Power and Succession—Taiwan, China, and Asia

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Monday April 19, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

For any nation in today’s world, two issues are salient: “Who rules the nation and so controls the national power, and how is that power successively transferred?”

In simple terms, this is asking which form of government is in the best interest of the people and the nation? That is, should that nation be either a one-party state or a democracy? After that, once the power base has been established, how then is it transferred?

In democracies, the rules of succession or transfer of power are traditionally laid out in the nation’s laws and the constitution. In one-party states, on the other hand, any such transfers of power depend more on the beliefs, preferences, and even whims of the ruler and their party.

This is the situation that complicates most Asian nations in the postcolonial aftermath of World War II, and this is where we find Taiwan.

Taiwan is one of the most peaceful, self-sustaining, democratic nations in Asia. And yet, if you ask anyone familiar with East Asian politics what is the greatest flashpoint of regional trouble, they will immediately answer: “Taiwan.”

Why so?

The fact that the answer suggestively blames Taiwan is wrong and needs examination. It is not wrong in the sense that Taiwan won’t be involved in potential regional conflicts but because the focus of the question is misdirected.

Taiwan is not the aggressor here. As a nation, it has been peacefully going about its business for decades. The problem is and continues to be China, its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait and that China covets the self-sustaining, democratic nation of Taiwan.

Return to the question of national power and its succession and look at some of Taiwan’s other Asian neighbors.

Myanmar is a nation that had been moving towards democracy, but the military has recently staged a coup. Why? What dangers did the military see in the nation’s developing democracy? Who does the military wish to set up in an alternate form of government? Those are obvious questions that need to be answered in any situation where the military has seized power.

In North Korea, different problems are on the horizon. Kim Jong-un is supreme leader. He is young and could live for some time.

However, how beneficial his rule is for the nation is open to question, but more important is who will succeed him? He has children but the passing of power to them is not necessarily guaranteed in any dynastic succession.

Kim has already eliminated a half brother and an uncle, so will he favor his sister to succeed? Most communist states face trouble in succession as they often justified taking of power with the claim of overthrowing dynastic succession or colonial rule.

That brings us to China, which covets Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping is continuing to work on changing the rules of succession in the Chinese Communist Party so he can remain in power. What is it that he fears would happen if he is not the leader? Why is his holding power essential to the growth and continuation of the one-party state?

The same question arises in China’s northern neighbor, Russia. Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin continuing to work to guarantee that he remain as leader? It is true that, with an autocratic leader, the citizens can hope for wisdom and benevolence, but given human nature and the corruptibility of absolute power, how long can such a concept or hope be relied upon?

This is the irony of China and Russia. In China, Xi wishes to restore continued dynastic rule with himself as emperor, while Putin wishes to restore the absolute reign of a czar. Was not the overthrow of such rulers the justification for their communist parties taking power?

In such nations, if there is competition for power, it is usually eliminated not by the vote, but by purges. Such purges are not ones where a person is simply sent into exile. Competing leaders have been assassinated even in exile.

Certainly, any one-party state with its autocratic rule can claim to be more efficient in the decision making process, but other obvious questions remain. Is that efficiency necessarily in the best interest of the state and the people?

This becomes the dividing line between autocratic states and democratic ones. In democratic nations, the people can correct mistakes in elections; in autocracies that is not the case. Another coup or revolt is in order.

Return to Taiwan. There are other democracies in Asia, but Taiwan remains a democratic model to be studied because of its unusual history of how it went from a one-party state dictatorship to a flourishing democracy. It surprisingly did this not by a bloody revolution as happened in China and Russia but by becoming a democracy.

In Taiwan, citizens can rest in ease and comfort, peacefully predicting the timing of succession. They know that in 2024 President Tsai Ing-wen will step down. She will not run again. Someone else will take the lead. Who that is will depend on party nominations and the votes of the people.

On the other hand, in Russia and in China, one does not see any future election process but rather the changing of the goalposts to insure the continued rule of those in power.

This is why Taiwan’s movement from a one-party state towards democracy can be illuminating and worth studying.

For those unfamiliar with the past 75 years of Taiwan’s history, a summary is in order. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) began ruling as a one party state in 1945. Upon the death of Chiang Kai-shek, his son, former president Chiang Ching-kuo took over. Chiang Ching-kuo had the wisdom to see that he should not pass power on to his heirs. He chose Taiwanese born Lee Teng-hui as his vice president and on his death, Lee ruled for 12 years from 1988 to 2000 and won the first official free election in 1996.

The opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP) won in 2000 with a split in the KMT candidates and won again in 2004 by a sliver of one percent in votes. The KMT came back with former president Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 and 2012 but his party could not continue to hold power.

By mid-term elections in 2014 the KMT’s grasp on power was again weakening. The DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, won the presidency in 2016 and again last year with an increasing amount of votes.

So the seesaw struggle for successive rule continues to be determined by the vote of the people.

Taiwan’s next presidential election is a relatively long way off as far as politics are concerned so the natural question is whether the pendulum will swing back again. Whichever way it goes, the people know that they control the answer.

For this reason, Taiwan stands as an example, where a ruler or party does not need to change the rules to insure that a leader remains in power.

Therefore, Taiwan is well-worth watching. It has already proven that it can withstand the populism tide of the past few years with KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu sent packing last year.

Furthermore, the people are not worried about elections. They are in control of their destiny.

It is not being facetious to suggest that the study and preservation of Taiwan as an independent de facto democracy, is pertinent to peace in Asia.

Taiwan can be a beacon, a lodestar. It points to how a nation can move from a one-party state dictatorship to a democracy.

Therefore, the flashpoint threats in the region are not from Taiwan. Taiwan might be involved, but the causes of the flashpoint are outside it.

Its people remain in control. They do not need any military intervention; they do not need purges. They control their destiny by the vote and that is what other Asian nations should study and learn from Taiwan.