Friday 25 April 2008

The Taiwan Effect On Sinic Civilisation

In 1997, when this analyst predicted that the Peoples Republic of China would emerge within two decades as the next economic superpower, the view was dismissed, not least in the PRC itself, whose scholars almost unitedly forecast a much longer period of less exalted status before their country "emerged" on the scale mentioned, if indeed it were to happen at all. Most PRC scholars said that oit would. However, presently several of these same analysts are themselves talking of their country in the very terms used by the aurthor in 1997,"emerging superpower", while observers elsewhere agree on the forecast that the PRC will become the second-largest world economy well before the first half of the present century, and the largest thereafter. In several indices, the PRC has overtaken or is overtaking the US, although it is still behind the most of (the combined totals of) the European Union states. However, these latter still have a considerable distance to go before they can claim to be a unified entity, and the possibility exists of economic turbulence that would lead once again to calls for a dilution in central authority and towards the traditional nation-state. The EU has worked well in good times, but the test of a system is its resilience in the face of substantial adversity, and such a situation has not yet arrived on the continent since the end of the 1939-45 war. Indeed,the entire structure of the EU is designed oin a way that assumes that the prosperity of Europe continues to be a given

Although some would claim that the primacy of Europe dates back to the Greeks and the Romans, the existence of China and India as contemporaneously wealthier civilisations makes such a view untenable. The rise to global primacy of what may be termed "European" ( or Euric) civilisation began during the 17th century AD , and reached its highest point in the 19th. A significant contributing factor was the more equitable social system within the primary powers of Europe as compared to the two giants of Asia, who remained tethered to a feudalism that treated the bulk of their own populations as subhuman. In contrast, many of the peoples of Europe were able to secure greater economic and other rights from their elites, beginning a millenium ago with the Magna Carta in Britain, and thereupon transposed the "subhuman" category onto other peoples. This overlordship of other peoples first became genocidal in South America a half-millennium ago and later spread to North America as well as to Africa and parts of Asia. Such colonialism was ended shortly after World War II, during with Germany imposed on other European states the same conditions of servitude that several European states had imposed on other continents. The frenzy of intra-European bloodlust unleashed by the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in the 1930s ,till their defeat in 1945 weakened both the will as well as the capacity of the major European powers to hold on to their colonies. The war of 1939-45 accelerated the transfer of power to local elites, in India in 1947 and to other lands thereafter

As the remarkable expansion of both knowledge and power within and out of Europe since the 17th century AD demonstrates, the strength and resilience of a society usually moves in the same direction as social justice. For example, the victory of the Greek armies over the more numerous and better-equipped Persian forces in the third century BC owed much to the fact that the Persian armies were composed of slaves with little to lose in the event of the defeat of King Darius, while most of the Alexandrine forces were freedmen, aware of both the rewards of conquest as well as the consequences of being enslaved by the Persian Empire in the event of a military disaster. Had there been an equitable social system in the territories ruled from Persepolis,the morale and motivation of the troops confronting the Greeks may have been as high as was the case within the "holy warriors" of Mahmud of Ghazni when he succeeded in defeating the Indian princes from AD 1001 onwards, despite the latter's considerable numerical superiority. The sense of mission and brotherhood within the Ghaznavid forces contrasted with the lower morale and motivation within the Indian armies, which were mostly composed of press-ganged individuals with near- absent civil rights, because of the caste-based society common within the country. Once caste in India became linked to birth rather than occupation and accomplishment,the fall of such societies became an inevitability. A similar enervation took place in China,where the court and the aristocracy mocked the tenets of Confucius by evolving into a closed and cloistered elite around six centuries ago,the very period when the country turned its back on the rest of the world,despite Zheng He having demonstrated its superiority and reach in his voyages

What this writer has elsewhere described as a "horizontal" rather than a "vertical" view of society, in a chapter on the subject in a volume brought out by the Bar-Ilan university in 2005, has been a key component of the success of the Euric peoples in establishing first their primacy and subseqently their dominance over the rest of the world. The extension of democratic traditions to other cultures and the decaying of feudalism and birth-based barriers to societal progress such as ethnic,religious or caste criteria, has resulted in an enhancement of enlightenment within the Sinic and the Indic cultures, which together represent two unbroken streams of civilisation, centred within China and India respectively. However, as yet this re-awakening of potential is in a nascent stage, as shown by the fact that as late as 2007, more than nine out of every ten scientific patents originated within those countries identified as Euric (ie those in North America, Australasia and within the European Union)

