Monday, August 08, 2011

Taiwan faces non-democratic choices

Democracy should be about the art of the possible, a quest for the best possible outcome, and not solely a mechanism by which to choose the least bad option

One should always be wary of specialists who, from the cushioned comfort of their distant armchairs, make grand telescopic pronouncements about what it is that other countries “want.” Sadly for Taiwan, there is no shortage of such individuals who pretend to know what Taiwanese want.

Without the benefit of being in situ and really getting to know Taiwanese, their dreams, fears and all, it is easy for foreign analysts to personalize policy and to substitute public will for government rhetoric, especially under an administration in Taipei that has left little room for dissenting opinion.

Never — at least not since Taiwan was a nominal democracy — has the falseness of the assumption that a government speaks for its people been so markedly obvious than since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in May 2008. And yet, commenting recently on signs that Taiwan and China were moving toward some type of convergence, esteemed academics, people like Robert Sutter of George Washington University, will confidently tell others that “If Taiwan says ‘This is what we want,’” then the US had no right to object.

What is sorely missing from such facile observations is a refinement of what is meant by “Taiwan” and whether the individuals who purport to speak in its name truly reflect public will.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.


Michael Fagan said...

"...there is nothing democratic in being given the choice between “peaceful convergence” with authoritarian China... and the threat of war."

I disagree. The choice may be a bad one, but to claim it isn't democratic seems to presuppose that "democratic" choices can only be made in an international vaccum absent threats of external aggression (not everywhere can be like Switzerland or Canada).

Yet isn't the primary raison d'etre of the State to protect against external aggression? If there were no threats of external aggression, then there would be much less reason for a State to exist in the first place, whether democratic or otherwise.

Besides, the same argument can be applied at a smaller scale: if my only choice is between having my wealth confiscated by the State to pay for other people's retirement or going to jail, then how is that a "democratic" choice?

I think its' better to characterize external pressure as undermining liberty rather than democracy.

Dave Hodgkinson said...

I despair of the situation in Taiwan. Most people of the KMT generation feel Chinese and the old Fujianese still feel a kinship with whatever their forebears left behind. The kids seem so bent on earning a living they have no time to engage.

The normal conventions of a democracy are also apparently absent: separation of parliament, the parties, the judiciary and the media. Bulldozing farms without consultation or payment. Grrr. They have no clue.

The KMT sitting on the Japanese loot was just another thing.

Brian Schack said...

A great editorial. I've always thought Taiwan's "choice" is similar to the choice faced by someone with a gun to their head being asked for all their money. A rational person would probably hand over their money, since the other choice (dying) is worse. No one in their right mind would conclude that this proves that the victim wants to give away their money or that they're happy giving away their money, but this is the conclusion experts regularly make regarding Taiwan.

Michael Fagan said...

"I've always thought Taiwan's "choice" is similar to the choice faced by someone with a gun to their head being asked for all their money."

Or similar to that of the taxpayer within Taiwan - hand over the dough or go to jail.

The fact that the choice sits within a context of coercion doesn't mean it isn't a democratic choice - contrary to J.Michael's assertion. It is a democratic choice and pretending otherwise is a self-defeating tactic.