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Taiwanese should support democracy in China

A few months ago I wrote about Charter 08 and its relevance to Taiwan. With the 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square Massacre approaching the issue of democracy in China is again in the spotlight.

Chinese democracy activist Wang Dan (王丹) has recently accepted a teaching position at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (政治大學). Wang was one of the leaders of the student movement during the 1989 protests in Beijing. He spoke at a seminar in Taipei yesterday. The Taipei Times reports:

Taiwan must show strong bipartisan support for the democratic movement in China, which is gaining prevalence in Chinese civil society, exiled Chinese democracy activist Wang Dan (王丹) said in Taipei yesterday.


“Regardless [of whether it is the] ruling or the opposition party, Taiwan must not be silent or absent from urging China to apologize and compensate [the victims] for what the government did in Tiananmen Square,” Wang said, adding that he was “disappointed” with apparent Taiwanese apathy to the event.

As I wrote in my earlier post about Charter 08, China should not necessarily look to Taiwan as a model for its democratisation. However, there is a great deal that the Chinese can learn from Taiwan through engaging in dialogue and better understanding the Taiwanese experience of democracy.

Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu’s (陳菊) visit to Beijing this week showed that engagement with China does not have to come at the expense of sacrificing Taiwan’s dignity. She directly mentioned “President Ma Ying-jeou” during a meeting with the Beijing Mayor (video).

Li Ao (李敖) made a speech at Peking University in 2005 where he criticised the CCP and emphasized the importance of freedom of speech. Some might criticise Li Ao for his pro-unification views, but at least he wasn’t afraid to say what he believed in.

Chen Chu and Li Ao provide a stark contrast with other Taiwanese politicians who have visited China. KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) had kind words for Chen Chu, but still refused to say whether he would refer to Ma as the President during his visit to China next week.

There is some debate within the DPP about whether or not its politicians should visit China. Chen Chu has set an example to follow. Politicians from all parties visiting China should not be afraid to refer to the “President” or to Taiwan as a “nation”. Furthermore they should be open about the itinerary and purpose of their visit in accordance with the democratic principle of transparency.

If Taiwanese politicians that visit China merely acquiesce to the CCP and tell the Chinese what they think they want to hear this undermines Taiwan’s status and does nothing to promote the values of democracy. Through clearly promoting democratic values during their visits to China, Taiwanese politicians can both safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty and encourage China’s nascent democracy movement.

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File next to:
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Comment from Brian Q. Webb
Time May 23, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Here’s my major concern about this…and this is coming from the perspective of someone that fully believes that Taiwan is a country.

Let’s say that the stars align, the PRCs leadership sees the light, and the Peoples Republic of China becomes a multi-party Democracy.

Of course the leadership will form it’s own party…let’s call it the “Socialist People’s Party” and put forward it’s own candidates for (assuming a system based on the US Republic system of 3 seperate-but-equal branches) president and legislature.

Who’s going to jump in and be opposition party?

Why, the same political party that still believes that one day they will rule China again, the only other political party with the funds and strength to mount an effective challenge, and the only other political party in China’s history: the KMT.

What would that do to Taiwan’s sovereignty?

Am I making sense at all or just being a nutball?

Comment from Howard
Time May 24, 2009 at 1:48 am

Yes Mr. Brian Q. Webb, you’re hitting the mail right into the head!

Comment from David Reid
Time May 24, 2009 at 9:36 am

Brian, the answer is not simple. It actually depends a lot on the nature of China’s shift to democracy, if and when it happens. If you read my article comparing transitional justice in Taiwan and East Germany (download from here) it shows two very different possible outcomes. I also mentioned the importance of transitional justice in my previous article about Charter 08 and Taiwan.

You are assuming that the Chinese transition would be much like that in Taiwan where the authoritarian party still hangs on to power. If that is the case then they would have a great degree of control over the type of opposition that emerges. I have heard rumors that the KMT has plans to re-establish itself in China, presumably after doing a deal with the CCP by selling out Taiwan. However, how would the KMT build any meaningful support in a nation they have been in exile from for 60 years? They would be limited to token participation in a token democracy.

Given the right conditions Chinese civil society can flourish. There is no reason that the Chinese people can’t form their own opposition parties. In my international relations class I gave a presentation on reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping. I concluded by saying that for China to really reform or democratise it must do two things, (1) strengthen the rule of law and (2) allow genuine freedom of association. It is not a good idea to hold elections until these conditions are satisfied.

