Taiwan and Mainland: A Comparison on Democratization

By Lin, Chong-Pin; Chan, Man-Jung Mignon | World Affairs, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Taiwan and Mainland: A Comparison on Democratization


Lin, Chong-Pin, Chan, Man-Jung Mignon, World Affairs


It was late 1925 in Moscow. At Sun Yatisen University, which was established that year to train non-Soviet revolutionaries, were two young Chinese men. Both shared strong Marxist-Leninist convictions and a socialist vision for China's future.(1) By no means could the two have foreseen that, more than half a century later, they would govern simultaneously yet separately the most populous nation in the world.(2)

In March 1978, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek was elected president of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. The change legitimized the power that the younger Chiang had already been wielding as premier since 1972 and chairman of Taiwan's ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), since 1975. In December of the same year, Deng Xiao-ping emerged as the first among peers in the top leadership of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) and the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC). At the time, both men appeared pragmatic and intent on democratic reforms, in strong contrast to their dogmatic, God-like predecessors Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, respectively.

One of Chiang Ching-kuo's first acts after having inherited power from his father was to release 130 political prisoners.(3) He began expanding the political power of the hitherto less privileged natives by appointing Taiwanese elites to key party and government posts in a process called "Taiwanization." Cultivating a populist image, he frequently visited remote villages unannounced, sporting casual attire, hugging babies, and befriending peasants.

Deng Xiao-ping said in a December 1978 speech: "At present, we must lay particular stress on democracy, because for quite a long time . . . there was too little democracy."(4) Deng's expressed objection to dictatorship was traceable to 1956 when he stated that the party should "abhor the deification of the individual."(3) Even after having become China's paramount leader in late 1978, his advocation for democracy - at least in verbal enunciation - continued. In August 1980, Deng said to the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee:

[Our objective] in the political sphere [is] to practice people's democracy to the full, ensuring that through various effective forms, all the people truly enjoy the right to manage state affairs and particularly in state organizations at the grassroots level and to run enterprises and institutions . . . . We must . . . restructure . . . the party and the state . . . to ensure . . . the practice of democracy in political life, in economic management and in all other aspects of social activity . . . .(6)

It is not difficult to notice that, up to 1978, certain aspects in the professional lives of Chiang Ching-kuo and Deng Xiao-ping showed rather interesting similarities. Perhaps such parallels were no more than historical curiosities. These coincidences, however, beg a larger question on a much grander scale. Since both men, once trained as young Communists, showed democratic inclinations when taking power around the same time, would the political entities - the ROC and the PRC - that each of them, respectively, had served and had just begun to command also develop parallel patterns in democratization?

What intensifies the poignancy of this comparison is the experience shared by the KMT and the CCP during their formative years. In 1921, the CCP was founded under the guidance of Gregory Voitinsky, an agent of the Communist International (Comintern); and two years later, the reorganization of the KMT was advised by Mikhail Borodin, also dispatched by the Comintern.(7) As a result, the two parties resembled each other considerably, both in structure and in practice, at least before 1949 when the ROC moved to Taiwan and the PRC began ruling the Mainland. Needless to say, the two parties shared many features antithetical to the values of liberal democracy, such as disregard for human rights and increasing concentration of power toward the apex of the political hierarchy.

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