedly? We do have a right to be fearful for ourselves, as well as to share a normal human concern for all people under illegal restriction, isolation or powerlessness. That is clear. However, we should be wary of thoughtlessly blackening China, for thereby we blacken ourselves. On a small, well-endowed island, protected by the most powerful nation on Earth, Taiwan’s economy grew fast just as its polity descended into a dark age.
However, we can push even further in some effort to gain historical perspective on present political conversation. We might indeed argue for greater leniency toward China in our simple bilateral comparison.
First, the excuse for Taiwan’s White Terror was founded partially in the 228 Incident (or more truly, massacre) of 1947, possibly comparable to the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 in China, which also led to a taboo on all discussion. However, in great contrast, the original combination of economic growth and political suppression in China followed from a much more terrible, devastating and murderous and extended Maoist trauma, the Cultural Revolution. Just on that basis China had so much more to accomplish.
Second, China had no great superpower defending its place in the world, providing its arms by proxy; indeed the partnership with the Soviet Union probably became of negative impact from the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. It was an isolated giant, and the combination was bound to breed autarchy, fear and xenophobia, even as the economy began to grow. In this situation extreme nationalism could well have replaced communism, and with much the same results in the 1960s and 1970s.
Third, China was growing from a far lower socio-economic base than Taiwan — Taiwan’s incomes and endowments were better, it inherited infrastructure from Japan and skills and purchasing power from the migrants who flocked in as a result of the communist victory on the mainland. China received a few Machine-Tractor Stations from Moscow, but otherwise had to go it alone.
Fourth, China is massive and Taiwan is tiny. This alone should make Taiwanese wary of feeling so culturally or socially superior — it’s far easier to develop from a smaller, higher-income base than from a massive, traumatized inertia. Even those who cannot abide the politics of China can be impressed by the rate of economic growth since around 1987. However, it costs. It could not be done in complete liberty or through fast increases in freedom, else China would have emerged as another Russia circa 1990 or soon thereafter: Could our world really have afforded two such political economy disasters on such a massive scale at the same time?
Fifth, mass also means that it is taking a goodly time for middle-class consciousness to emerge on the mainland. Most agree that there is now a huge middle class in global income terms. Many would doubt its institutional substance. More academically, evidence is mounting that the Chinese middle class have developed the property rights, education, information systems, social networks and consumption standards of middle classes emerging elsewhere. Their impact on internal politics may take a little more time yet.
Finally, KMT nationalism was common coin in its time; in contrast, communism was isolating, feared and fearful, both within China and throughout the world. Shaking off that fear and ideological certainty, moving toward liberalism, might be expected to take longer in such a system when compared with the opportunistic terror of street-fighting, dark-as-night nationalism.
If readers are prepared to at least consider these forces at work in recent history, perhaps they can also see how we might evaluate today’s China in terms of yesterday’s Taiwan. Taiwanese politics were authoritarian, human rights were abandoned and democracy was held at bay during a very long period of economic growth, structural change and emergence as one of the leading Newly Industrializing Countries (NIC). Indeed Taiwan reached NIC status long before it liberalized its political system.
China started later from a much larger, but lower-level social and institutional basis. We might expect its political transition to be both later and more drawn-out than that of a small system such as Taiwan. If its political system had dramatically altered earlier (say around the time of Tiananmen), it may well have joined the Soviet Union in devastating the global political economy. It did not do so. The continuation of a restrictive, authoritarian system cannot be admired, but it can be understood. When we fear China we should gain perspective from the Taiwanese past.
Ian Inkster is a professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University (UK) and professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College.
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