Still-powerful vestiges of feudalism continue to remain a constraint on the expansion of knowledge in India, while its authoritarian state structure results in a similar block in the PRC. The restrictive impact of such conditions can be judged from the much-better performance of Indian and Chinese-origin scientists and technologists in societies where such constraints do not operate. While a student studying in a university in India is unlikely to ever qualify for a Nobel Prize, the same is not the case with those pursuing their research in the more democratic societies of North America and to a lesser degree, Australasia and the European Union. In the latter, although invisible in public view, race is a much greater inhibiting factor to achievement and the pursuit of excellence than is the case in North America

In the case of the PRC, the authoritarian system in place in that country is a limiting factor in the economic and other progress of a society which will need to develop knowledge clusters substantially in order to grow beyond the stage of being a mere assembly-line for other economies

It is the contention here that the Sinic peoples are on course to re-emerge as the "Lead Civilisation" on the globe,displacing the Euric peoples after a gap of two centuries. However,for this to happen,the PRC will need to continue on the present trajectory of high growth combined with internal stability despite rapid changes in the social environment. The "Taiwan Effect" will be substantial in such a success. For although several within that island would dispute this, the reality remains that Taiwan is within the umbra of Sinic civilisation, in the way that - to a somewhat lesser degree - Singapore is. Taiwan, Singapore and the PRC may be termed as "Core Sinic" entities, while Mongolia, Korea, Viet Nam and Japan have within their cultures as substantial a dose of Sinic civilisation as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have of the Indic. Of course, all these countries have over time developed their own unique local civilisations, although remaining based on the Sinic and Indic foundations bequeathed to them by history. In the case of Malaysia, that country is following Pakistan and Bangladesh in seeking to alter the very foundations of its inherent cultural ethos, by replacing the Indic with the Arabic, in the process creating social confusion and the risk of extreme instability. The efforts of some sections of Taiwanese society and its polity to replace its Sinic roots with a mix of Polynesian and other strains is analogous to the state-sponsored efforts within Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia to seek to replace what is natural to the land with a graft from afar, and if taken to the extremes found in Pakistan and Malaysia, could lead to the same societal turmoil as these countries are experiencing. The chemistry of Pakistan,Bangla Desh and Malaysia is not the same as that unique amalgam present in the Middle East,and any uncritical transplantation of that culture from the into these lands would generate a misfit between the core and the superstructure of society,that would impede harmony. To regard Middle Eastern mores and culture as being at the roots of a particular faith is analogous to Christians worldwide regarding Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus Christ) as the only acceptable language,and the customs of the inhabitants of Bethlehem as being the sole model for they themselves to follow,or for Buddhists in Japan,Thailand and elsewhere to seek to replicate the patterns of behaviour found in the birthplace of the Buddha,rather than continue on their own trajectories,the way the major Buddhist nations of the world ( or indeed those with Christian majorities) are doing

The acceptance of the "cultural core" of any civilisation is a pre-requisite for harmony,and this is equally the case within the Sinic civilisation,of which Taiwan forms a part,albeit as a state system separate from that of the PRC. It needs to be remembered that there was never a "Surrender Document" between the CCP and the KMT in 1949 or later,so that the authority structure in Taiwan can lay claim to equality with that in the PRC. As the author has said (in an article in "Taipei Times"), the PRC and Taiwan are "One Nation,Two States". It is the contention here that the path taken by Taiwan is likely to have a significant impact on the future path adopted in the PRC, and will controbute substantially towards that path embedding within itself the requirenents of tolerance,liberty and democracy that the Sinic peoples need in order to achieve their potential destiny of emerging as the primary civilisation of the globe

Knowledge is boundary less, and thrives best in an environment of democratic freedoms. Hence the reason why Information Technology is more successful in India than in Pakistan, a country where the minority communities are treated as second-class citizens, and where the testimony of women is given only half the evidentiary value of that of men. Equal treatment of all, irrespective of faith, is the keystone of a secular society, and any creation of differential standards based on faith would act as a negative force on the knowledge accretion and enhancement needed to accelerate economic and other forms of growth within human societies

In like manner, although much smaller in area, Taiwan has a much higher level of technological sophistication than the PRC, and does significantly more cutting-edge research than its neighbour. It is not accidental that Taiwan has become a democracy since the system was introduced by President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1987. Since then, especially with the election to office of the native-born Lee Teng-hui the next year, democracy has become a much more powerful weapon in the creation of international resonance for Taiwan than (for example) "pocketbook diplomacy". Moving to the present, the reality of the PRC remaining within an authoritarian straitjacket is substantially behind the international unease over conditions in Tibet, a landlocked territory with a unique culture. It is the view of this analyst that democracy would be a much more beneficial system to the people of the PRC than an authoritarian state structure that denies them rights enjoyed by citizens in countries across the world. It is an affront to the civilisational depths and excellence of the people of the PRC to say that they would not be able to "manage" a democratic state structure. This is the same assertion made by then British Prime Minister Winston S Churchill in 1944 to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, that the people of India lacked the maturity needed to exercise democratic freedoms, and that consequently, the indefinite extension of British colonial rule was inevitable and desirable. Contrary to Churchill's view,the example of India since 1947 shows that democracy is as natural to the human spirit in India as it is in Europe or, indeed, in Taiwan, and that the population of the PRC would benefit rather than suffer from a system where they had the right to choose their leaders

