Will China Ever be a Democracy? Not in this Century!

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Friday February 08, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan's nascent democracy is less than two decades old. It was 1996 when all Taiwanese were finally able to freely elect the nation's president and despite its expected growing pains, this fledgling democracy has proven to be alive and well. As a result, pundits in the West and even Taiwan's current president are tempted to push forward the idea that Taiwan can be a model of for China to follow suit. Such is the unrealistic talk that pipe dreams are made of, or to borrow Samuel Johnson's statement on second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience. It just is not going to happen; certainly not in this century; the danger instead would be China's swallowing Taiwan's democracy.

Why so doubtful and negative? It is a simplistic argument to say, it happened in Taiwan, therefore it could happen in China. The more realistic approach would be to examine how and why it happened in Taiwan and not in China. This reveals the many and the huge differences between the people in these two countries. Put plainly, Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China; the two have far different histories and experiences, different cultures (despite the efforts of some to link them) and different democratic struggles including of course the results.

More than a century has passed since Sun Yat-sen made the democratic proposal of government of the people, by the people and for the people, a proposal that culminated in the 1911 revolution. That was over 100 years ago and China is still not close to achieving his thought. In essence, Sun Yat-sen proposed a dream; the resultant reality however was simply a change from Manchu rule to Han rule. Thus while those in power after 1911 sought to be replacement emperors, Sun Yat-sen's dream turned into competing warlords and then into Civil War. At the end of that Civil War, the losers fled to Taiwan and as colonizing diaspora held it under martial law. The Taiwanese experience from 1911 on was totally different from this; as citizens of the Japanese Emperor (1895 on) they had been advocating the right to elect their own representatives to the Japanese Diet. They got that (1945) but then had to face new colonizers, the fleeing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

As World War II ended, the United States (US) with its propaganda supported the KMT's myth of "Free China," a myth used to cloak the one party state rule they imposed on the Taiwanese. As if in ultimate irony and mocking insult, Imperial Japan achieved democracy within a decade after 1945, while Taiwanese would suffer four decades of martial law, White Terror, and a one-party state; this was the so-called Free China. Through the Kaohsiung Incident and other protests, however, Taiwanese did eventually win democracy. They knew what they were fighting for. Chinese did not; beyond their priority of getting rid of the Manchu rule, the Chinese became satisfied with Han majority and got lost amidst competing replacement emperors. Taiwanese fared better since in winning their democracy they were already a suffering majority and better able to single out the minority one-party state rule of the diaspora KMT. After 1911, the Chinese did not have that leverage.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) eventually replaced the minority Manchu dynasty and cloaked their rule with a majority Han centric one-party state still ruled by a few. Other minorities as the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, and the people of Inner Mongolia suffered in this process. Russia fortunately protected the outer Mongolians because Russia wanted a buffer state between it and China. But the Han-centric nature of the CCP rule eliminated the focus of the why of participatory democracy. The elite CCP few could say they represented the majority.

Hong Kong illustrates this problem. Already with sixteen years of China's one country, two systems rule it has felt the brunt of this Han bias. The people now protest China's intended textbook indoctrination schemes etc., and have even taken to displaying the colonial British flag. Declaring that they are Hong Kongese and not Chinese, they do this not so much because they want a return to British rule, but to symbolically say they were better off as a colony of Great Britain than a colony under China.

Size also betrays China's quest for democracy for the Han Chinese would rather have size than democracy. Taiwanese do not need size for their identity; Taiwanese are satisfied as an island democracy of 23 million. True there are some KMT among them that would rather live with the dream of the KMT's 1947 Constitutional rule of the continent than admit that they lost the Civil War, nonetheless for true Taiwanese, their history tells them that they would rather be free than big.

China further suffers from never allowing revisionist history. In China the psyche is to seek to return to a mythic golden past empire age; such a myth is perpetuated by the fact that the court historians have traditionally sought primarily to legitimize the current rule rather than seek democratic progress. As an example of outdated but maintained ignorance, millions still go to Beijing every year to "petition the Emperor" for justice that they do not get locally. It is only recently that the government is starting to both eliminate this practice as well as the how local officials intercept and jail these people that go to "report" on them.

It is one century after Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese people as a whole still do not have the means, the will or the knowledge of how to achieve what the Taiwanese did. One cannot deny that there are thousands of dissidents in jail for seeking democracy, but these will remain a minority. That the princelings and chosen in China will give up their control in favor of democracy for all remains a dream. That the Chinese people would fight for democracy as the Taiwanese did is a false hope.

The basic paradigms, such as the need to determine identity by size; the worship and easy manipulation of the hierarchy for hierarchy's and power's sake, and the mistrust of giving power to one's fellow people will continue to undermine any efforts in China towards democracy. It did not happen in the last century; it will not happen in this century.