Taiwan’s Maturing Democracy: The Challenge of Leadership and Responsibility

Keynote Address by Carl Gershman, President
The National Endowment for Democracy

Keynote delivered for Brookings/CSIS Joint Symposium on “Consolidating Taiwans Democracy: Challenges, Opportunities, and Prospects”

Washington D.C.

Let me begin my remarks this morning with a few words of background. The NED has had a close relationship with Taiwan for more than a decade, though the initial contacts were marked by an unexpected but illuminating misunderstanding. I was planning a trip to the region in the fall of 1994 and thought I might stop in Taiwan, which I had never visited before, to explore the possibility of Taiwan’s establishing a democracy foundation like the NED. In the post-Cold War environment of the early 90s, democracy promotion was beginning to expand as a field of international activity, and other democracies like Britain and Canada had just launched their own foundations. For a number of reasons, I thought Taiwan might find the idea attractive and therefore wanted to start a discussion with the appropriate people, if I could find them. I asked a friend who dealt with Taiwan to make some inquiries, and he came back with the response that a visit by NED was not needed since Taiwan was already a democracy and didn’t need the kind of assistance we were known to provide.

I thought I might skip the visit, but then, almost simultaneously and certainly by coincidence, I got a long email from Larry Diamond those who know Larry are aware that he rarely writes short emails telling me that Sam Huntington had just been approached by the Director General of Taiwan’s Information Office, Jason Hu, with the idea that Taiwan would host a major international conference on the third wave of democratization. Jason was obviously looking to call attention to Taiwan’s democratic transition, and he wanted a partner who knew the field of democracy studies. Sam proposed the NED’s newly established research center, the International Forum for Democratic Studies, and contacted Larry who was the Forum’s co-director. All of a sudden, I not only had someone to talk to but an ambitious project, and the rest is history. The conference, held the following summer on the theme of “Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies,” was a major event, bringing together many of the world’s leading democracy scholars and practitioners, among them Robert Dahl, Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan, Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, Adam Przeworski, Robert Scalapino, Francis Fukuyama, former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar of Russia and Mart Laar of Estonia, and many others. It was also addressed by four of Taiwan’s leading officials: President Lee Teng-hui, Premier Lien Chan, James Soong, the governor of Taiwan province, and Chen Shui-bien, the major of Taipei. It led to the publication of two volumes of essays edited by Larry and Marc Plattner on our side, and Hung-mao Tien and Yun-han Chu of Taiwan’s Institute for National Policy Research. Many joint initiatives were to follow, and in 2003 Taiwan even established the democracy foundation that was but a far-fetched idea when it was first suggested almost a decade earlier.

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy has given Taiwan the ability to play a role in an important new aspect of what the political scientists call “non-territorial global functional space,” which includes, among other areas of international activity, commerce, science, the arts, and increasingly civil society and democracy promotion. Through the Foundation Taiwan has been able to participate in the worldwide association of democratic countries called the Community of Democracies, having hosted the Asia non-governmental preparatory conference that preceded the Community’s ministerial meeting held last April in Santiago, Chile. It participated in the Seventh World Meeting of Democracy Promoting Foundations held in Stockholm last August and is the likely host of the Eighth Meeting that will be held next year. It’s also the main sponsor of the World Movement for Democracy’s newly launched Global Network on Local Governance, which is based in India, and has created the World Forum for Democratization in Asia that serves as a principal hub for the World Movement’s Asia regional network.

All of this is encouraging and positive, but it’s not the subject of our meeting this morning, nor should it deflect our attention from the fact that Taiwan’s own democratic consolidation has not progressed as smoothly or as rapidly as many of us had hoped and expected. Yun-han Chu’s account in the Journal of Democracy of what he calls the “traumatic” presidential election of March 2004, and his analysis of how dysfunctional many aspects of Taiwan’s political process have become, makes for very sober reading. It is a story of deep political divisions; of legislative gridlock and political immobilization; of neglect of urgent economic, social, and security issues; of a loss of civility in public life; and of declining public confidence in the democratic process as the two camps of the divided political class seem more intent on doing battle with each other than with addressing critical national problems. I’m tempted to say that the polarization and disillusionment that have gripped Taiwan — which few could have anticipated at the time of our conference in 1995, when the four men who would subsequently lead the rival Pan-Blue and Pan-Green coalitions came together to talk about democracy — have troubling similarities to what has happened in this country since our own presidential election in 2000. But Taiwan is still a new democracy. It has a weaker tradition of constitutionalism than the United States, a less tested and accepted electoral system, and far deeper divisions deriving from the legacy of authoritarianism, the conflict over national identity, and fundamental differences over how to manage the menacing pressures from the mainland. In a word, Taiwan has a much smaller margin for error and runs a grave security risk if it indulges partisan passions for too long.

