Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Coming (Knock on Wood) Taiwanization of China

Speaking in Japan this week President Bush urged China to look to Taiwan as a model of political democratization. Though there are few occasions this is so, on this score the President and I agree. Taiwan gives the lie to any cultural-reductionist claims that democracy is incommensurate with Chinese civilization. When I first arrived in Taiwan as a student in 1987 martial law had just been lifted and the island was still a single-party state. Today Taiwan is among the most robust democracies on earth, a fundamental restructuring that was achieved despite profound diplomatic isolation and unrelenting intimidation from the Goliath across the Strait.

Though the success of the democratization of Taiwan is undeniable, the prospects for the "Taiwanization" of China are less than obvious. Within the first week of moving into the men's dormitory at Tunghai Univesity in 1987 I returned to my room to find that my American roommate Doug had been collared by a young student in the army officer's training corps who was earnestly delivering a sermon on cross-straits politics. He explained that the situation today was analogous to the days of the early Roman Empire. Though the Christians had been a tiny, persecuted minority then they eventually were able to convert the entire realm, and the people and government of Taiwan would transform China through a comparably subtle organic process.

Doug and I smirked. At the time it seemed like more of the patriotic pabulum dished out by Taiwanese leaders at state occasions, when speeches still regularly referred to the imminent day that the army would "retake the mainland." Taiwanese leaders no longer indulge in that kind of rhetorical bravado, but as Taiwan's political system and economy continue to thrive the picture that young officer painted looks less and less fantastic.

Taiwanization seems more and more likely at least in part because it is already under way. As China's economy has liberalized and cross-strait tensions have cooled (albeit incrementally) the PRC has become a major target of Taiwanese investment capital. At least a quarter of a million Taiwanese businessmen and women are resident in Shanghai, billions of Taiwanese dollars have built factories and office buildings across Southern China. Just as Taiwanese capital has flowed to China, mainland citizens have become increasingly enthusiastic consumers of Taiwanese products. Taiwanese pop music, movies, and snack foods have become ubiquitous in the PRC both north & south.

With such an ever-increasing volume of economic intercourse one can only wonder how long it can fail to slide over into the political realm, especially given that both governments remain, in name at least, dedicated to a policy of "eventual reunification." Indeed, such political intercourse has proven unavoidable. The PRC government particularly is in some respects hostage to its commitment to reunification, a condition clearly ilustrated by September's visit to Beijing by Taiwanese intellectual and parliamentarian Li Ao. Li Ao has been one of the most articulate and effective advocates of reunification on the Taiwanese political scene, a fact which no doubt inspired the PRC government to invite him as a state guest. One can only imagine their chagrin when in a speech at Beijing University Li launched into scathing critique of the anti-democratic nature of the PRC government and berated the school's faculty for lacking the courage to dissent.

The CCP fell victim to one of the enduring ironies of cross-strait politics- the constituency on Taiwan that is most ardently pro-unification is also most zealously anti-communist. Beijing's leaders cannot be ignorant of this fact or have had any doubts about Li Ao's political opinions- they must have been counting on some impulse to courteousy or political expendiency to ameliorate his tone. Li's audacity is not likely to slow the pace of political interchange across the Taiwan Strait, however, as the PRC government simply cannot afford to reject ties or relations with those in Taiwan who oppose what would for Beijing be a domestic political disaster, the spectre of Taiwanese independence.

Moreover, Taiwan presents a global model for China in more than internal structural terms. Taiwan demonstrates not only how successful democracy can be within a Chinese social and cultural context, it demonstrates how much more efficient ANY form of political and economic management can be if practiced on a scale smaller than that of the 1.25 billion Chinese citizens. Much of Taiwan's success is arguably attributable not only to more liberal political and economic policies, but to the greater efficiency that inheres when local interests on the provinical level have more autonomous control over their own fiscal policy and infrastructural development.

As impressive as economic growth has been on mainland China, there is little doubt that future progress (especially in critical areas like ecological management and equitable development) demands a relaxing of the supercentralization of the PRC political system. Many of the political and economic woes of the current regime stem from the same systemic forces that impeded and eroded the Chinese Empire- the fact that precious few institutional structures were in place to allow for the free expression of local interests or the reconciliation of conflicts between center and periphery. Though Beijing looks to a future in which Taiwan exists in the same relationship to itself as Hunan or Jiangsu, all China would arguably profit from a situation where those provinces' orientation toward Beijing grew closer to that of Taiwan.

