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Taiwan: Democracy with a Confucian Face?

To what extent does a distinctive Confucian culture exist – and is it incompatible with civic and democratic values? This is the topic of enquiry of Doh Chull Shin’s book, Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia, which focuses on the “Confucian Asian” countries of China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. Its main conclusion is that while a Confucian heritage is incompatible with Western style liberal-procedural democracy for its emphasis of community welfare over freedom of individual citizens, it could be reformulated into a communitarian democracy for its support of strong families which promotes trust and tolerance in the broader society.

In May this year, a debate about the relationship between Chinese culture and democratic civic life in Taiwan was sparked by Han Han’s visit there. As mainland China’s most popular blogger, his blog post, Winds of the Pacific (translated by the South China Morning Post), garnered much responses from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. He depicted the kindness and sincerity of the Taiwanese he encountered, like a taxi driver who drove back to Han Han’s hotel to return his mobile phone that he left on the cab, and contrasted this with the disappearance of deep-rooted Chinese virtues on the mainland:

I live in a country that has been through decades of political movements and harsh struggles. It sometimes seems we are now destined for a prolonged era of greed and selfishness.

I need to thank Hong Kong and Taiwan for protecting Chinese culture. They have preserved the virtues of the Chinese people, preventing many deep-rooted qualities from being destroyed.

Culture, a legal system and freedoms are the mainstays of a nation. People in other countries will not respect us simply because our new money can buy up all their super sports cars and ultra-luxury pleasure cruisers.

Han Han met President Ma in May 2012. Photo from the Taiwan Presidential Office.

The post attracted so much attention that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou mentioned it in his inaugural address on 20 May 2012. He cites Han Han’s experience as reflections that kindness and honesty, core values of Chinese culture, are well and alive in Taiwan. He further links these traditional virtues with civic spirit and democracy:

Taiwan has three cultural traits: First, civic spirit is deep-rooted; second, traditional culture is well preserved; and third, the links and transitions between tradition and modernity are sophisticated. Democracy has made our civil society what it is today. It is a civil society in which the atmosphere of openness and the spirit of freedom have become the soil that nurtures creativity. In this soil of openness and freedom, we have not only preserved traditional culture – such as Taiwanese opera and glove puppetry – but have also developed contemporary cultural brands, such as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and the Ju Percussion Group. On the one hand, we are pursuing high technology and internationalization; while on the other, we also champion grassroots access to cultural activities.

Both Han Han and President Ma have portrayed Taiwan as a society deeply rooted in Chinese culture and at the same time steeped in Western civic democratic values. But what is left unclear is whether there is a connection between the two. A number of writers think that they have confused civic virtue for traditional Chinese virtue.

Taiwanese writer Lin Shu Shu, for example, thinks that the kindness that Han Han experienced in Taiwan has nothing to do with traditional Chinese culture; rather, it is the result of a developed civil society. He starts from a short tour of Taiwan’s history:


When Japanese colonists first set foot on Taiwan in 1895, what they found was a disorderly place with low hygiene standard, and where foot-binding women, opium eaters and ruffians were abound – the literacy rate of the whole population was less than 3%. Such was a microcosm of mainland China in the same period. In the next 50 years, the Japanese laid the foundation of rule of law in Taiwan. Local elections, autonomy and citizenship engagement first emerged in 1935, and they were the fruits of continuous demands to the colonists by such activists as Chiang Wei-shui, who found the Taiwanese Cultural Association in 1921. But we can only speak of the enhancement of citizenship in Taiwan in the 1990s, after the implementation of democracy, free flow of information and emergence of the Internet.


What we call traditional Chinese virtue is a false proposition. We talk about German culture, American culture, Aztec culture, Egyptian culture, Southeast Asian culture. Do we ever hear anything about virtue? Virtue is only an imagination.


