Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Can Taiwan Hold Lessons for China?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Can Taiwan Hold Lessons for China?

Article excerpt

Taiwan achieved democratic reforms in 1987, when a failing strongman created an opening for change. That's not the case in mainland China, where any strongman would be limited by party politics.

A Chinese society is in ferment. Decades of fast economic growth under one-party rule have made its people richer, but they feel painfully their lack of freedom and security, their inability to protect their prosperity.

A strongman, knowing his health is failing, decides to go with the flow of world history as nations in Asia democratize, and liberalize his nation. Suddenly, truth is on everyone's lips as free speech and media restrictions are lifted. Social issues germinating for years coalesce into civil society groups that advocate for labor rights, women's rights, ethnic minority rights, consumer rights, environmental protection and more. Alternative political parties are legalized. People vote. A democracy is born.

No, this isn't a science fiction movie about China, circa 2017, but roughly what happened in Taiwan in 1987, when the leader of the ruling Kuomintang, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of the longtime dictator Chiang Kai-shek, lifted martial law, ending the control his party and its security apparatus had exerted over the Republic of China, which they moved to Taiwan in 1949 after fleeing the Communists on the Chinese mainland.

Could such a thing happen in mainland China? And more important - - who would be the strongman to decide?

On many levels, there are similarities between Taiwan in 1987 and mainland China today. Both are Chinese in the sense that Chinese is spoken and there is a majority Chinese culture, however that is defined. Mainland China now, like Taiwan then, is riddled with issues where many people want to see change, from education to pollution to corruption. Many may not want an outright democracy, unsure what that means for the country, but they want more say in their society. Some of these views are shared by senior leaders in the government and party. Yet a key difference is that, in 1987, Taiwan had a strongman whose power, with his health, was failing. It was a moment of change.

Mainland China's strongmen -- for today they are a group, and not an individual -- don't see themselves as failing.

"China is not failing, China is rising, and very proud and arrogant," said Michael Hsiao, director of the Institute of Sociology at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

"China has no shortage of strongmen. Every 10 years they organize and plan for strongmen," he said. (Such a leadership transition just concluded, in a carefully managed process beginning last November and ending in March.)

Is the "failing strongman" period the only moment for change?

It's an opportunity, Dr. Hsiao said.

China has had its "failing strongman" moments -- at least twice, Dr. Hsiao said, pointing to the final years of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. …

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