Another point is that a democratic China would not necessarily be friendly to Taiwan. It could see the emergence of ultra-nationalistic forces, unrestrained by the current norms engendered by the party-state. That said, it is still very important for Taiwan to engage with China. If (semi-)official exchanges are limited to sycophants like Wu Po-hsiung and Lien Chan then the Chinese will never understand the real opinions of the Taiwanese people. They need to hear voices from Taiwan that better represent mainstream opinions.

Comment from Brian Q. Webb
Time May 24, 2009 at 10:05 am

I realized most of what you are saying (thus the “stars align” comment). There are an innumerable number of scenarios in the way China might Democratize. However, realize that Taiwan became a multi-party democracy because, in part, an opposition party of some strength was allowed to form (DPP). There is no such party in the PRC at the moment and I seriously doubt that the government would allow one to form.

At the moment.

The Communist government would have to choose to allow the formation of other political parties and then choose to allow them into whatever the political process is in much the same way the KMT did in the 90s.

This would probably require high levels of internal pressure. Some of this is already happening, thanks in large part to the shift in economy and modernization that has taken place over the past 30 years. But it’s not quite enough.

For people en mass to demand a new government it would take a perception of the government truly not acting in the people’s interests. It would take a populist perception of government irresponsibility. For example, the Tieniman square protests were spurred largely by a bump in the economy…the Communist system of economic governance was starting to fail in a capitalist global economy and the first to feel it were graduating students. The government has since shifted the way it manages the economy and the only real issues now are inflation, which has actually been made less of an issue by the global recession, and distribution of wealth.

The other area that might gain populist support is environmentalism, but the government isn’t acting completely, utterly irresponsible there, either.

Can you think of any issues that might get populist support in pushing for a change of government? “Democracy for Democracy’s sake” doesn’t work if the populous in general feels comfortable with the government.

Again, making sense or rambling?

Comment from David Reid
Time May 24, 2009 at 11:49 am

Well, it’s all hypothetical isn’t it? Sadly China is further away from the possibility of democracy and reform than it was in the spring of 1989.

I see public dissatisfaction with corruption and poor governance as the most likely factors to promote the development of an opposition. It could also be borne out of a basic desire by people to enjoy their civil and political rights.

You are making sense, but I just suggest you consider other possibilities. Taiwan and East Germany provide an interesting contrast.

Comment from The Foreigner
Time May 31, 2009 at 2:22 am

This is the problem I have with Chinese nationalism in Taiwan. Someone says they want a united democratic China?

Fine. Sounds wonderful. So what are they DOING to help bring about the “democratic” part of the equation?

A paper like the China Post will simply say that democracy in China is “inevitable”, and leave it at that. Which is the lazy man’s way out. If something’s inevitable, you’ve got a built-in excuse for not actually doing anything to help make it happen. Why SHOULD Ma Ying-jeou speak up about Tiananmen Square. It’s MUCH easier (and less dangerous) to secretly wish upon lucky star!

I’m currently reading a book about Czechoslovakia between the World Wars. In the early ’30s, there was some wishful thinking at times. But the government was also busy funding democratic newspapers in Germany who were opposed to the Nazis.

They gave it a shot, and failed. But nobody can say they didn’t give it a try.

Thirty years from now, if some lucky historian gets into Taiwan’s archives, will they find that the KMT government was secretly funding democratic movements inside China?

If they do, I’ll be the first to offer my sincerest apologies to Ma Ying-jeou, et al. If I’m still around.

But, I’m sad to say, I suspect my hypothetical historian will find something very different. Instead of KMT politicians actively working for a better, democratic China, he’ll find instead that they were busy doing nothing more than cutting deals to line their own pockets.

Comment from David Reid
Time May 31, 2009 at 11:23 am

The Foreigner,

From the Taipei Times today:

The former KMT regime and the former DPP administration had secretly funded overseas democratic movements, but following the accession of the Ma government there have been rumors that government-backed financial support was cut off.

Rebutting the claim, MAC officials said the Ma administration maintained close contact with such groups and continues to fund them.

Any funding would likely be channeled through the NSC which is not subject to any public scrutiny, so we can’t really know what the truth is. Like you though, I am not optimistic.