Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Timothy Ting, Zhang Xin, and Thomas Friedman

Timothy Ting, Zhang Xin, and Thomas Friedman
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
April 10, 2012

Summary: These three names are being mentioned in the same breath. Why? Because Taipei Vice Mayor Timothy Ting and Mainland entrepreneur Zhang Xin, a woman, engaged in a mini-debate over "democracy vs. efficiency" at the Boao Forum. And because New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered some interesting comments on this subject.

Full Text below:

These three names are being mentioned in the same breath. Why? Because Taipei Vice Mayor Timothy Ting and Mainland entrepreneur Zhang Xin, a woman, engaged in a mini-debate over "democracy vs. efficiency" at the Boao Forum. And because New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered some interesting comments on this subject.

Zhang Xin and Timothy Ting's mini-debate began with the Wenlin Yuan Incident. First consider the two part dialogue between these individuals. Zhang Xin asked, "The Wang family residence has been bulldozed, leading to social tensions. Will democracy delay urban development?" Timothy Ting answered, "We very much believe in democracy. But we will never allow democracy to delay urban development." Zhang Xin asked, "Suppose you had total freedom? Suppose you could plan and build an entire city? Suppose you could ignore public opposition? Suppose you could ignore the media. Suppose you could ignore student protests? What would you do to Taipei City?" Timothy Ting answered, "You have described a very frightening situation. We need the media. We need the City Council. We need them to ensure balanced development. A city that lacks a media, that lacks a City Council, is not a healthy city."

This was a mini-debate between "democracy vs. dictatorship" and "democracy vs. efficiency." It is a major issue that politicians and economists the world over have contemplated at length in recent years. It is an issue that concerns more than urban development. It is an issue that concerns democratic capitalism and authoritarian planned economies. This has been especially true ever since the 2008 financial tsunami erupted on Wall Street. The morality of democratic capitalism, and whether it is self-correcting, is being challenged. Consider Mainland China's authoritarian state. Democratic nations have revealed how inefficient they are at crisis management. The expression "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" was once a punchline. Now it is a political and economic model taken seriously. As a result, Zhang Xin betrayed a hint of self-satisfaction.

Timothy Ting addressed the moral issue. But he deftly ignored the charge that democracies are inefficient. Thomas Friedman was more outspoken. Friedman compared the United States to Mainland China, He said that Mainland China is receiving 90% of the potential benefits of a second rate political system, one that is predominantly a dictatorship. The United States, on the other hand, is getting only 50% of the potential benefits of a first rate political system. The United States is getting far less than it can, should, and must from its system of democracy.

Thomas Friedman's most compelling thesis is the "If the U.S. could be China for one day" thesis. If only the U.S. could be China for one day, he said, how great that would be, On that one day, it could pass all the right laws and regulations, It could overcome all the difficulties in decision-making, which constitute the worst aspect of democracy. One day would be enough. The next day the US could revert to what it was before. This of course was sheer fantasy. Friedman believes that democracy is a "first-class political system." But he also feels that democracy has weaknesses. In this regard, Timothy Ting, as the vice mayor of a city, had less latitude for free expression than Friedman.

Differences in systems inevitably affect urban development. The most obvious contrast is between urban development in India and on Mainland China. On Mainland China, a white circle with the character for "demolish" is painted on a wall. A few months later, an entire city block has been leveled and turned into giant high-rise buildings. Hundreds of thousands of families may be displaced. There is no media coverage. There is no City Council to debate the merits and demerits of the plan. There is no political party to speak for the families. They are forced to sacrifice their lives and their fortunes for "The City." But such a city is no longer "their city." People know this is not right. That is why the people of Wukan Village put their foot down.

Worse still, differences in political systems impact more than Urban Development. The resulting cities may be beautiful. But they are made ugly by the autocracy and corruption within. These are the city's real inner qualities. Everyone wants to see cities filled with beautiful buildings. But cities will not be beautiful merely because we built beautiful buildings.

On Taiwan, old, short, and ugly buildings mingle with new, tall, and beautiful buildings. Motorcycles, cars, and buses mingle with each other. They make the cities less than completely beautiful. But Taiwan took this path of mix and match, all the way. Buildings and vehicles coexist alongside each other. Beauty and ugliness coexist alongside each other. The cities are beautiful because they reveal the vicissitudes Taiwan has endured to get where it is. A single family named Wang was able to create a media splash. This means Taiwan's streets are a true reflection of Taiwan's democracy. The not so beautiful cityscape reveals Taiwan's inner beauty.

Taiwan emerged with great difficulty from martial law and authoritarian rule. Probably no one wants to turn the clock back and "be China for just one day." But suppose you weren't the Vice-Mayor? Suppose you could reaffirm your belief in democracy. Suppose you could admit that Friedman's concerns were all too real. We resolutely oppose the "totally free" system of government Zhang Xin described. But neither are we willing to see the futile wheel-spinning described by Friedman. Still less are we willing to see democratic divisiveness.

Many people on Taiwan empathize with Friedman. They agree that they get far less than they could, should, and must from the their system of democracy.

2012.04.10 03:26 am











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