How Should Taiwanese Speak of Their Democracy?

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Tuesday June 12, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

What's in a name and identity? Gertrude Stein is famous for the line, "a rose is a rose is a rose." Shakespeare on the other hand spoke of a rose differently, "A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet." Are they talking about the same thing? Apply that to the word democracy. Should we say a democracy is a democracy is a democracy? Or should we say a democracy by any other name would be just as precious? Or is there more involved? Examine then the democracy that the people on Taiwan have practiced since 1992 in freely electing their own legislators and since 1996 in freely electing their president. Some want to preface it by speaking of it is a Taiwanese democracy; others argue that it should be called a Chinese democracy. What is going on?

What's going on is a lot! At issue here is not just the use of the word or the definition of democracy but a whole range of hidden and half-hidden agendas. At issue is a lot more than the word democracy; it is the definition of and control of the discourse of the past. It addresses the sovereign nature of Taiwan's state and in doing this it raises more questions than it answers.

The USA is a democratic nation. Do we talk of its democracy as an American democracy or a British democracy or just a democracy? Is it the first British democracy? When the original 13 colonies broke free from England, the majority of them were British; they shared a common British culture and heritage. So should it be called the first British democracy?

In Asia, Singapore has a democratic government though one party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has dominated all elections. Since some 75 per cent of the Singaporeans are Chinese, should we call it a Chinese democracy or is it better called a Singaporean democracy? Or should it be called a democracy at all since there has never been transference of power?

What about Taiwan? Is democracy in Taiwan best called a Taiwanese or a Chinese democracy? Is Taiwan's history, a Taiwanese history or a Chinese history? Is Taiwan's identity, a Taiwanese identity or a Chinese identity? Other questions come with this. Is Taiwan a nation? Taiwan has the official name of the Republic of China (ROC), a name that it has used as a national name both when it was in the United Nations (UN) and after it was "removed" from the UN and replaced by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the UN. So at that point, did it cease to be a nation? Its democracy came after that. Did that change things?

Others speak of democracy in Taiwan as a Chinese democracy. Some do this with the intent of wanting to show that it can be a model for the PRC to emulate and dispel the argument that democracy is too foreign to be practiced in a Chinese culture. Others do this to argue that Taiwan's democracy is a regional democracy and not a national democracy and therefore conclude that Taiwan remains a part of the PRC that has yet to be returned.

And what about the Taiwanese people, what do they say? There have been two ongoing, consistent polls conducted in Taiwan by National Chengchi University; the first has been done since 1992, (the year that Taiwanese first democratically elected members to their Legislative Yuan) on up to the present. In this poll on identity the researchers found that those in Taiwan who identified themselves as "only Taiwanese" rose from 17.6 per cent in 1992 to a majority 52.2 per cent in 2011. Whereas those who identified themselves as "only Chinese" dropped from 25.5 per cent in 1992 down to 3.9 per cent in 2011. Likewise those who identified themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese dropped from 46.4 per cent in 1992 to 40.3 percent in 2011. Those with no response dropped from 10.5 percent (1992) to 3.7 per cent (2011). The biggest changes therefore were both the large jump (approximately 35 per cent) in those identifying themselves as Taiwanese only as well as the big drop (approx. 22 per cent) of those identifying themselves as Chinese only.

The other poll that was carried on by the university addressed the changes in the unification and independence stances of Taiwanese as tracked by the university's Election Study Center. This was begun in 1994 and carried on to the present. Between 1994 and 2010, these researchers found that those that either wanted to maintain the status quo indefinitely or to decide at a later date, were the majority rising from a combined total of 48.3 per cent to 61.4 per cent. Those that wanted to move towards independence either immediately or at a later date rose from 11.1 per cent to 22.3 per cent while those that wanted to move towards unification either immediately or at a later date dropped from 20 per cent to 10.3 per cent. Those with no response dropped from 20.5 per cent to 6.1 per cent. While independence thought gained and unification thought lessened, the majority favored a status quo. Why? The greatest influence would appear to be the threat of war with the PRC if a move were made towards a fully declared independence. What then does this say about Taiwan's democracy?

The two polls combined certainly seem to indicate that democracy in Taiwan is working; the number of people who refused to respond or did not want to make a response has dwindled to a minimum. People are not afraid to give an opinion. The polls show opinions that are developing, but they still do not give us any final opinion. And they have not even addressed the one issue of what was the major catalyst of Taiwan's democracy. Is Taiwan's democracy the result of changes brought by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or is it the result of the constant insistence and protest of the Taiwanese "dangwai" or both? And what has this to do with the question of whether Taiwan is a de jure independent, democratic nation or not? Taiwanese are still finding their voice.