The Spiritual Power of Democracy

By Klein, Joe | Newsweek, April 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Spiritual Power of Democracy


Klein, Joe, Newsweek


THE GREAT WOODEN DOORS of the Xing Tien Gong temple in Taipei are kept closed as a matter of public safety. The spiritual power of Guan Gong, the sacred ancestor inside, is said to be so great that it can discombobulate innocent civilians passing by. "The doors remain closed for their protection," said Edward Chang, a local politician. "Only a head of state has sufficient power to directly face Guan Gong. So tonight you will see history." A few moments later, history appeared in the person of a tall, smiling 73-year-old Presbyterian, wearing a cheesy baseball cap and polyester vest covered with political slogans. The temple doors flew open and President Lee Teng-hui breezed in, through dense clouds of incense, accompanied by a euphoric chaos of drums, bells, cymbals and cheering (as well as security guards with M-16s). He marched directly to the statue of Guan Gong, offered a brisk, respectful nod and then turned to the audience. "Two days from now," he told them, "you will be the master of the president."

The crowd appeared to gasp at the thought, and then erupted. It was a breath-taking formulation, the most succinct and elegant description of democracy imaginable. It seemed the perfect summation of last week's proud, cathartic presidential election--for Taiwan and Lee Teng-hui, who won with a convincing 54 percent of the vote. The balloting ratified a nation, even though Taiwan would continue to define its status as something more judicious than outright independence. Strategic realities remained unchanged, but the moral balance of power in the region had been altered fundamentally; a favorite Asian intellectual parlor game--whether democracy and human rights are universal human values or "Western" impositions--had taken a profound turn toward universality.

Democracy did seem joyously indigenous last week. Taiwan was crazy with banners and sound trucks, fireworks displays and marching bands. There were enormous rallies and continuous street parades for the four presidential candidates, who responded with gusty cascades of rhetoric, by kissing babies, wearing funny hats and attacking each other relentlessly. Lee was accused of being a crook and a youthful communist; in return, he said his opponents offered either war or surrender to mainland China. "This would be an awful lot of fun," said Dorothy Ying, the editor of Commonwealth magazine, as she watched competing armies of political enthusiasts clogging a Taipei street at dusk. "if it weren't for the military threat."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How odd that all this would be happening in Taiwan. Since 1949, the Republic of China had existed at the periphery of history, an Asian afterthought. It carried with it the stench of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (Nationalist) regime, a legacy of corruption and martial law; after 1978, it also carried the humiliation of having been abandoned by the United States, which acquiesced to Beijing's demand for a "one China" policy. "It used to be such a pain to carry a Taiwan passport," said a prominent local businessman. …

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