Decentralization and democratization (two forces that must ultimately work in tandem) seem the only way forward if China hopes to preserve its prosperity and stability. In this respect the prospect of the "Taiwanization" of China grows even more likely. No structural change in the Beijing government will make reunification with Taiwan any less urgent an issue in cross-straits relations. Reunification is a nationalist vision which the ordinary citizens of mainland China cherish very ardently, and no amount of democratization or decentralization is likely to cool their feelings on that score. Given that fact, the likeliest scenario for reform in China is one in which Taiwanese political parties and Taiwan's government play a central role. This makes sense in pragmatic terms, as Taiwan is well-placed to provide the kind of expertise essential to this transition. Beijing might furthermore see real political advantage in welcoming Taiwanese participation, as it would be the clearest and most infallible route to defusing the cross-straits crisis. More flies are caught with honey, as the old adage goes, and the surest way to make reunification palatable to Taiwanese leaders and citizens would be to invite Taiwanese political parties to register voters and compete in elections on mainland China. Strange as it seems to contemplate, coming decades could potentially see a KMT or DPP president at the helm in Beijing.

This is of course a very optimistic scenario. Many, many things can and may go wrong to preclude such a happy outcome. Resistance on Taiwan to unification is never likely to be wholly overcome. Having had their own President and parliament it is difficult to imagine the Taiwanese people accepting return to the status of "province." This is not an insurmountable goal, though it is a question too large to treat here. Even given the many difficulties and contigencies, however, I feel confident that Beijing is not only well-advised but more likely than not to look toward Taiwan, and that the future will bring one form or another of "Taiwanization" to the political life of mainland China.


Anonymous said...

Li Ao actually supported the Chinese government. He threw in a lot of anti-West references in his speeches and generally fawned over the Chinese government. If you'd like to read a translation of Li Ao's speeches in China, check out the East South West North blog.

Anonymous said...

The other point is you've missed is how American cultural influences and the view of American products as superior pervades China. Taiwanese stuff is viewed as second-rate. American goods are seen as the gold standard. But inside every Chinese isn't an American struggling to get out. The Chinese view American products and services positively for the same reason that people admire Bill Gates for being successful - because that is objective fact. It doesn't mean that they actually like Americans any more than the average American actually likes Bill Gates. Chinese who have actually worked for Taiwanese certainly like them less than they like Western bosses, who are collegial in their managerial styles, unlike the Taiwanese who tend to be imperious (i.e. high-handed in the traditional Chinese style).

Madman of Chu said...


You mischaracterize Li Ao's speech. I've looked at the transcript of the speech translated on EastSouthWestNorth, their translation is pretty dicey. Here is my (admittedly rough) version of one section:

"I tell you all, you all don’t read the selected works of Mao, they all have this passage, Chairman Mao’s last words. Hearing it you will all be surprised, I will read it for you to hear: “Those who scold us like the peasants, like Long Yun, or Liang Shumin, we must cultivate. Let them scold us. If they scold without reason we will argue back, if they scold with reason we will accept.” This is beneficial to the party, the people, and to socialism. Mao Zedong Thought contained an aspect that grasped this principle. If you expunge that part of Mao Zedong, is there still a Mao Zedong that you recognize?

The Communist Party still exists, I am willing for it to exist for a thousand years. The CCP has [a choice of policies] as to what relationship it will have with us, one is soft, the other is hard. If it embraces [us], we will also embrace it. Is the Communist Party willing to serve the people? We are the people, let them serve us. When Sinbad was crossing the river an old man climbed on his back and forced him to carry him, no matter if he carried him through the Milky Way he could not throw him off."

Maybe not as openly confrontational as the Western press made out, but hardly "fawning." No Chinese intellectual could get away with saying the things that Li Ao did in his speech.

As for "American products," you seem to have missed my point. The "Taiwanese products" I referred to were cultural products-pop music, movies, etc. Would the millions of fans of Wang Fei or Zhang Huimei in China call them "second rate?" The fact that Chinese consumers enjoy American products doesn't alienate them from the Taiwanese either- all those products to which you refer are just as popular on Taiwan. My point was that a leisure culture and a youth culture have developed on Taiwan, much of which is accessible to people in mainland China because it is Mandarin-language, and much of which has been found appealing by mainland Chinese consumers. The Taiwanese have had a long time to develop their own distinctive "Chinese" response to globalization and the world consumer economy, and as the Chinese step onto that same global stage they have naturally found appealing stylistic models for emulation in Taiwanese pop culture.

Anonymous said...

Madman of Chu - when I knew you in Taiwan I thought you were just another imperialist running dog. It turns out that you were a full-fledged KMT convert! I certainly agree that Taiwan's experience shows how capitalist the averge Chinese can be when the yoke of authoritarian rule is lifted, but that doesn't mean that political change is an infectious disease that can spread across the Straits. It certainly hasn't spread North from Hong Kong. In fact, as you know, the CCP sees the Hong Kong experience as a trial run for Taiwan, which is one reason they've kept such a tight grip on political control on the SAR. And Taiwanese pop stars have the same political power as Hong Kong pop stars - zilch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Anonymous,

They don't call me "The Fourth Principle of the People" for nothing. I take issue with your analysis of Taiwan and Hong Kong, though. Taiwan was plenty capitalist before democratization set in, and if anyone needed a demonstration of how capitalist Chinese people could be they only needed to look at pre-transition HK. Taiwan demonstrates how robustly democratic institutions can operate within a CHinese social and cultural context. You may feel that that kind of political liberalization cannot spread across the straits like a virus, but the experience of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would suggest that you are wrong. HK doesn't really serve as a counter-example because as capitalist as it was it was never truly democratic or sovereign. Also HK never posed quite as serious a threat to Chinese internal stability as the prospect of Taiwanese independence does. The PRC can view the Hong Kong experience as a trial run for Taiwan all it likes, that is the very definition of wishful thinking.

