Some political commentators from the pan-green camp were recently angered by remarks by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), which they interpreted as saying that Taiwan’s democratic way of life was a “Chinese democracy,” arguing instead that it was a “Taiwanese democracy.”
Many of Ma’s detractors seem to regard the president’s comments on the subject as part of his administration’s attempts to Sinicize Taiwan, to the detriment of its identity as distinct from China.
While a case can be made about the Ma government’s tendency to overemphasize the Chinese “bloodlines,” “history” and “culture” that are part of the mix of Taiwanese identity, those who see Ma’s efforts as a dangerous attempt at rewriting history should in turn be wary of making claims that depart from reality.
Arguing that democracy in Taiwan is “Taiwan’s democracy,” it must be said, does exactly that.
Before the reasons why this is wrong are examined, consider first the language Ma used when discussing democracy as a potential influence on China. In his re-inauguration speech last month, Ma said: “Taiwan’s experience in establishing democracy proves that it is perfectly possible for democratic institutions from abroad to take root in an ethnically Chinese society” (臺灣實施民主的經驗，證明中華民族的土壤，毫不排斥外來的民主制度).
The key aspect in Ma’s formulation is “證明中華民族的土壤,” which literally means “on the soil of ethnic Chinese,” but which could also be interpreted as “territory.” Ma’s reference to “ethnic Chinese” would be disputed by a majority of Taiwanese, as would his contention that democratic institutions are “from abroad,” when in fact the thirst for equality, freedom and justice that lies at the core of democracy is both universal and timeless.
Nevertheless, democracy in Taiwan is not “Taiwanese democracy.” Beyond its universal quality, democracy is not a commodity that individuals, groups, peoples or nations can lay claim to. It is, rather, a continuum that ebbs and flows, with some aspects manifesting themselves in different periods and locations.
Throughout the course of history, a country can be deemed undemocratic during a certain period and democratic during another, only to veer back toward undemocratic (think of Russia). Furthermore, democracy is far more than simply holding regular elections to elect legislators and heads of state.
As the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, at one point in his illustrious career serving as UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote in one of his more philosophical moments: “Democracy is as much about what happens between elections as it is about what happens during them.” What was implied in De Mello’s statement is that stirrings of democracy could occur in countries that do not hold regular elections and are therefore not categorized as democracies. The opposite is also true, in that there is no guarantee that a country where regular elections are held will be democratic in how contesting groups within it are regulated and their differences resolved.
Referring to Taiwan as the first democracy in the Chinese world is not altogether disingenuous — provided that we extend the definition of Chinese to the “supranational,” whereby culture, language and genetic heritage are applied in the same way as they are to the “English-speaking world,” Africa or “the West.”
Various idiosyncratic factors notwithstanding, Taiwan is a democracy both because and in spite of its close ties to China, making its democratic development inseparable from a supranational China, whether we like it or not.
At one point there was such a thing as a first democracy in the West, a first democracy in the English-speaking world, and a first democracy in Africa. While the emergence of a democratic system might have occurred within sovereign borders, it nevertheless cannot be dissociated from the context and geography in which it happened. This by no means reduces the value of the fight for democracy by South Africans or Czechoslovaks, for example, or the possibility that those successes will inspire others to follow suit. However, it also does not give them the right of ownership over it.
Similarly, Ma is right when he says that Taiwan, given its cultural, linguistic and geographical proximity, could be a model for emulation by China on democratic development, and doing so does not diminish the greatness of Taiwan’s accomplishment. The same could be said of Japan or South Korea, which are also products of the “Confucian model,” a model often used by authoritarian leaders to deny their people the freedoms and justice they, like everyone else, are entitled to.
Whether contemporary China is capable of democratizing, or whether Taiwan is the key to such an outcome, is yet to be seen. Nor is there any guarantee that a democratic China would abandon its sovereignty claim over Taiwan, or that it would not consider using force to achieve this objective.
However, one thing is certain: Acknowledging the notion that Taiwan is the first democracy in the “Chinese world” does not mean one agrees that Taiwan is part of China. Only if we regard democracy as a commodity, as something that can be owned, will we see existential danger in the historical connection that such an argument creates between the Taiwan and China experiments.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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