The idea of democracy may have its detractors in the Middle East and elsewhere, but in Asia it seems to be what an earlier generation once called communism — “the wave of the future” — and that is making many in the region very, very nervous.
The quasi-communists who run things on the Chinese mainland these days have been proceeding for more than a decade on the historically naive assumption that they can, in effect, have their cake and eat it too. In their desire to build a China that can compete in a world in which economic and military power are more interdependent than ever, they are trying to free up their country’s economic system without giving up an iota of political power. The very idea of a free-market totalitarian state may be difficult to grasp intellectually, but that seems to be what the folks in Beijing are trying to build and hold together.
They are proceeding as they are not because they are born-again democrats but because they know from bitter experience that the economic system dreamed up by the Marxists of yore and bequeathed to them by Mao doesn’t work. They know, too, that while modern world power may still emanate from the barrel of a gun, a nation wishing to wield it had better have an economy that allows it to buy the very expensive guns and other paraphernalia that a modern military demands.
The problem is that as people prosper, see how others live and begin to taste freedom, they want more — and that’s exactly what’s happening in China. Beijing’s mandarins have been forced of necessity to surrender power on some fronts but aren’t interested in going as far as people are beginning to demand. A legal system is beginning to develop that offers some protection to the average citizen, but the state still wants to maintain the monopoly of power that allows despots to sleep comfortably.
That’s why the fractious democracy and boisterous economy that have developed and are operating on Taiwan are so troubling. When I first visited what we then called the Republic of China on Taiwan in the ’60s, people here snickered at the idea that the tiny garrison of anti-Maoist Chinese on the island would ever realize its oft-stated dream of “returning to the mainland.”
I was struck during my first visit by a conversation I had with a senior government official who suggested that perhaps we were snickering because we didn’t understand what he and his friends meant when they talked about returning to the mainland. He said they didn’t necessarily mean that they would return at the head of an army bent upon liberation (though there were some among them who harbored that fantasy) but that their vision of a free and democratic China was superior to the vision of their communist enemies and it would one day be embraced by Chinese on both sides of the straits.
Even that seemed farfetched at the time. The Taiwan of the ’60s was just beginning to develop into the economic behemoth we know today, and while democracy was much talked about then, it would be some time before the talk became the reality of today.
But it has become reality. The Taiwan some talk so cavalierly about abandoning to the tender mercies of Beijing is among the freest and most prosperous nations on the face of the earth. It is, in fact, perhaps the best example anywhere of what a people willing to embrace the democratic idea and free-market economics can achieve.
And its very existence is making Beijing more nervous by the day. China’s rulers want Taiwan “back” not just because they consider the island a “renegade” province but also because the freedom its people enjoy presages a future that the rulers aren’t eager to embrace.
When they got Hong Kong back some years ago, the optimists suggested that the rulers would do nothing to undermine the freedom that made Hong Kong unique. That has proved wrong, as Beijing has steadily moved to bring freedom on that tiny island to its knees.
Still, there are those here who would abandon the island in a heartbeat. In years past, they argued that we shouldn’t support it because the government wasn’t democratic enough; now they argue that we should cut it adrift because it is too democratic and therefore unlikely to do everything we want in the way we want it done.
Taiwan is not a client state or a nation that we support for the sake of convenience or realpolitik. It is a nation that has embraced the ideals for which we stand and turned them into a reality. For that, it deserves, and has earned, our support.