John Keane | Top British thinker praises Taiwan’s originality
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Top British thinker praises Taiwan’s originality

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Born in Australia and educated at the Universities of Adelaide, Toronto and Cambridge, John Keane is now professor of politics at the University of Westminster in England and is also the founder of the center for the Study of Democracy. Keane has authored many books on democracy and civil society, including “Violence and Democracy (2004)” and “Global Civil Society?” (2003) and is ranked by the Times of London as one of Britain’s leading political thinkers. Now writing the first full-scale history of democracy in over a century, Keane is visiting Taiwan and will deliver a lecture on “Why Democracy? Considerations on an Old Ideal in Need of New Life” this afternoon at the Taiwan Democracy Foundation. Keane discussed the relevance and future of democracy in Taiwan with Taiwan News senior reporter and chief editorial writer Dennis Engbarth. Excerpts follow.

Taiwan News : Why have you decided to study Taiwan as part of your history of democracy?

John Keane : I believe there are many originalities in this transition and invention of democracy in Taiwan. What is most remarkable and extremely unusual is that democratic institutions and a way of life have begun to flourish here that without referring to an organized religion or “shared sense of the sacred.” Taiwan is probably the first generally secular example of democratic flourishing. Even though there were contributions by religious groups, Taiwan’s democracy does not refer to a single source of what is “sacred” or religious to legitimize itself. This very new development in the history of democracy can be compared to the United States, where political leaders frequently refer to “God” and “crusade” for the “God-given” entitlement of all nations to be democratic, such as in the justifications for the Iraq intervention. In contrast, Taiwan is a more modest, humble and secular democracy. Another major source of originality is related to the fact that Taiwan is at the cutting edge of the problem of how democracies can survive and what are the geopolitical conditions for democracy.

TN : What do you see as the options for Taiwan, given the military, diplomatic and economic pressure from the People’s Republic of China, which is clearly hostile to Taiwan’s democracy?

Keane : Democratic institutions cannot survive unless they are protected from violence on a regional basis. It is a myth that democracy can survive in a single territorial state. The only contrary example is the United States which was protected by two oceans in the age of wind power. Taiwan therefore must grapple with the problem of how to nurture and sustain its democracy in a difficult geopolitical environment. History provides several options. Some democracies have protected themselves by forming regional integrated associations, of which the European Union stands as the first modern experiment. While it may be unpopular to say so, history also shows that important democratic institutions can be invented and protected by imperial systems or by dominant powers, such sometimes occurred under the “Pax Brittania.” Now the United States is the world’s dominant power. Evidence is mixed on the question of whether history will see Pax Americana in terms of fostering democratic institutions. The U.S. crushed incipient democracy in Korea in the late 1940s after the Second World War but revived democracy in Japan and is now seen as backing Taiwan. The final possibility is that a few democracies can be born and survive thanks to backing by global institutions, such as East Timor whose birth depended on the United Nations. Now struggling to survive with a giant power across the Strait, Taiwan is engaged in an experiment to choose among these or a combination of these options. In any case, politics will decide but prudence is imperative.

TN : How will Taiwan’s fostering of a diverse civil society enter into the picture?

Keane : We can see that geopolitical conditions now refer not only to “hard power” such as military force but also include “soft power.” Civil society is a basic institution for controlling and checking government power and the violence that governments can heap on citizens. For Taiwan, civil society is very important as Taiwan features very complex identities. By its nature, civil society connects cross borders. Taiwan as a polity is already inserted in a much wider regional and global exchange of power that in itself may be a reason and precondition for the survival of democracy in Taiwan. A vibrant and dense civil society can also make it difficult for a society like Taiwan to be taken over.

TN : Some analysts are concerned that visits by conservative opposition leaders to China may spur an anti-democratic or “Chinese nationalist” counter-reaction to Taiwan’s democracy as “populist.”

Keane : Visits by opposition leaders to other countries are normal in healthy democracies, even under intensely embattled conditions. What is striking is the Taiwan people’s general acceptance of such actions as a normal part of competitive party politics. Under conditions of geopolitical uncertainty and domestic anxiety, some democracies have shown weakness by stimulating the growth of nationalism, which is a type of politics that asks all people to drop all other identities and worship the nation. The notion that representative government required a single homogeneous people proved murderous in Europe. So modern democracy aims for the survival of states and of nations but not with “nationalism.” The reply to the politics of nationalism lies in the fact that there are people who are Hakka, mainlanders or Hoklo or aborigines or an increasing number of people from other foreign countries. For nations or peoples to live side by side there need to be institutional safeguards of citizenship which means not just a passport but equal entitlement to move through the institutions of civil society and participate in matters of government and law. This must be politically fought for and protected. In this sense, Taiwan is a multinational polity that is engaged in a symbolic experiment for democracy globally in whether its people can come to terms with this plurality. With its vibrancy and diversity, Taiwan contains plenty of domestic potential to strike such a dynamic compromise.

TN : How do you see prospects for China’s democratization?

Keane : While in Hong Kong, I was struck by the resilience of Hong Kong Democratic Party Legislator Martin Lee and his confidence that “we will win.” In horse racing, all betters know when they see a “stayer” who will last the distance. Lee feels sure that democracy and the concepts of power-sharing and power-monitoring by the public and other aspects of the democratic spirit is a “stayer” in the Chinese context. It could be that China’s combination of reform without openness may triumph and lead to military domination in the region, but that would presuppose that the CCP can solve the PRC regime’s huge structural problems, ranging from massive pollution of the Yellow River to the migration of hundreds of millions of Chinese from the poor interior to the wealthy coastal cities. These factors are reasons why China’s present leadership will probably not have a free hand to determine the course of the reform process or the fate of the region. Taiwan’s breakthrough shows that democracy is possible.