Although most historians attribute the breadth of modern Indian democracy to Jawaharlal Nehru,with Shashi Tharoor even terming Jawaharlal Nehru as the "inventor" of India, the reality is that the major chunk of credit for designing a Constitution of India that embodies universal rights goes to B R Ambedkar. The leader of India's most disadvantaged section was insistent that the people whose cause he championed be given the same rights as others,and he ensured that the foundation document of Indian democracy ensured universal adult suffrage. Indeed,it was during the premiership of Nehru ( 1947-64) that numerous restrictions on the freedom of action of India's citizens were either continued or put into effect,notably in the economic sphere. It is unfortunate for India that the country embarked on economic liberalisation only in 1992, as compared to 1978 in the PRC

The PRC has seen four major stages in its evolution,and is now in its fifth. The fist was in 1949,with the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The next was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.Next followed the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms that began in 1978,and finally the mainstreaming of Han nationalism during and after the Hong Kong handover of 1997. The fifth stage,of seeking to accelerate modernisation and succeed in the Knowledge Economy while preserving an authoritarian state structure, was begun by President Hu Jintao in 2005. Today,the PRC has more than 200 million internet users, and 220 million users of mobile telephones. In consequence,the spread of information has reached a level tht is severely testing efforts at restricting access to knowledge of events

That the "Hu Era" in the PRC is characterised by a vigorous adjustment to the effects of modern communications technology has become clear through the difference in approach of the CCP towards the 2008 earthquake, as compared to the 2005 SARS outbreak. Although the disease came on the public health radar internally in December 2005, it was only in April 2006 that accurate descriptions of its spread and virulence began to be aired in state media. This transparency was less the result of an embrace of glasnost than it was the realisation that the internet had rendered impossible any control of information about the epidemic. By 2008,the lessons from SARS had resulted in the much greater access given to media organisations during the earthquake. In order to keep ahead of this procress,daily briefings began to be given,as well as stage-managed events such as VIP visits, with a sophistication that would be the envy of politicians in the US

Hu Jintao's embrace of (non-political) openness has resulted last year in 40 million tourists visiting the PRC ( or ten times more than the number coming to India),and 60 million PRC citizens travelling beyond their shores. Sexual freedom as well as social mobility has expanded significantly since the "Hu Era" began in 2002, even as pride and confidence in the country has grown. Private property has been given legal protection in 2007,wile marriage is no longer dependent on the consent of parents or employers. Even religion has come out of the closet,especially the different strands of the Buddhist faith,that are seen as less loaded with political baggage than the religions emanating from the west. While Mao Zedong condemned Chinese traditions and even Confuciius as "rubbish",both have been revived under Hu

Will President Hu or his successor be able to continue the process of reform and modernisation into the political? Should they decide to do so,the experience of Taiwan would be a key element in conscientizing public opinion. For the election into office of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 has unlocked the possibilty that a Taiwanese leader may emerge as a change agent in the PRC,in a way that Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was unable to do,despite the latter's erudition and accomplishments

The Presidential and Legislative Yuan elections in Taiwan of 2008 have demonstrated that the culture of representative democracy is as natural to the Sinic peoples as it is to the Indic or the Euric. Unless the CCP can create systems that encompass questions of faith, issues relating to non-material needs,in the effective way that it has crafted channels to deal with material wants,it will face severe turbulence as society within the PRC becomes more complex and therefore demanding. Hopefully,rather than seek to adopt a Brezhnevite rigidity in its response to change,the CCP will draw the correct conclusions from the example of Taiwan and launch the process of political transition with the verve and success that it embarked on economic reform in 1978

Indeed,a transition to democracy is necessary for the PRC to retain an international environment conducive to its continued expansion, as indeed the prospect of closer ties with Taiwan.An authoritarian PRC that has emerged as a major global foece would be seen as a threat by other major powers,in a way that a democratic China would not be. Indeed,if Taiwan enjoys a respect within the international community out of all proportion to its geographical size,the reason lies in the admiration of the world at the seamless transition of the island from authoritarianism to democracy under President Chiang Ching-kuo. In contrast,the UK never allowed the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the rights enjoyed by citizens in a democracy, up to the handover in 1997

