The Jasmine Revolution and the ROC's Quiet Revolution
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 3, 2011
The "Jasmine Revolution" has spread like a prairie fire. The once monolithic Arab world suddenly seems as fragile as a rotten log. Dictators have fallen in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi clings to power. But brutal repression has led to mass insurrection, and his regime faces imminent collapse.
It has long been assumed that Islamic societies are closed societies. They are culturally conservative, under the influence of religion and clans. This makes it difficult to promote concepts such as democracy and human rights. With the exception of Turkey and a few other countries, most are monarchies or long-standing authoritarian regimes lorded over by strongmen. In one hand these strongmen hold a gun. In the other, a barrel of oil. Often they rule for twenty or thirty years. Given their long reigns, they ought be difficult to overthrow. Theoretically, their tight control structures have bound their societies hand and foot. They never allow people sufficient power to overthrow them. They have no powerful opposition groups or military forces. Their people seemed destined to remain under their rulers' jackboots, unable to resist.
But last December, a humble grocer immolated himself, igniting resentment smoldering for years. Fueled by the Internet, people took to the streets of Tunisia, Less than a month later, President Ben Ali Niansan, who had ruled for 23 years, fled in a panic. The "Jasmine Revolution" had succeeded. A jasmine flower had blossomed in the barren desert. An ember ignited a wildfire that spread far and wide. People in Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries held demonstrations and demanded that their self-appointed rulers step down.
In 18 short days, Hosni Mubarak's regime, which had ruled for 30 years, collapsed. Strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled over Libya for 42 years, lashed out. This "Mad Dog" ordered troops to massacre his own people, Many government officials, including diplomats and military officers, angrily defected. Gaddafi's days are numbered. He doesn't know it, or is unwilling to accept it. Rulers who have been in power for many years often find it impossible to understand the words "Step down!" Before their fall, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak each ruled for 20 to 30 years. They probably never expected their iron regimes to dissolve before their eyes. They probably never expected to become exiles. Naturally they never formulated any exit strategies. That is why their fall from power has been so undignified.
In fact, decades of iron-fisted rule, was like a pressure cooker. People living in shackles demanded freedom and dignity. The longer they were shackled, the more intense their longing, The eventual result was an explosion. Authoritarian dynasties collapsed instantly. Societies descended into turmoil and chaos. Nations became fell victim to bitter struggles between political or military heads, or tribal separatists. Nations lacked stable mechanisms for the exercise of political power. These power vacuums led to social unrest. The economic development of these nations were also affected.
By contrast, consider how the Republic of China government democratized Taiwan. How it did so provides us with a rare and valuable object lesson. Before promoting democratization, the ROC first promoted economic growth, universal education, and intellectual stimulation by foreign sources. It laid down fertile soil in which the people could pursue freedom, democracy, and human rights. It enabled society to undergo a general awakening of consciousness, and prepare for the oncoming waves of political liberalization.
The late President Chiang Ching-kuo declared that the next president would be elected in accordance with the Constitution. The Chiang family could not and would not run for president. He decided to lift martial law, and abolish censorship. The Chiang family had been in power for over half a century. Those in the ruling circles took this phenomenon for granted. He however, clearly saw the changing times. He respected the changes in society. He cared about the nation's future. Life ebbed from his body. He was like a candle guttering in the wind. He knew his days were numbered. He actively chose to end Chiang family rule, rescind martial law, and restore constitutional rule. This was no easy matter. It required great wisdom. It required a willingness to asssume responsibility for the nation's future. It was under such circumstances that Chiang arrived at these courageous historic decisions.
No one with the same political stature at the time could have make such decisions. First, he ascertained his direction. Then he laid the groundwork. Lee Teng-hui, his successor, failed to realize all of Chiang's reforms. The road to democracy encountered many twists and turns. Chiang fought to his very last breath. He made his last and most important contribution to the Republic of China.
Democracy and reform resulted in protests, tug of wars, struggles, and conflicts. Progress was plagued by setbacks. But compared to other countries, our path toward democracy was stable and smooth. No bloodshed or gunshots. We gradually implemented presidential elections, legislative by-elections, and ruling party changes. We established a democracy under which the people could regularly choose their leaders. Much remains to be done. The system remains immature. It must be improved. But the Republic of China's "quiet revolution" remains something we can be proud of.
No one is willing to be enslaved. Democracy, freedom and human rights are universal human aspirations. They are not exclusive to the West. Progress remains uneven in different countries. But as societies mature, democratization is inevitable. During this process, leaders must avoid turmoil and ensure stable transformation. Since the lifting of martial law, the Republic of China has established an historic record of democratic achievements. These achievements may have been too quiet. They may have been so quiet, many of us take them for granted, We see only our system's shortcomings. But as we contrast our country with others, perhaps we should give ourselves a little more credit.