Thanks for the holiday wishes. I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving too, wherever you are.

Tim Maddog said...

Replying to a comment which said, "Taiwanese stuff is viewed as second-rate," the blogger actually wrote this:
- - -
The "Taiwanese products" I referred to were cultural products-pop music, movies, etc. Would the millions of fans of Wang Fei or Zhang Huimei in China call them "second rate?"
- - -

Wow! Are you implying that Wang Fei is Taiwanese?! And are you completely unaware of what happened when A-mei sang Taiwan's "national anthem" at Chen Shui-bian's inauguration in 2000? I think being blacklisted counts as being a little worse than "second-rate." Wouldn't you agree?

I sure hope you don't confuse Taiwan and China like that when you teach. 搞清楚一點!

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Maddog (nice name),

OK, on Wang Fei you caught me. I confess all my knowledge of current Taiwanese pop is from my brother, whose work brings him back to Taiwan several times a year. He gave me Wang Fei's CD after one trip and I never checked the jacket to determine her origins. Object lesson in what happens when one assumes...

My Wang Fei gaffe notwithstanding, my point about cultural Taiwanification (or, rather, the potential of pop culture to draw the two sides of the Strait closer together, as Wang Fei's popularity in Taiwan demonstrates) stands and is confirmed by the story about A-mei's "blacklisting." The article to which you linked contains this passage:

"The protest, such as it was, smacked of mobilization by Chinese Communist Party hacks. After organizers of the concert canceled A-mei's show, many of her fans in China felt that their rights had been trampled on and denounced the protest. Other Chinese Internet users compiled a list of "pro-Chen, pro-green" personalities which -- hilariously enough -- included singers who have openly supported the pan-blue alliance.

By targeting someone as manifestly apolitical as A-mei, whose cultural and commercial success has shown a way forward for people on both sides of the Strait, Beijing has once again damaged its credibility -- even among Chinese. It has made A-mei an unwitting pawn and has gone a long way toward destroying a channel for cross-strait friendship. It is now resorting to an extremism that is both bizarre and neurotic and is politicizing an industry which, in this part of the world, usually avoids politics like the plague."

The author is editorializing to some extent but even so I agree, the government "blacklisting" of A-mei smacks of paranoia. Blacklisting doesn't prove that her fans view her as "second rate," it demonstrates that the PRC government fears just the kind of forces I described in my post and comments.

Michael Turton said...

A-mei is an aborigine.

I've responded to you here as your ideas deserve a longer treatment. Fundamentally, familiarity breeds contempt....

They don't call me "The Fourth Principle of the People" for nothing. I take issue with your analysis of Taiwan and Hong Kong, though. Taiwan was plenty capitalist before democratization set in,

Yes, but it is important to note that aside from the petty capitalist component, which exploded into the miracle economy, most of the economy is controlled by the State in accordance with time honored Chinese principles -- steel, shipbuilding, trains, telephones, electricity, construction, alcohol, tobacco, salt, bus companies, etc -- all state-owned. Most people look at BenQ and Acer and those vendors and see a vibrant capitalism. But Taiwan is actually a good example of how widespread state control can coexist with rapid economic growth.

Strange as it seems to contemplate, coming decades could potentially see a KMT or DPP president at the helm in Beijing.

KMT, maybe, but DPP, absurd.

Also, you should probably enable word verification on your blog to prevent spam.


Madman of Chu said...


I've no quarrel with you about the nature of Taiwan's mixed economy (the "Third Principle of the People" is "socialism [or near enough]" after all). I was merely trying to point out that it is in the realm of *political*, not economic liberalization that Taiwan can offer a model to the PRC. You're probably right that the current DPP would reject participation in mainland politics, but I was dealing in hypotheticals, after all. If we are talking about the future (a distant future, as I don't imagine any of this happening overnight) it is not inconceivable that a restructured DPP or some renegade offshoot could be tempted to enter the electoral fray in mainland China and play for high stakes.

Re A-mei, I'd heard that she was an aborigine- I don't see how that affects my argument. It doesn't prevent mainland audiences from embracing her, any more than it would if she were a Mongol or Dai PRC citizen who sang in Mandarin.

I placed a reply to your other critiques of my post on your blog.