The ‘Other’ China: Taiwan, Democracy and China’s future

Posted on | oktober 25, 2011 | No Comments

The island of Taiwan

Picture a China that is not ruled by the Communist Party, where freedom of speech is guaranteed, where a vibrant media aggressively pursue anti-corruption allegations, where people of all faiths can worship freely, where freedom of assembly is respected and where people are free to join non-governmental organizations and independent trade unions. Picture a China where free and fair elections are routinely held, opposition parties contest, and occasionally win office, and a former President was indicted and imprisoned for corruption. Wishful thinking? Little more than a pipe dream? The above depiction is actually of China, not the Peoples Republic of China but instead of the other China, namely the island of Taiwan.

Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek

For all those who argue that democracy in China is impossible and that there are unique cultural attributes within Chinese society that run counter to democratic norms and practices, Taiwan presents itself as the conflicting contrast. Moreover Taiwan’s recent political history is one that has seen a peaceful and gradual transition from a one-party authoritarian state to arguably one of the most democratic countries in East Asia as a whole. Potentially offering a model for a similar transition to democracy for China as a whole.

For those of you who are not familiar with the China/Taiwan story here is a quick overview. Taiwan, an island approximately 100 miles off the Southeast coast of China, became separated politically from the mainland at the close of China’s civil war between the Communist and Nationalist parties in 1949. The defeated Nationalists, the Kuomintang, retreated across the Taiwan Straits where, with US protection (via the U.S. 7th Fleet), they established a rival government to the newly proclaimed Communist-led Peoples Republic of China under Chairman Mao. For the next 26 years the defeated Kuomintang warlord Chiang Kai Shek ruled Taiwan with an iron grip, curtailing civil and political freedoms while continuing to maintain the fiction that he was the legitimate ruler of all China. Beginning under his son Chiang Ching-kuo (President from 1978-88) Taiwan began a gradual transition to democracy. The first meaningful opposition party the Democratic Progressive Party was established in 1986 and a year later martial law was finally lifted. Eventually in 1992 the island held its first democratic elections to the legislature and four years later for President. While initially the Kuomintang remained in control of the legislature and executive, in 2000 the opposition won the Presidency and the following year the Kuomintang finally lost their legislative majority.

So could Taiwan offer a model of transition? Clearly administering an island of 14,000 square miles with a population of 24 million is a very different task from running a country of almost 4 million square miles and 1.4 billion people. However what the Taiwan case does demonstrate is that it is perfectly possible for a ruling party to preside over a transition from authoritarianism while remaining the most prominent political force in a country. Despite the setbacks the Kuomintang faced in 2000 and 2001, they won back the Presidency in 2008 and in the 2008 legislative elections returned to power with a landslide. Studies of political transition also largely demonstrate that processes of democratization are less violent and more enduring when they are elite-led and gradual rather than revolutionary and transformative.

Skeptics essentially argue that China is just too big. That as a consequence of this size there are too many divergences between provinces in economic development. In addition, the Communist Party, some argue, has never been as monolithic and pervasive as the Kuomintang, which when combined with the economic differences between provinces could result in the large more developed provinces wrestling more and more autonomy from the center. Moreover at this stage in its economic development Taiwan had already begun its democratic experiment, particularly at the local level, whereas in China there is neither meaningful political contestation nor independent opposition parties. Thus any loosening of control could instead result in an unraveling of Communist Party control rather than a ‘soft landing’.

Village election in China

Crystal-ball gazing is a fraught enterprise so I am not going to predict what kind of political system China will have 20 years from now. I do however remain unconvinced by the structural obstacles and sequencing arguments. For the former India has managed to retain democratic institutions and elections despite similar structural and logistically problems of size, distance, reach and ethnic/regional diversity. Of greater significance however is that for almost twenty years now China’s communist leaders have been experimenting with democratic elections to village committees. Village elections have now been held in all 31 provinces across China with 19 provinces having held between four and six consecutive elections. The election law mandates that village elections must comply with basic democratic norms, namely — secret ballot, direct elections and multiple candidates. In the Village Committee elections a list of registered voters is displayed publicly 20 days prior to the election, candidates are nominated directly by villagers, and for an election to be valid an absolute majority of eligible voters must cast their ballots with winning candidates required to get 50 per cent of the vote plus one. When no candidate receives a majority, a run-off election is held within three days.

Critics argue that after twenty years of village elections the experiment has still not permeated beyond this most limited of levels. However as the Carter Center reports “after two decades of continuously improved direct elections at the village level, elections at higher levels of government appear technically feasible”. More powerfully some 600 million Chinese have now experienced democratic elections of some form with the long-term consequences of this far from certain. Clearly the next step forward will have to come from the leadership in Beijing but it is this author’s opinion that Taiwan does provide a feasible model of change, and that the other China does provide a blueprint for future reformers within the Communist Party. Finally as ever more mainlanders are permitted to travel to Taiwan the appeal of this blueprint may also grow among China’s middle classes. Whatever the case, China’s future is more likely to be Made in Taiwan than Made in the West.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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