Taiwan's Democracy and the Cult of Personality

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Saturday September 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

As Taiwanese continue to grow in the exercise and appreciation of their hard won democracy, they are now recognizing how they have also outgrown the immaturity found in those that follow and adhere to the cult of personality.

A natural contributor to this growth is of course the scrutiny of a free press, which Taiwan has. Take for example, Taiwan's current president, Tsai Ing-wen; she has not yet reached that somewhat arbitrary judgment day when her performance will be evaluated i.e. that of her first 100 days in office. However, she is already feeling the heat of scrutiny on her actions and her cabinet appointments.

This same scrutiny is the same that is put on any official in a democracy. Chosen by the will of the people, elected officials quickly know and accept that their actions will have to pass the test of constant public scrutiny. So even if Tsai wished for a cult of personality, which she does not, she knows that performance and not personality will be the key to her success. The media are always watching.

Such careful observation is not new to Tsai. Her past experience in the Taiwan's democracy has certainly made her conscious of this scrutiny. She has weathered many storms and criticisms both in getting to be Chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as in losing public elections. Later after winning the party's presidential nomination this past year, she eventually went on to become president of the nation. Throughout all she has had to rely on performance.

A free press, of course does not take place in a vacuum; it is essential that it be exercised in a multi-party democracy where no one person or party has control of the mass media as well as any state means of propaganda.

On the opposite side of the scale of a democracy stands the one-party state dictatorship, the natural breeding ground for the cult of personality. In Asia, for example, the foremost leader who can be said to enjoy a cult of personality would be Kim Jong-il of North Korea. This stands in contrast to Taiwan where the cult of personality has died with good riddance.

An additional contributor to the decline of the cult of personality in Taiwan and the modern world is the constantly developing easy access to communication in the Internet and mobile phones that people have. Information moves swiftly not only across a nation but around the world. Events and actions, good or bad, that happen in one place or area are almost instantaneously announced and made known in the others. Even the possession of a firewall in a one-party state only serves to slow this down.

Taiwanese of course have an additional added advantage from their history. They had a definite spate with the cult of personality as they emerged from their own one-party state days under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). This reality is something that they must regularly reflect on.

Taiwanese had their first experienced the cult of personality in Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan with the remnants of his army and followers after losing the Chinese Civil War. His government imposed the White Terror and Martial Law in this process while at the same time trying to build a cult around Chiang.

After Chiang's death the KMT strove to perpetuate that cult by constructing the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, a monument that might have been well received in the one-party state days but now is named by many as the monument to the dead dictator. It is now hailed as a constant reminder of that past and the brainwashing the people received at that time.

Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo also had his mixed moments of flirting with the cult of personality. Many remember his heavy-handed side as director of the secret police and a later assassination attempt was made on his life. However the people also acknowledge that the one-party state was dismantled under his presidency. Lee Teng-hui, who served as vice president under Chiang met with him daily put it this way. When asked whether Chiang fostered democracy due to his personal beliefs or because he felt a growing public pressure within and without, Lee answered enigmatically and/or diplomatically with the words, "because of both."

In today's world, Taiwan's former president Ma Ying-jeou stands as the KMT's last chance in developing any sense of cult of personality and the best example of how a free press and democracy militate against such. Ma's fall from grace stands as a classic example of the unreliability of pre-hyped personality. He started off with the highest percentage of any elected Taiwan president but his performance soon faltered. Thus shortly into the start of his 2nd term he was already known as the "Bumbler" and his ratings would even dip at one point to 9 per cent. In Taiwan, the cult of personality can be said to have clearly died with Ma.

Historically, democracies find it difficult to sustain a cult of personality. In the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill was hailed as the man led the nation throughout World War II, but he was not elected as a leader for the peacetime that followed. In the US presidents also know that even if they are elected for one term, any popularity that comes from that, does not mean they will be re-elected.

With this knowledge, Taiwanese can then compare their nation and its history with the cult of personality with that of the one-party state nation on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. There, it is true that China's current leaders do feel the pressure of performing well even though they keep the press from being too critical. However, in past leadership while a developing democracy in Russia has come to terms with Stalin, and a democratic Germany has come to terms with Hitler, China still has not been able to come to terms with Mao Tse-tung and all the deaths that happened under him. The lack of a free press, and the lack of democracy will always prove to be a stumbling block there.

One might be tempted to suggest that China could learn from Taiwan and how it outgrew the immature reliance on any cult of its leaders, but that is an admission that most Chinese would find difficult if not impossible to swallow.