We Should Welcome Taiwan’s Democratization

Remarks by Carl Gershman, President, March 4, 1999

The National Endowment for Democracy

Remarks given at the “Two Decades of US-Taiwan Relations” Conference sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the American Institute in Taiwan

When I was invited to address the issue of Taiwan’s democratization and its impact on US-Taiwan relations, it was suggested that I was to represent the idealist point of view — presumably counterposed to the realism of my colleague Harry Harding. I doubt that Harry is any happier with this dichotomy than I am. I’m sure he thinks he has some claim to idealism, and I certainly believe that I’m a realist. If I can guess where the line might appropriately be drawn in this discussion, it is between those who welcome Taiwan’s democratization as a hopeful development, and those who think it poses a new obstacle to unification with the mainland and thus constitutes a threat both to regional stability and constructive relations between the United States and China.

It is possible, of course, for someone to straddle this line — to believe that Taiwan’s democratization contains both hopeful and destabilizing elements. Even if this is true, it doesn’t follow that the destabilizing elements are necessarily a bad thing. It depends on how one defines the problem. “The worst, the most corrupting of lies,” the French philosopher Georges Bernanos once wrote, “are problems poorly stated.” If the problem is the de facto independence of Taiwan, which is intolerable to China, then the solution is unification. From this point of view, Taiwan’s democratization is a negative factor since the people there do not want to be absorbed into China’s rigid authoritarian system.

But if that system itself is seen to be the problem, and the principal source of regional tension, then the solution is China’s democratization, a process that will be stimulated by the successful model of Chinese democracy that now exists across the Taiwan Straits. As President Lee Teng-hui said following his victory in Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, “The fruits of the Taiwan experience will certainly take root on the Chinese mainland.” From this point of view, therefore, Taiwan’s democratization is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that China’s dictatorship is an anomaly in today’s world and an obstacle to the successful modernization of the country. It is hard to see, for example, how China can deal with the explosive problem of corruption in the absence of a free press, an independent judiciary, and a process of free elections that introduces the principle of political accountability. Nor is it realistic to assume that China’s autocratic political leaders, who are desperate to hold onto total power, are prepared or even able to take the bold steps needed to make China competitive in the global economy. The “instability” that they warned against at the just-concluded annual meeting of the National People’s Congress is the inevitable by-product of a system that cannot adapt to the sweeping changes of the modern world.

The same factors that block reform also explain China’s bullying international behavior. At the conclusion of a century during which every other empire has been dismantled, from the Hapsburgs to the global empires of the various European powers to the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, Beijing audaciously claims the right to control the empire of the Manchu dynasty. This imperial impulse is partly the result of China’s wish to assert its great-power status. But it can also be traced to the same defensiveness that blocks China’s adaptation to the economic and political dynamics of the contemporary world.

Beijing’s dilemma is that the energy and momentum of change within the Chinese world today is flowing from the periphery to the center, meaning from Taiwan and the overseas Chinese communities to the mainland and not the other way around. As long as the mainland refuses to adapt to change, it will regard the periphery as a threat to its survival and will act accordingly. In this respect, Taiwan represents the greatest challenge, “a standing rebuke,” in the words of Orville Schell, “to the Communists’ insistence that Chinese culture is incompatible with liberal democratic institutions.”

This juxtaposition of the new Taiwan democracy with the authoritarian system on the mainland obviously creates many problems and tensions, not the least of which is that it is hard to conceive of any way to resolve the issue of Taiwan’s status that would be acceptable to both China and Taiwan. Since the issue is the international status of Taiwan, which is a democratically self-governing entity, it seems entirely appropriate to invoke the principle of international law which stipulates that the determination of such status take due account of “the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.” In this case, the people of Taiwan have not yet opted for de jure independence. They seem to recognize that taking this step would be provocative in the present context, and so they have accepted the status quo of de facto independence as the next best option. Given their pragmatism and moderation, the international community has a special obligation to respect their fundamental rights.

It is also not terribly realistic to try to resolve the Taiwan issue over the heads or behind the backs of the Taiwan people. They would certainly resist pressure toward this end and would be able to draw upon a broad reservoir of support in our own and other democracies.

But the present impasse will not last forever. Since we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how the world has changed during this period. Taiwan’s democratization has been part of a global trend that political scientists have called “the third wave.” Next month is the tenth anniversary of another milestone — the successful conclusion of the roundtable negotiations in Poland which set in motion the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that we are also rapidly approaching the tenth anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square suggests that China is not immune to these global trends and the forces that propel them, even if it was able to suppress the uprising of 1989. I note, for example, that the current issue of The Economist cautions against counting on the “long-term survival” of China’s Communist Party.

It is more realistic, in my view, and also more compatible with our values, to base policy on the possible democratization of China than it is to try to override the democratic consensus in Taiwan in order to remove an issue of contention in relations with China. In fact, it is hard to imagine a resolution of the issue of Taiwan’s status in the absence of democratization on the mainland. I would not venture a guess as to what that final status might be. But I feel fairly certain that in that new context, the issue would not be the lightening rod that it is today.