If the people of Taiwan have shown a much lower propensity to accept authoritarian rule as a part of the PRC than the people of Hong Kong, it is because that former British colony never enjoyed the freedoms of a democracy. It was only after it became clear that Paramount Leader Deng Xiao-ping would not agree to anything short of complete accession of the whole of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997 did Whitehall begin to see the "light of democracy" shining in its sights, sending Christopher Patten to the colony as its 28th (and last) Governor in 1992. Over the next five years, Patten oversaw a series of pseudo-reforms that essentially transferred some peripheral powers to local elites and away from London, where they had been concentrated till then. Had Whitehall the vision to implement democracy in Hong Kong after the takeover of power by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 on the mainland, or even after Taiwan switched to a democratic system four decades later, by 1997, the population of Hong Kong may have been active enough to ensure a preservation of much greater freedoms than were agreed to between London and Beijing till the handover. The fact that Taiwan has evolved into a full democracy has been the major reason behind the unwillingness of the local population to agree to a union with the PRC, even though the majority are in favour of a pragmatic accommodation that both preserves the autonomy from external control of Taiwan and the business links between the PRC and Taiwan. As is usual in democracies, the Taiwanese electorate opted for the "Middle Way" ( as distinct from the Middle Kingdom) during the parliamentary and presidential elections held this year

Ever since democracy was introduced to Taiwan by Chinag Ching-kuo and broadened by his successor Lee Teng-hui, the CCP had claimed that it has worked in a manner less than optimal in improving living standards. Commentators in the PRC pointed to claimed societal tensions during the period in office of Lee Teng-hui as well as Chen Shui-bian to argue that the system of democracy practiced in Taiwan has been responsible. Now that voters have overwhelmingly voted in the KMT to power into the Legislative Yuan, as well as Ma Ying-jeou as the next President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), such commentators have been shown to be wrong,and have largely fallen silent. To the people of the PRC, the election of a leader proud of his ancestry and civilisational heritage to the highest office in Taiwan, in place of those presidents who claimed a separate ancestry and/or culture from the Han, is proof not simply that democracy is fully congrunent with the cultural fabric of Sinic civilisation, but that it works in ways that smooth over and thereby harmonize societal divisions in a non-violent manner

India is another example of the way in which democracy promotes peaceful change. That country has seen vast changes in social engineering brought about as a result of the ballot box. For example, in the province of Tamil Nadu since 1967,and in UP and Bihar as well, chief ministers have emerged from castes that were the subject of severe limits on forward development for centuries. Coming back to the 2008 presidential elections, the "Taiwan Effect" is likely to be substantial on Sinic society in general, as the results show to be false the assertion that the people of Chinese origin and culture are unsuited to the nuances and complexities of democracy, and therefore require arbitrary rule

Apart from social instability, another by-product of democracy (as held by PRC scholars) is prresumed to be economic stagnation. The fact that India has lagged behind the PRC in economic growth since the 1980s has been taken as evidence of the correlation between slow growth and democracy. However, the country's recent emergence as a potential economic powerhouse has discredited such a hypothesis,and has in contrast shown that democracy is in no way incompatible with high growth rates. In fact, the reverse is the case. It is only the checks and balances of a democracy and the safety valves within that system that make viable the transition of a society from one plane of growth to another. In the PRC, there has been an expansion of liberty in the personal sphere, with social mores undergoing changes that have brought the behaviour of several young citizens of the PRC closely akin to patterns followed by counterparts in Europe and North America. Recently, with the acceptance of the Jiang Zemin Theory of Three Represents into CCP doctrine, there has been a like expansion of freedom in the economic sphere in China. Now what is left are issues of faith and the political process. The events in Tibet show the need for the PRC to evolve a system of governance that takes account of religious faith, and any significant economic slowdown may lead to an intensification on public unrest on a scale unprecedented since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s

Sinic civilisation is one of the great streams of humanity, and the Sinic peoples are reclaiming the primacy that was theirs for millenia. However, for such a process top continue, it is essential that political and other civil rights march in step with economic advancement. The Taiwan Example has shown to the people of Chinese origin and culture across the world that democracy not only works, it works well. The wheels of democracy may grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine in the years ahead, the evolution of Taiwan into a stable and prospering democracy may prove to be a significant milestone in the evolution of a great civilisation.

(Keynote address delivered by Prof. Madhav Nalapat at the Bangalore University Conference on "Taiwan in the 21st Century on April 25th, 2008.)

1 comment: