Monday, September 09, 2013

When democracy isn’t enough, or A Trojan Horse called White Wolf

If one side in a democracy no longer plays by the rules, it would be foolhardy to assume that democratic means will suffice to protect one’s interests

A friend once told a gathering of young Taiwanese in Washington, D.C., that Taiwan’s democracy was like a firewall protecting the nation against external — and internal, I might add — threats. No truer words were said, but what can Taiwanese do when the firewall is breached, when those whose intentions are antithetical to its spirit turn it against itself in an attempt to cut it at the root?

I’m all for democracy, and I come from a country that takes immense pride (albeit in less flashy fashion that its neighbor to the south) in its democratic achievements. Democracy is undoubtedly the least bad instrument we have at our disposal to distribute power, resolve disputes, and have a shot at justice. Over the years as a journalist, I have observed Taiwan’s young democracy at work, both at the surface and deep within the marrow, and I now have reason to fear for its future.

One thing that academics and politicians alike often forget is that democracy isn’t an end state, a fait accompli, a line that, once crossed, automatically and irretrievably confers upon those who have crossed it perpetual status as a democracy. Rather, democracy is a work in progress along a spectrum. Just as important as the title, or the regular holding of elections, is the quality of that democracy, which touches on everything from government responsiveness to public grievances to the removal of corrupt individuals, regardless of their political affiliation.

Given its qualitative nature, it follows that democracy can evolve just as it can backtrack, and it can also once again cross over that line into something that is no longer democratic.

This begs the question: What can the citizens of a democracy do when those in power, or those who would usurp it, become undemocratic? Firewall notwithstanding, democracy has its limits, and can hardly succeed if one side — the more so if it is the most powerful, or the wealthiest — doesn’t play by democratic rules. What good is democracy if citizens expire all legal processes, all democratic means, to prevent injustice, only for the authorities to go ahead and crush everything in their path? How can we retain faith in a government’s commitment to democracy when one of its own rules an entire county like a despot, not only getting away with rampant corruption and perhaps even murder, but in the process gets rewarded by the central government with a position in its Standing Committee? When the executive engages in political machinations to remove those who stand in its path, especially those who are in the way of a controversial services trade agreement with China?

I couldn’t help but ponder those questions on Sunday when I came upon pictures of gangster Chang An-le (張安樂), or the “White Wolf,” as he attended the opening ceremony of his Unification Party office in Greater Tainan. Since his return to Taiwan in late June, Chang, who spent sixteen years in China, has toured the country and appeared on countless TV shows to promote his unification campaign. Somehow, the wanted fugitive was released on bail on the day of his arrival, and has since been free to spread his gospel and engage in “benevolent” activities. Instead of being in jail, or of appearing in court, or of preparing his defense, Chang has been free to travel the nation and confirmed on Sunday his party’s intention to field candidates in next year’s seven-in-one elections and the presidential election in 2016.

I visited his Taipei office earlier this year, and I saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flag, the hundreds of pictures of Chang toasting senior CCP officials. It is plainly evident that Chang’s party is a front, or a spearhead, for CCP political activity in Taiwan, which raises serious questions (among other things) about its financing. Not to mention the gangster methods that party officials and supporters will likely engage into come election time. And yet what is the government doing? Nothing. Taiwan is a democracy, so Mr. Chang’s party is “legal.”

So what does a polity do when facing a political party that, in reality, has no democratic bone in its body and which is intended to serve as a Trojan Horse to destroy Taiwan’s democratic way of life? Allowing it to enter the democratic system itself risks poisoning the entire machine and ensures that democratic means and ways will be distorted in ways that risk bringing the whole thing down. What does a country do when simply not voting for a party isn’t enough? What do its people do when their purportedly democratic government allows for the existence of an undemocratic — no, anti-democratic — party that is backed by an authoritarian regime which has made no secret of its intentions concerning Taiwan’s political system?

For a democracy to function, the players must abide by certain tacit agreements which create an imperfect balance whereby governors and the governed resolve the inherent tensions in any political system. If one side in that equation no longer plays by those rules, it would be foolhardy —in this case suicidal — to assume that democratic means will suffice to protect one’s interests. So what comes next? (Photo CNA)

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