Viewpoint: Democratic Contagion? the Political Progress in Taiwan and Hong Kong Is Good News. but Only Democratization within China Will Change China

Newsweek International, March 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Viewpoint: Democratic Contagion? the Political Progress in Taiwan and Hong Kong Is Good News. but Only Democratization within China Will Change China


Byline: Minxin Pei, Pei is director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ever since Taiwan began its transition to democracy in the late 1980s, optimists have hoped that its opening would serve as a shining beacon for the mainland. When the departing British accelerated democratization in Hong Kong on the eve of its return to Chinese sovereignty, some boldly speculated that Deng Xiaoping's famous "one country, two systems" would eventually become "one country, one system"--that Hong Kong's emerging liberalism would, over time, transform Chinese politics as its entrepreneurial capitalism had transformed the Chinese economy.

This logic is flawed. Throughout the 1990s, as Taiwan grew more democratic, its relations with the mainland instead progressively deteriorated. The Taiwanese model--developmental authoritarianism maturing into a new democracy--inspired many mainland elites in the 1980s. But as democracy has allowed pro-independence forces to gain strength, the allure of the Taiwan model has dimmed. Emotionally wedded to the appeal of Chinese nationalism, even progressive Chinese elites cannot accept the idea that a democratic Taiwan would split from the motherland. Politically, democracy in Taiwan has also taken a less reassuring turn. Pro-independence politicians in Taipei have found that tapping into their people's fear and loathing of the authoritarian mainland can mobilize support and win votes.

Taiwanese democracy now thrives on anti-China sentiments. Reforms to deepen democracy--such as repeated constitutional revisions and the public referendum Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has fought to hold on March 20--have become indistinguishable from acts of defiance against Beijing. …

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