Ross Terrill explores the implications of the recent presidential election in Taiwan.
[In April, the noted author and China analyst Ross Terrill met with Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian. In the following article, Dr. Terrill analyzes one of the most significant implications of President Chen's reelection in March: the death of the party-state in Taiwan.]
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The inauguration of Chen Shui-bian has passed, and the world still spins on its axis. Taiwan did not descend into chaos, war has not engulfed the Taiwan Strait, Washington's China and Taiwan policies remain essentially unchanged, and likewise the nuts and bolts of governing Taiwan.
As some of us said three months ago, not only Beijing but the American foreign policy elite, many Sinologists, and some people in the Bush administration overreacted to Chen Shui-bian's election win. The same people also overreacted to his 2000 victory. The lesson is hard to learn that in a democracy elections seldom produce an extremist foreign policy.
The most interesting feature of Chen Shui-bian's second victory, and equally of the Kuomintang's behavior during the campaign and after March 20, is that a party-state died in Taiwan. I first stated this in a speech in Taichung on May 8. To my pleasure, the idea appealed to former President Lee Teng-hui and he has elaborated on it in a striking way over the past month.
Unfortunately for a Bush administration that needs calm in East Asia, the inevitable result of the passing of the party-state is that Taiwan identity intensifies and "One China" fades.
In the days following March 20 the KMT behaved as if it were a state. To lose, felt KMT leader Lien Chan, was to be cheated. The sky cannot have two suns, as Confucius said.
The KMT is suffering from a lost entitlement to be a party-state. Chen did not cause the historical shift from a party-state. He is more nearly the result of it.
The party-state is a creature of the twentieth century. It drew both on Lenin's communism and Hitler's fascism. True, the KMT was a mild form. The Republic of China (ROC) established in Nanjing by the KMT in 1928 was never a totalitarian party-state in the Lenin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong molds.
But Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek borrowed much from twentieth-century authoritarianism, as well as from autocratic Chinese tradition. No competing political party could challenge the KMT for legitimacy in Nanjing in the 1930s. The same was true in Taiwan for four decades.
The KMT established cells in the military. Universities were expected to be loyal to the KMT. The ROC anthem began as a KMT party song. And so on.
Lien said Chen "stole the state" on March 20. KMT leaders claimed the election was "unfair" -- because the polls suggested a KMT win that did not eventuate! Because the vote was close! Because a shooting attempt on Chen close to the election brought Chen a sympathy vote. The KMT damaged only itself with all this speculation. It seemed unable to behave as one party among others. Lien made matters worse by boycotting Chen's inauguration.
Taiwan is constructing a localized politics from below. Chen has no ties to the Mao-Chiang civil war and its "One China" footnote. In a talk with me on April 20 he called One China a "fairy tale." He said "a race or civilization does not necessarily issue in a single state," as we talked of similarities between Britain spawning Canada, Australia, and other nations and Chinese civilization possibly doing something similar.
One day the concept of a party-state is likely to die in the mainland as it died in Taiwan. Beijing says China is too big and not sufficiently economically advanced for democracy. But Taiwan and Hong Kong are small and economically advanced. This should evoke Beijing's endorsement of democracy for both. But China is afraid of the will of the people in any context.
The PRC might do well to be careful in talking of democracy as an enemy of stability. Sometimes, dictatorship's brittleness threatens stability. Often, behind the loud noises of democracy, stability is found.
Chen's second term will clarify Taiwan's standing as a sovereign, independent country. Chen has his faults, but there is zero chance he will "declare Taiwan independent." At the same time, in his talk with me Chen totally rejected the idea of "party" directing or tutoring "state." In his May 20 speech he elaborated in a striking remark: "An accountable governing party and a loyal opposition, together, represent the voice of the people."
Beyond Chen's second term, many possibilities will arise. Taiwan will never depart from China. Geography dictates it; to a degree cultural roots also dictate it. To be independent of China is not necessarily to be hostile to China.
For the moment, however, a regime exists in Beijing that is myopic about democracy. It says "Hitler was produced by democracy" and this led to the destruction of the Jews. It hints that Russia's turn toward democracy is regrettable.
To all this there is one answer, which, alas, no party-state has ever accepted. Democracy is a method for a free people to handle its differences. It doesn't guarantee a fully happy outcome each time. But the self-realization of the individual -- the highest value in politics -- can ask nothing less than just that freedom to choose.
Fifty years ahead no one can say where China's boundaries will lie. One China can live on as a gleam in the eye for some. Washington must say Taiwan's future is an open question subject to the free choice of all the people involved. I believe it should add that for now the extension of Beijing's party-state rule to Taiwan is not feasible or in America's or East Asia's interests.
Some say war in the Taiwan Strait lies around the corner. But, although Beijing is fiery in word, Chinese military action against Taiwan would spoil three decades of the PRC's economic development, wreck relations with the United States, sully China's reputation in Asia, and probably loosen the Communist Party's grip on power.
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Ross Terrill (Ph.D., Harvard, 1970) is an author, China specialist, and Associate in Research at Harvard's Fairbank Center. While teaching at Harvard in the areas of political thought, Chinese politics, and international affairs, he wrote 800 Million: The Real China (Dell, 1972), Flowers on an Iron Tree: Five Cities of China (Little Brown, 1975), The Future of China: After Mao (Delacourt, 1978), and Mao: A Biography (1981; 2000). He was for a decade a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and won the National Magazine Award for Reporting Excellence and the George Polk Memorial Award for Outstanding Magazine Reporting for writings on China. Over recent years his books include The Australians (Simon & Schuster, 1987), Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon (1992; 2000), and China In Our Time (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
His newest book, The New Chinese Empire, and What It Means for the United States (Basic Books, 2003), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Published: Thursday, June 17, 2004
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