Like Yun-han Chu, I am cautiously hopeful that public disaffection with the political class might chasten the politicians and trigger a process of self-correction and political learning, the capacity for which is one of democracy’s chief advantages. We should never forget Amartya Sen’s insight that democracy has a constructive function in that it allows public discussion that can generate informed choices and encourage the growth of mature citizens. This is certainly consistent with Larry Diamond’s thesis that democracy is a developmental process that progresses according to no fixed sequence or timetable and that it is possible to learn from experience and to build upon it. It is also important to keep in perspective the difficulties in democratic consolidation that Taiwan has encountered of late. Taiwan’s problems pale in comparison, for example, to the actual assault on democracy that is taking place in Russia and some other post-communist countries, or to the backsliding that has occurred in Venezuela, where democratic forms are being used to legitimize autocracy. I’m much more worried about the future of democracy in Nigeria or even Thailand than I am about Taiwan’s ability to make adjustments and move forward.

That having been said, though, I want to come back to the issue of relations with the mainland, which represent the most palpable threat to Taiwan’s democracy and security. The deep cleavages that divide Taiwan not only block progress on democratic consolidation but also allow China to intervene in Taiwan’s politics and to play the different political camps off against each other. China has also been successful in making Taiwan’s status, and its refusal to succumb to Chinese pressures, the principal issue in the contentious cross-Strait relations. This has the unfortunate effect of obfuscating what is, in fact, the fundamental problem, which is the mainland’s outmoded, unitary, and oppressively centralized and inflexible concept of sovereignty.

No large and complex state in the twenty-first century can hope to be successful and to be integrated into the dynamic global economy if it tries to exercise authoritarian control from the center and resists the adoption of a federal legal and political structure. China’s economic liberalization is already causing a growing strain between the center and the increasingly assertive regions where party cadres operate outside the framework of law and beyond the reach of the bureaucrats in Beijing. The result is rampant corruption presided over by what Michael Davis has called a new “class of local cadre-entrepreneurs,” regional protectionism, environmental degradation such as the calamitous chemical spills into China’s major rivers, distorted markets, arbitrary justice, industrial disasters (particularly in the mining sector, where more people have died on average every day over the last six years than perished in last January’s two mining tragedies in West Virginia), and growing popular unrest.

The sharpening contradiction between China’s developing economy and its anachronistic political structure has the effect of feeding the insecurity of the bureaucrats at the center which, in turn, reinforces their refusal to accommodate the needs and desires of the peripheral communities in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The bureaucrats act like they think they’re on a slippery slope, fearful that any concessions in the direction of greater pluralism and tolerance would cause the entire system to unravel. Thus, they’re pressing not just to contain but to roll back democracy in Hong Kong, and they systematically repress the Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, treating the distinct religious and cultural identity of each as a threat to the unity of the Chinese state. Obviously Taiwan represents the greatest threat of all since it is least under their control and, as a functioning democracy, constitutes a standing rebuke to the autocratic system on the mainland.

All of these peripheral communities, Taiwan included, share a common interest in the development of greater democracy in China, a precondition for which is a more rational territorial political structure, combining elements of federalism and confederalism, which would accommodate China’s regional and communal diversity. Despite this common interest, these communities rarely speak with each other, nor are they engaged in any sustained discussion with people in China who share their interest in a more open, modern, and democratic political system and territorial structure.

With this problem in mind, the NED recently convened a small meeting of specialists and activists from or connected to each other these communities, including exiled Chinese, to consider how efforts to settle the status issues might encourage democracy in China, and to explore possibilities for cooperation. There was agreement on three points: First, that it is desirable to break down the isolation of each of these communities and to organize more common discussions across communal lines; second, that it is necessary to challenge and ultimately to change the monolithic discourse and closed mindset that deny any legitimacy to minority political and cultural communities; and toward that end, to complexify the discussion of status issues, focusing on concrete problems that cannot be solved in the context of a unitary and absolutist state structure.

In preparing for this meeting, I asked a friend on the mainland if he thought some use might served by organizing a discussion of the relationship between democratization on the mainland and a settlement of the different status issues. To my surprise, he wrote back that cooperation among the peripheral communities in pressing Beijing for democracy had “vital importance.” It would “send a clear message to Beijing and the Chinese people: No democracy, no unification!” He noted in conclusion that “No encouragement and inspiration would be greater than this to those pro-democrats inside China.”

If greater discussion and common effort among what we called the “quartet” of peripheral communities could provide real encouragement to democrats inside China, it already has enormous value. It could also challenge Beijing to offer a definition of “one China” that is consistent with modern concepts of sovereignty, decentralization, and democracy, and not try to change the issue by insisting that the aspiration of Taiwan’s people for freedom is a threat to Chinese sovereignty and peace. As Taiwan continues to consolidate its own democracy, it will be in an ever stronger position to influence the process of democratization in China itself. It is a process in which Taiwan has a profound self-interest, since it will advance its own security and the cause of peace in Asia and beyond. Not least, the goal of encouraging democracy in China might serve as a common rallying point for Taiwan’s rival political camps, reminding them of something that parties in a democracy sometimes forget, which is that the issues that divide them are not nearly as important as the values that should hold them together. That’s a truth that no democracy can afford to overlook.