Has Taiwan screwed up China's chances for democracy?

Seven years of chaos and political gridlock equals a terrible public relations campaign for freedom

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 12, 2007 9:24PM (EDT)

For China-watchers everywhere, the 2000 election of Chen Shuibian as president of the country that he likes to call "Taiwan" was a stunning event -- the first democratically engineered change of power in a culturally Chinese society. It was the culminating pinnacle in a long struggle against the authoritarian rule of the KMT; a potent symbol auguring what might one day take place across the Taiwan straits, in China.

Seven years later, according to the draft of a paper, "Taiwan's Struggling Democracy," by Taiwanese political scientist Yun-han Chu, that moment of triumph has lost its rosy glow. Instead, it marks the beginning of a period of confusion, political infighting and misgovernment that has pummeled public morale, sparked "authoritarian nostalgia" and brought the very concept of "democracy" into disrepute.

I had a chance to read a draft of the paper, which is not yet available online, thanks to the Chinastuff newsletter maintained by longtime China expert Jerry Stryker. The author, Yun-han Chu, is a well-regarded political scientist. But his perspective is bleak, and appears to place the majority of blame for democracy's sinking profile in Taiwan on Chen's missteps. (UPDATE: Chu's paper is now online.)

That contention will undoubtedly be disputed by partisans. Personally, I'm inclined to think that the KMT, entrenched in power for 50 years and unremittingly hostile to Chen's every move, should shoulder the lion's share of the blame for the political gridlock that has ensued. But I'll concede the primary point -- Taiwan's foray into democracy, which Chu calls a "crucial social experiment," has been messy and chaotic and shows little sign of stabilizing soon. Which raises the question: What kind of role model is Taiwan demonstrating for China?

Chu is not optimistic:

The protracted political chaos and paralysis and visible deterioration in many aspects of [the] quality of democracy that came with the 2000 power rotation have made Taiwan's democratic experience steadily less appealing and convincing. Especially in the eyes of Taiwan's electorate, arguably the final judge of the working of democracy on the island, the gap between the promises of democracy and realities has been widening. If Taiwanese citizens' ambivalent attitude toward democracy that we have just observed persists, it is unlikely that Taiwan can promote the soft power of democracy in the Chinese-speaking world with self-confidence.

In the late '80s and '90s, visits to the mainland by affluent Taiwanese tourists offered a stark example of the power of open markets to spur economic growth. The booming economies of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea undoubtedly influenced the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party as it began its push for reform. Is present-day political gridlock in Taiwan now setting a negative example? Or is it just demonstrating the reality of the democratic process, which is inherently messy and chaotic, and by no means inevitably leads to perfect government?

The crucial truth of a democracy is the power that citizens have to change their leaders. If Chen Shuibian's DPP has fumbled the ball as badly as Chu appears to think it has, then voters will be able to bring back the KMT, should they so desire, in the 2008 presidential election. For DPP partisans in Taiwan, that would likely be perceived as a disaster. But I wonder what the reaction to such freely exercised choice would be for the average citizen of the People's Republic?

UPDATE: Michael Turton adds his own considerable analysis.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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