Issue: 2006: Vol. 5, No. 1, Commentary

Taiwan: Catalyst for Democratic Change in China

Article Author(s)

Fei-Ling Wang

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FPIF contributor Fei-Ling Wang is professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose most recent book is Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System. He can be reached at [email protected]
2006: Vol. 5, No. 1, Commentary
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Taiwan and China Must Unite in Order for Both Nations to Prosper.

(This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on September 19, 2006; reprinted with permission from Fei_Ling Wang)

Anticorruption is now a serious political issue and an ever-popular demand on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As recent mass protests show, the Taiwanese people are openly holding their president accountable for his associates’ and family members’ corrupt behavior. But to address corruption across the strait, Beijing still relies largely on the secretive, often politically motivated work of “discipline inspectors.”

Great hopes have been pinned to the peaceful rise of Chinese power, which is widely viewed to be in the interests of the Chinese people and world peace. China’s rise now increasingly depends on the successful political transformation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the direction of the rule of law and democracy. Key in catalyzing this change is the already democratic Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan.

Since the time of its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, China had been under centralized, authoritarian rule. But when the ROC was formed in 1912, hopes were high for democratic political change. However, external and internal wars, self-serving warlords, and abysmal ROC leaders tragically retarded China’s political progress. In 1949, a peasant rebellion influenced by communist ideology created the PRC and drove the ROC offshore to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the self-proclaimed new Qin Shihuang, perpetuated and intensified mainland China’s despotic political tradition.

Today’s China is once again on the verge of parting from its Qin system. Yet democratic reform in the PRC is still far from a certainty, much less a success.

Fortunately, there are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, the ROC has survived since 1949 and is prospering today. Over the past decades, the Taiwanese have proudly proven that Western ideas of capitalism, freedom, and the rule of law can thrive together with Chinese culture. Taiwan has gradually but successfully transformed from an authoritarian, one-party system into a young democracy, driven by the combined force of bottom-up and top-down efforts, as well as conducive foreign influences. The Taiwan story of economic growth and political change should be considered a great success story for all Chinese, on and off the island.

Unfortunately, the Taiwan story has been grossly discounted and marginalized by leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Rather than viewing Taiwan as a viable force of political opposition and a model of successful political change, China sees the ROC as just a local regime taking refuge under foreign protection and seeking independence. And Beijing’s stubborn refusal to enact political reforms has made full independence even more attractive to many Taiwanese. Beijing has also successfully portrayed Taipei as an anti-China traitor that has harmed and divided the Motherland. Many Chinese are therefore simply led to despise and reject Taiwan’s story of success.

This dreadful situation must change. The political rivalry from Taipei should stimulate rather than stifle, China’s democratization. Instead of propelling China into imperialism and militarism, Chinese nationalism could become a powerful driving force to constrain rising Chinese power and reorient it toward democracy. Taiwan must act as a catalyst for this because only with a democratic, free, and peaceful China as a responsible stakeholder in the international community can the Taiwan story securely continue. And only by assisting the peaceful rise and change of China can Taiwan solidify lasting support from the US.

To successfully help China change politically and rise peacefully, the Taiwanese craving to declare independence – while understandable – must be sacrificed.

The latest signals from Taipei are promising. The opposition leader Ma Ying-Jeou, while upholding the “one-China” principle, insists that unification with the Chinese mainland must be conditional: The PRC must democratize, and Beijing must be held accountable for its misdeeds. More encouraging, many senior cadres of the ruling party (which has traditionally supported independence), now assert that “unification is one of our future choices, too,” while echoing Mr. Ma’s conditions. The maturing Taiwanese democracy seems to be making the hard choices for its future, which is inseparable from the fortune of Greater China.

The United States must also assist. A sustainable security commitment is required to ensure the democratic viability of Taiwan. Washington should encourage and support the emerging consensus among the Taiwanese elite to make conditional unification with China a firm future choice. It should urge and facilitate direct Beijing-Taipei talks about their one-China political future.

Federation-style political integration under the rule of law will allow Greater China to abandon the Qin political system for good. Only when the Chinese government is accountable to its own people can (and should) there be a peaceful rise of China. Toward that end, the democratic, free, and Chinese Taiwan will work wonders when it genuinely – but conditionally – unites with China.

€ Fei-Ling Wang is professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China’s Hukou System.”