Chinese Democratic Tradition: Democracy on Taiwan and the Debate over Asian Values

By Chen, Chien-Jen | Harvard International Review, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview
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Chinese Democratic Tradition: Democracy on Taiwan and the Debate over Asian Values


Chen, Chien-Jen, Harvard International Review


BY CHIEN-JEN CHEN

Government Spokesman for the Republic of China on Taiwan, and Director-General of the Government Information Office.

Asia's recent financial turmoil has prompted debate about the sustainability of economic and political development in the region that is based on what some have asserted to be "Asian" as opposed to "Western" values.

However, the "Taiwan experience"--the Republic of China's (ROC) post-World War II process of nation-building--would suggest no fundamental differences in the values underlying democratization and, consequently, no need for such a special designation. The transition to democracy in Taiwan was achieved peacefully through the implementation of policies based on the principles of democracy, freedom, and rule of law found in all modern, Western democracies. This accomplishment has disproved the predictions of many experts that achieving democracy would be impossible, given its purported incompatibility with the nature of Chinese society. In fact, Taiwan's peaceful democratization has come not at the expense of fundamental Chinese values, but rather in concordance with them.

This is apparent from two factors leading to this success: a pragmatic, harmonious, and holistic approach to giving citizens an economic and political stake in their country, and an emphasis upon universal access to education. At the height of Cold War tensions in the 1950s and 1960s, with martial law in effect in Taiwan, elections at the local level were already being held regularly. Land reform gave farmers ownership of their own land, and an export promotion strategy allowed privately-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises to develop markets for light manufactured products built through intensive labor. Throughout all subsequent stages of economic development, Taiwan's citizens have had universal access to increasing levels of education. This allowed the gradual shift from an agricultural to an industrial economic base, and now toward a high technology industrial base, which has made Taiwan an information society.

In economic terms, this process could be described as heavy investment by the ROC government in educating Taiwan's citizens over the past five decades. This has created one of the most skilled labor forces in the world, and at the same time it has cultivated an informed electorate capable of, and increasingly insistent upon, exercising independent political judgement at the ballot box. This policy accords with the high value the Chinese traditionally place on lifelong education, and is evidence of the convergence, rather than divergence, of Chinese and democratic values.

The recent economic instability in some Southeast Asian nations underscores that the education of a nation's citizens is vital to assuring a competitive future. The ROC government concluded long ago that education would be critical if the people of Taiwan were to develop to their full potential and achieve national prosperity. Now that this goal has been basically achieved, the corollary to the precept behind it is increasingly apparent in Taiwan's democratic context: well-educated citizens demand a great deal of their government as they gain a stake in their country's future. They tend to hold their elected leaders politically accountable for the actions of government. This, in turn, affects the formulation of policies, as the government must take the popular will into consideration.

This trend of accountability has occurred naturally in line with the maturity of democracy on Taiwan. It might seem at first to counter traditional deference to authority, yet the Chinese classics stress the mutual interaction between leader and people, and the obligation of the leader to be accountable for the welfare of his people. The mechanism of accountability through the ballot box may be modern, but the concept of political accountability could be termed one of the most venerable of Chinese values.

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