Taiwan leads long march to democracy for Chinese

Taipei transformation raises the stakes in conflict with Beijing

August 24, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- When a soldier hit him in the back with a rifle butt, Shih Ming-teh fell forward, handcuffed, and broke his teeth on the floor. The year was 1962 and fellow servicemen were interrogating him about his politics inside the capital's military jail.

Shih, then a 21-year-old army cadet, would spend most of the next three decades in prison fighting for democracy and earning respect as Taiwan's longest-serving political prisoner.

Today, he serves as a senator in Taiwan's legislature. His office is in a building where the jail once stood.

"This is a reward for a person who follows his ideals," says Shih, 59, as he spins in his swivel chair and laughs.

One hundred miles across the Taiwan Strait in mainland China, people like Shih are serving time for trying to do exactly what he did -- help bring multiparty democracy to a nation of Chinese people. Communist Party leaders say it can't be done.

They argue that mainland Chinese are still too poor and too poorly educated to make the informed decisions necessary to sustain a democratic system.

They also cite the theory of "Asian values," which holds that authoritarianism is the best model for a Confucian culture that emphasizes community over individual rights. "The Western mode of political systems must never be copied," Chinese President Jiang Zemin told Communist Party members last year.

But Jiang has never visited Taiwan.

Vibrant democracy

In two decades, this island of 22 million has transformed a brutal authoritarian environment into a vibrant democratic one in which at least four candidates will stand for presidential election next year.

"To say that the Chinese people and the Chinese culture by nature can't accept democracy is a fallacy," says Yu-ming Shaw, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. "We are as much Chinese as they are."

Although Taiwan operates as a sovereign state, China considers it a breakaway province under the occupation of the Nationalists who fled here in defeat at the end of the Civil War five decades ago. Beijing has vowed to take back the island by force if necessary, a threat that concerns other regional forces and the West, especially the United States.

One of the great sticking points between the two sides is democracy.

Beijing has offered a deal similar to the one it gave Hong Kong two years ago, allowing the former British colony to maintain its free-wheeling, capitalist system. Taiwan, though, would have a much harder time accepting such an arrangement. Why, many Taiwanese ask, should a successful democracy submit to the rule of an authoritarian regime?

Tensions across the Strait are worse now than they have been in years.

Last month, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui declared that both sides should sort out their differences as equals. Furious, Beijing once again threatened attack to punish the island for what it sees as a continued drift toward independence.

In some ways, the regime in Beijing resembles the one in Taipei some 20 years ago. Taiwan was known back then as "Free China," an unintentionally ironic title.

The Nationalists banned opposition parties and demonized critics through their state-run media much as Beijing does today with democracy advocates. When citizens tried to form the China Democracy Party last year, the regime branded its leaders "criminals" and gave them double-digit prison terms after closed-door trials.

Study in contrasts

The contrast between the two Chinas today is striking. Political demonstrations, which provoke police crackdowns in Beijing, are routine in Taipei. Gathering news on the mainland can be excruciating, while in Taiwan quite easy.

Chinese remain leery about discussing politics with strangers and often refuse to give their names to journalists for fear of government reprisals. Taiwanese openly trash top leaders such as President Lee in front of anyone who will listen.

Always wary of the press, mainland officials often ignore requests for interviews and throw out a couple of foreign reporters each year -- just as Taiwan once did.

In Taipei, government press officers set up interviews -- unsolicited -- with opposition party leaders just to show visiting journalists how deep the democratic spirit runs here.

"You are free to talk to anyone you like on the street, no problem," says Gary Sheu, section chief for the Division of Protocol in Taiwan's government information office.

Comparisons hard to make

Although inevitable, comparisons between Taiwan and China are not entirely fair. Taiwan is much richer, better educated and far easier to manage than its cross-strait cousin.

The island has one person for every 54 on the mainland and is 17 times wealthier on a per capita basis. China's illiteracy rate is three times that of Taiwan's.

But Taiwan's "quiet revolution" is neither flawless nor complete.

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