A democratic experiment in China

By Dingli Shen | February 14, 2008

China doesn’t have a strong tradition of democracy, which makes Taiwan’s electoral experiment even more noteworthy.

In a few weeks’ time, Taiwan will hold its fourth direct election for executive leadership since
the 1990s. The world is both thrilled and nervous to see such a trial of democracy in this part of
China, because the Chinese don’t have a strong tradition of democracy.

For more than 2,000 years, a feudal system has dominated China. Though dynasties changed, the
monarchs kept succession within their families. Those in power worshiped the Confucian theory of
social order, as it preached a power hierarchy that placed the royal family above all human beings.
Nearly all emperors after Confucius picked up this theory of destined inequality to legitimize
their reigns.

The desire for democracy appeared on the mainland of China in 1919 after the collapse of the
Qing Dynasty. But this democratic urge didn’t bring China a desirable outcome. Instead it led to
warlord rivalries, Japan’s invasion, and a civil war, all of which left no room for the growth of
democracy. The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 brought with it class struggles,
the Cultural Revolution, and some indirect representative elections, though not the full-fledged
democratic institutions that Communist pioneers aspired to.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau–all part of China–didn’t have a tradition of democracy either,
until recently. Britain ruled Hong Kong until 1997, when its 99-year lease expired. The British
colonial regime installed a robust rule of law, but not a democracy–the majority of people living
in Hong Kong, the local Chinese, weren’t allowed to determine their political future. Prior to its
reversion to China in 1999, Macau was under the virtual control of Portugal for centuries, and
local Chinese lacked democratic opportunities.

Taiwan’s history is no better. The island was under the mainland’s feudal control prior to 1895,
was occupied by the Japanese from 1895-1945 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and was subject to the
Nationalists’ martial law until 1987. Taiwan held its first executive election in 1990 and its
first direct executive election in 1996, an epochal event in Chinese political history.

Taiwan’s democratic experiment is thought provoking, as it contradicts the arguments that
Chinese are not accustomed to or don’t deserve democracy. Taiwan started to transform its poor
economic and educational base 60 years ago when its sovereignty reverted to China. Since then,
Taiwan has embarked on a democratic path at the provincial level, shifting from military
suppression to indirect election and, eventually, to direct election. The case of Taiwan has often
been compared with other areas where Chinese rule themselves. If Taiwan can prove that Chinese can
consume democracy, then it will be hard to argue that Chinese elsewhere cannot do the same.

Given the mainland’s pace of modernization, more Chinese provinces will be on a par with Taiwan
economically and, eventually, socially. At the provincial level, Taiwan is most comparable to
Shanghai and Guangdong: Taiwan’s population is 20 percent larger than Shanghai’s but is only 20
percent of Guangdong’s; and Taiwan’s gross domestic product is twice that of Shanghai’s but was
recently eclipsed by Guangdong’s. On education, Taiwan’s per capita educational spending is greater
than Shanghai and Guangdong.

Despite its success, democracy in Taiwan has met challenges, as it has elsewhere in China. While
Chinese cherish the democratic achievements of the island, some feel that Taiwanese stress local
identity at the cost of traditional national identity, which could be harmful to the integrity of
the nation.

Democracy also mandates the orderly selection of leaders and the peaceful transfer of power.
Taiwan has struggled in this regard. The “assassination” attempt on the incumbent candidate, Chen
Shui-bian, on the eve of the election four years ago damaged the burgeoning democracy, and a repeat
should be prevented in March. The peaceful selection of and transfer of power to new leadership
would be a hallmark of Taiwan’s democratic maturity and sustain the ascent of the island.

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