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 to 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.