Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

I sometimes wonder if civil war is in essence a political-scientist's wet-dream. Where else does one get the chance for a culture-controlled experiment on how the outcomes of political decisions affect entire countries.

The Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China represent
just such a case.

Two governments of what is culturally and historically the same people. Both governments begin as autocratic, one-party domains. Their initial difference is more or less limited to economic policy (free market to the former, communist to the latter) and their backers: US and Soviet. Recently, however, the ROC begins adoption of democratic institutions while the PRC just adopts economic reforms--'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics', a euphemism for capitalism coexisting within a massive, corrupt bureaucracy. Wealth begins to accrue to both. Does this present a perfect duo with which to study the long term durability of a wealthy, authoritarian system?

Whether in Taipei or Beijng, the rising towers of materialism mushroom to the sky. Both Asian Tiger economies follow largely in the footsteps of Japan's post-war boom, with state-guided private enterprise, and Confucian-style hierarchy as the norm. Seeing the results of the Japanese top-out, however, one wonders how long such rapid growth can be maintained, at what costs, and with what results when the boom ends. Will citizens continue to believe--as I so frequently hear--that corruption and the direction of government policy are not their business to worry about?

I often wonder what Taiwan actually is like. Having resided in the PRC for almost two years, now, I can only approach Taiwan as hearsay and myth. Is it true, as they say, that traditional Chinese religion and culture still ekes out an existence there? I've heard that Budhist and Taoist temples are actually treated with reverence and relevance to lifestyle, rather than as ostentatious tourist traps. A very strange place indeed. My father was there in the 1970's, I believe, when the mainland was still very much off limits to the outside world, and Taiwan was a capitalist paradise on the doorstep of hell, waiting to be gobbled up.

As far as I can determine, there are two narratives developing in Taiwan. One says--in tune to screeches from Beijing--there is only one China and eventually China must be reunited. In order for this day to come, however, the mainland must accept economic and political liberalization such that Taiwanese citizens and politicians can imagine thriving there. That day being seen as a long way off, however--the mainland politicians are in no hurry for transparency or universal suffrage--the security of Taiwanese economic and personal freedoms rests in peaceful dialog, business ties, and bland symbolic gestures with the mainland.

The second narrative, depending on how relations with the mainland play out, may be fleeting or may come to represent the main populist and nativist position for Taiwan:that the PRC has no intention of ever reforming its civil liberties, despite vast market reforms, and thus Taiwan preserves a rare and fragile version of China that can only survive in separation.

As successful political narrative usually does, both speak to the heart. The hearts of many on both sides of the straits would eventually like to see a united, strong China. This I do not doubt. But the ROC hasn't survived this long by being idealistic, and the PRC hasn't survived this long by being soft on dissenting viewpoints. I think that probably that if the second narrative (the DPP's) remains one of separation and eventual isolation, it is doomed.

In recent elections, the DPP decreased its share of parliament (actually more related to a change in how electoral victories are calculated than decreased public support) and lost the presidential election. How will this political party adapt? Already it appears to be moderating its China policy to grab a larger share of a largely pragmatic electorate. I suspect that soon their narrative will become more like the standard populist/social democratic platform found in many other democratic countries. Political parties are amorphous creatures, after all. Witness the strange identity crises of a communist party that advocates full-on free market capitalism, or the party of Lincoln embracing the racism of Strom Thurmand and his ilk. I will admit, the final metamorphoses that allow CCP, KMT, and DPP (or successor parties) to reunite across the straits should be quite interesting.

In future I hope that Taipei, like Hong Kong before it, can transform the mainland through its own absorption. Capitalism and democracy are highly contagious diseases, after all, and the leadership in Beijing should be careful what it wishes for. Like SARS spreading through an unhygienic populace, the rebellious frontier provinces of China have valuable, viral lessons that the 'motherland' cannot avoid forever.

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