Therefore, I hold the opposite view from Han nationalists. It is the free atmosphere in a civil society which allows the survival of Chinese culture without infringing the citizenship spirit. If a place blocks the development of civil society while promoting traditional values with feudal characteristics, it is tantamount to sympathizing with a new authoritarianism.

This viewpoint is echoed by well-known mainland Chinese columnist Jia Jia (twitter: @jijia), who thinks the “Taiwan experience” has its own unique origin, unconnected with Chinese culture:


President Ma Ying-jeou paying respect in Taipei's Chih Nan Temple during the Chinese New Year, shortly after being elected for a second term in 2012. Photo from his Google+ Account.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this admiration for Taiwan. I’m saying that this admiration may obscure the real problems that [mainland China] are facing. The so-called “Taiwan experience” has its very unique origins, and we cannot find a second example in the history of humanity’s political evolution. After gaining a real understanding of mainland China, I find that the oft-cited “specific national conditions of China” really exist. It is by no means an excuse. The Taiwan model is impossible to be applied in mainland China.


This may seem frustrating, and I could be criticized by many of my friends. But while we have high hopes of Taiwan, it cannot exert too much influence over mainland China. The Chineseness in Taiwan is a foreign taste. On savoring it, you will find its essence not a Confucius or Chinese culture, but an altogether different ideological and moral resource. Taiwan is a society of pluralism and diversity, and we are only setting our sight on the so-called traditional side of it.

Taiwanese student Zhang Junkai goes one step further and calls for a more sincere mutual understanding between the two sides of the Strait. He thinks Han Han’s article only reinforces the stereotypical view of Taiwan’s political superiority over the mainland, which could be misleading:


In fact, many people project their admiration for the European and American systems onto Taiwan. They also project their dissatisfaction of mainland China’s domestic problems onto Taiwan. Having this state of mind is like wearing a pair of tinted glasses. They can never understand Taiwan with an open mind; rather, they deliberately look for the imagined paradise (or the “beacon for democracy”, “island of freedom”, or even “all that the nation stands for”).

This debate has brought together the relationship between culture and democracy, and the contrast between Taiwan and mainland China. In Doh Chull Shin’s account, Confucian culture can be helpful to democracies by fostering trust and tolerance in the broader society, as what Han Han has observed in Taiwan. But regimes could also exploit culture by cultivating non-liberal values among citizens with superior economic performance and sophisticated propaganda, so people would support democracy only as a brand name but not in its essence, as in mainland China under the guise of paternalistic meritocracy.

But Shin’s findings also imply that authoritarian systems are vulnerable to crises of legitimacy. When their performance falters, citizens tend to demand more democratic governments. The replacement of the discredited one-party rule in Taiwan by democracy is a case in point. In the final analysis, in Taiwan as in mainland China, culture is likely only part of the explanation, as Andrew Nathan concludes in a recent review of Shin’s work in Foreign Affairs:

Culture interacts with socioeconomic forces, political institutions, regime performance, and leadership to determine the fate of regimes, with no single factor serving as the master cause. The Asian values hypothesis is wrong in its claim that democracy cannot work in Asia. So, too, however, is the counterargument that modernization will automatically doom the region's authoritarian regimes. They may survive for a long time to come. But the cultural odds are stacked against them.

  • Tokkief

    I am doing research on Confucias values and ethics in the Chinese military and would welcome comments and links to sites writing on this topic. It will be especially helpful if I can get information on Chinese peacekeepers obligations to act out the moral teachings and obligations of Confucianism in peacekeeping areas. There has also been talks on a connection between Confuciansim and the African philosophy of Ubuntu. How does one, for example, coalesce these two philosophies into an understanding of peacekeeper’s role in mission areas and their interaction with the local population. Both philosophies emphasize the moral good to the community, peaceful co-existence and humanism. 
    Concrete evidence and eye witness reports on peacekeeper’s R2P and strategic culture will be most welcome.

  • Pingback: Podpořil by Konfucius tchajwanské slunečnicové hnutí? · Global Voices v češtině()

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