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Will China Ever be a Democracy?
The success of Taiwan's nascent democracy, a scant two decades old, invariably raises the question: Why not in China? Since 1996, all Taiwanese have been able to freely elect their nation's president, and despite expected growing pains, this fledgling democracy has proven to be not only alive but doing well.
As a result pundits in the West and even Taiwan's current president push forward the idea that Taiwan could be a model for China to follow suit. Unfortunately such is the unrealistic thought that pipe dreams are made of, or to borrow Samuel Johnson's statement on second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience.
For observers close to ground level in Asia, this is just not going to happen, certainly not in this century at least. The danger instead is that China will swallow Taiwan's democracy.
Why such doubt and negativity? True, it would be easy and almost natural to argue that since it happened in Taiwan, it could therefore happen in China. The more realistic approach, however, would be to examine and contrast how and why it happened in Taiwan and not in China. This reveals the many, huge differences between the people in these two countries.
Put plainly, Taiwanese are Taiwanese and Chinese are Chinese. The two have different histories, experiences, cultures (despite the efforts of some to link them) and democratic struggles including of course the results of those struggles.
More than a century has passed since Sun Yat-sen made the democratic proposal of government of the people, by the people and for the people, a proposal that culminated in the 1911 revolution. That was more than100 years ago and China is still not close to achieving that thought. In essence, Sun Yat-sen proposed a dream. The resultant reality however was simply a change from Manchu rule to Han rule.
Thus as those in power after 1911 sought to be "replacement emperors," Sun Yat-sen's dream all too quickly turned sour and into competing warlords and from them into a civil war between two Leninist states. At the end of that Civil War, the losers, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), fled to Taiwan and as a colonizing diaspora quickly put it under martial law.
The Taiwanese experience from 1911 on was totally different from this. As citizens of the Japanese Empire from 1895 on, the Taiwanese had been advocating the right to elect their own representatives to the Japanese Diet. They got that in 1945 but then had to face their new colonizers, the fleeing KMT. The United States with its propaganda supported the KMT's myth of "Free China," a myth used to cloak the one party state rule they had imposed on the Taiwanese.
And as if in ultimate irony and mocking insult, citizens in Imperial Japan achieved democracy within a decade after 1945, while the Taiwanese would suffer four subsequent decades of martial law, the White Terror, and a one-party state, in the so-called Free China. Through the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979 and other continuing protest, however, the Taiwanese did eventually win democracy. Unlike China, they knew they were fighting for self-determination and not another Han empire.
In 1911, most Chinese didn't know what they fought for. Their priority was simply getting rid of the Manchu rule. Thus as they became satisfied with a restored Han empire, they got lost amidst their new "competing emperors." The Taiwanese fared better because in winning their democracy they realized they were still suffering despite being a majority. Despite the rhetoric, the minority one-party state rule of the diaspora KMT was clear. Most post 1911, Chinese did not have that vision or that leverage.
When the minority Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became the surviving party that eventually replaced the minority Manchu dynasty, they quickly cloaked their rule by a few, but other minorities such as the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, Inner Mongolians etc. saw through it. And while Russia fortunately protected the outer Mongolians with the pragmatic aim of having a buffer state between their land and China, in China, the Han-centric Chinese Communist Party rule eliminated the focus of the why and wherefore of participatory democracy.
The elite CCP few could and would simply say control trumps participation and they represented the majority. Hong Kong illustrates the continuing issue of this problem.
Sixteen years into China's one country, two systems rule Hong Kong continues to feel the brunt of this facade. The people recently protested China's intended textbook indoctrination schemes etc., and some have even taken to displaying the colonial British flag. They do not do so because they want a return to British rule, but to symbolically say they were better off as a colony of Great Britain than a colony under China. Whatever the claims to ethnic union, they are Hong Kongers and not Chinese.
The size factor further betrays China's quest for democracy. Most Han Chinese identify more with empiric size than democracy. Taiwanese, however, do not need size for their identity; they are satisfied as an island democracy of 23 million. While it may be true that a small number of KMT would prefer their 1947 Constitution's dream of ruling the continent than admit that they lost the Civil War, nonetheless for true Taiwanese, their history tells them that they would rather be free than big.
It is already a century after Sun Yat-sen, and the Chinese people as a whole still do not have the means, the will or the knowledge of how to achieve what the Taiwanese did. One cannot deny that there are thousands of Chinese dissidents in jail for seeking democracy, but these will remain a minority. That the new privileged princelings in China will give up their control in favor of democracy remains a dream.
That the Chinese people would fight for democracy as the Taiwanese did is similarly a false hope. It remains cultural; the basic paradigm of the association of identity and greatness with size as well as the worship of an unchanging fixed Confucian hierarchy dictates such. This foundation, supported by control of the media, lack of transparency and the mistrust of giving power to one's fellow people will continue to undermine democratic efforts in China. Democracy did not happen in the last century; it will not happen in this one.
(Jerome F. Keating Ph.D., has lived in Asia for 25 years, primarily as manager of technology transfer on the Taipei and Kaohsiung MRT projects. He retired as professor at National Taipei University.)