Why Taiwan Matters

Why Taiwan Matters

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson,

CAMBRIDGE/CHICAGO – US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s headline-generating visit to Taipei has reminded the world how much Taiwan matters to China. But Taiwan also should matter to the democratic world.

It is no secret that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is committed to unifying Taiwan (which it views as a breakaway province) with the mainland.

The United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China in 1979, and Western powers have since mostly refrained from recognizing Taiwan as a separate country.

This “One China” policy, together with rising nationalist sentiment in China, makes a Chinese takeover of the island in the coming decades seem likely, if not inevitable.

Some Western commentators believe that Pelosi acted recklessly by visiting the island. But they ignore how and why Taiwan also matters for the future of both democracy and China itself.

A common belief among Western policymakers and many commentators nowadays is that China will remain non-democratic for the foreseeable future, owing to its deeply authoritarian political culture.

According to this view, the West’s “individualism” stands in stark contrast to China’s Confucian heritage, which entails rigid hierarchies not just in families but in all social settings.

The implication is that the Chinese people are more willing to take their place within a pre-defined order of authority, and less willing to participate in democratic politics.

Hence, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once asserted that “no scholarly disagreement exists regarding the proposition that traditional Confucianism was either undemocratic or antidemocratic.”

And more recently, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates writes: “All of these Chinese systems are hierarchical and non-egalitarian. … America is run from the bottom up (e.g., democracy) and optimized for the individual; China is run from the top down and optimized for the collective. … Democracy as we know it doesn’t have any roots in China.”

It is easy to see how the last 2,500 years of Chinese history might support these ideas. China has experienced many rebellions and the rise and fall of many powerful dynasties.

Since democratic politics has been conspicuously absent through it all, many assume that China is bound to remain under the command of a strong leader presiding over a top-down regime, and Chinese state propaganda assiduously fosters this view.

Chinese newspapers and political commentators constantly contrast the Chinese system’s efficiency to the West’s gridlocked politics, while also pointing out that it is more in line with Chinese values and culture.

But is it? Hong Kong and Taiwan are cut from the same cultural cloth as mainland China, yet they rest on very different political systems.

Until the CPC’s crackdown on Hong Kong in 2020, the island was in the process of building a vibrant democracy.

And Taiwan is even more revealing. Since the 1980s, it has developed a robust democracy with broad-based participation.

Far from being established and developed by elites, Taiwan’s system is the result of students and other ordinary citizens demanding more through democratic politics.

Democratic participation in Taiwan appears to have intensified over the last six years. The island’s dominant party for most of its history was the Kuomintang, founded by Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist who fled the mainland with his loyal troops and about 1.5 million supporters after being defeated in 1949 by the Communists.

The current government, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, came to power in the 2016 general election, following widespread protests against the KMT’s efforts to ram through a trade deal with China despite significant opposition. During the protests, the student-led Sunflower Movement even occupied Parliament.

This was not just a passing phase of anger and protest. The Taiwanese are pioneers in digital democracy. Active political participation by different segments of society is the norm.

That is why Taiwanese governments routinely consult the public on key decisions, such as ridesharing regulations and liquor sales.

Taiwan also hosts a “presidential hackathon” that allows citizens to make direct proposals to the president, and a digital platform provides data from most Taiwanese ministries, with the explicit purpose of encouraging civil society to improve government operations.

And in the face of COVID-19, its government marshaled an effective response through democratic consultation, close collaboration with civil society, and new digital tools for testing and contact tracing.

Taiwan exhibits these strong democratic tendencies, not because it has undergone a Westernizing cultural transformation.

Until 2000, the KMT regime leveraged Confucian values to set itself apart from the Communist regime in China, and subsequent surveys have shown that Confucian values are even more deeply held in Taiwan than on the mainland.

The island thus reinforces a point that we have made in previous work: It is misguided to assert any kind of unbreakable link between cultural values and political systems.

All cultures, and particularly Confucian ones, should be viewed as highly adaptable to changing circumstances. Political regimes can rest on many cultural frames.

While Confucius did say that “commoners do not debate matters of government,” he also emphasized that “a state cannot stand if it has lost the confidence of the people.”

Confucian thought recommends respect and obedience to leaders only if they are virtuous. It thus follows that if a leader is not virtuous, he or she can – and perhaps should – be replaced.

This perfectly valid interpretation of Confucian values underpins Taiwanese democracy.

By contrast, CPC propaganda holds that Confucian values are utterly incompatible with democracy, and that there is no viable alternative to one-party rule.

This is patently false. Democracy is as feasible in China as it is in Taiwan. No matter how strident the CPC’s bluster becomes, it will not extinguish people’s desire to participate in politics, complain about injustices, or replace leaders who misbehave.

Taiwan matters because it represents an alternative political path for China – one that has long sustained freedom and prosperity in the West.

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile, 2019) and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (Penguin, 2020). James A. Robinson, Institute Director of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, is University Professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He is the co-author (with Daron Acemoglu) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Profile, 2019) and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (Penguin, 2020).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.