Developments over the past two decades are forcing experts to reassess traditional models of the spreading of democracy. With the democratic ‘center’ encountering various difficulties, the ‘peripheries’ may now have a greater role to play to prevent a further global backsliding in democratic practices. This, and other issues, were the subject of a recent lecture in Taipei involving Professor Laurence Whitehead and other experts. Olivia Yang reports.

 

“I think we should celebrate not only that it happened, but that it happened then.”

Thus spoke Professor Laurence Whitehead of Oxford University on the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan in 1987 during a conference at Academia Sinica on Monday.

“Delay would have changed the dynamics and the meaning of it, and changed the international reputation you have gained,” he said.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) collaborated with Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution, to host a lecture led by Whitehead on Nov. 20.

Professor Laurence Whitehead of Oxford University gives his talk, “Democracy Reassessed: A Twenty-First Century Project under Pressure,” during a conference at Academia Sinica in Taipei on Nov. 20 (Photo: Huang Chien-hsien 黃謙賢 / TFD)

In his speech, titled “Democracy Reassessed: A Twenty-First Century Project under Pressure,” the renowned British political scientist talked about democracy and democratization,and how developments in Taiwan’s democracy over the past 20 years are providing standards and examples that are “positive and encouraging” for the international community.

Whitehead opened his lecture by explaining the “diffusion model” of democratization, which went from “the center to the periphery.” Before the 1990s, he said, it was typical to assume that democratization originated with countries that had long-standing and advanced democratic systems. These democratic concepts would then gradually extend out to other societies at all levels of development.

“That was an unstated but quite influential idea 20, 25 years ago,” Whitehead said.

However, events in the past 20 years — such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. — have shifted Western priorities from liberalization to securitization, he said.

“After 2001, what we saw were such discouraging practices coming from the center,” Whitehead said. “Who would have thought in the 1990s that democracies would be willing to condone torture?”

Many of the older “central countries” that were supposed to serve as examples of democratic quality are also now facing new challenges, and in turn this highlights the faltering of the diffusion model.

“So in general, instead of the kind of diffusion that was hopeful or imagined in the 1990s, we started having a more aggressive or coercive democratization,” he said.“That is to say, the imposition of desired or recommended models of political government through force rather than constructed on the basis of consent from within.”

In addition to the loss of momentum, the community of democracies is also seeing pushback from authoritarian regimes. With the weakening in both international incentives and institutional disciplines of democracy, democracy is under pressure and incomplete democratizations are at a higher risk of “going off the rails,” Whitehead said.

Still, Whitehead maintained that although democracy is under pressure, it is not defeated. More attention should be directed to how democratic diffusion can flow from the peripheries to the center, he said, adding that it is also crucial to understand that diffusion effects are not the only — or even the most — important means by which to bring about democracy.

“If you want to promote democracy in the world, a fundamental essential starting point is to establish and maintain high levels of democratic practices at home to provide the sort of example that makes democracy attractive to your own people and also to other people,” he said. “This is what all genuine democrats should be arguing for in all countries where democracy exists.”

“If you want to promote democracy in the world, a fundamental essential starting point is to establish and maintain high levels of democratic practices at home to provide the sort of example that makes democracy attractive to your own people and also to other people. This is what all genuine democrats should be arguing for in all countries where democracy exists.”

While Taiwan has not been a primary focus of Whitehead’s research, he said his impression is that although the People’s Republic of China currently ejoys strong momentum, the island-nation’s foundation of resilience has also strengthened over the past 20 years. If Taiwan continues to maintain high standards of democracy, it could go on to provide leadership and expertise for other democracies in the long run, he said.

Professor Cheng Tun-jeng of the College of William and Mary in the U.S., one of the two commentators at the lecture, said he agreed with Whitehead’s conclusion that the diffusion model is not the sole means to spread democratization.

Turning to China’s influence, Cheng highlighted three reasons why the authoritarian challenge from Beijing is not as formidable as it seems.

First, luminaries like Daniel Bell who discuss “the beauty or comparative advantage” of the so-called “China model” tend to juxtapose the potential vices of democracies with the potential virtues of authoritarian regimes.

“That only gives a partial characterization of reality, and perhaps a distortion of it at its worst,” Cheng said.

Moreover, most comparative political theories argue that democracy as a form of government is imperfect but improvable, he said, adding that the advantages found in authoritarian regimes need to be “balanced by a number of acute problems inherited in this kind of regime,” including the legitimacy of the government and lack of press freedom.

The second commentator and moderator for the lecture was Wu Yu-shan, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica. Wu said he agreed with Whitehead that “the core is losing its steam” and asked whether the coupling of Western democracies with neo-liberal economic policies was the root of the ostensible erosion of democracy observed in recent years.

In response, Whitehead said the process of democracy building is “a bit separate from the question.”

“We should not go to the other extreme and say if you can’t get your economic performance model right, you can’t have a democracy,” he continued. In fact, “you can have successful democracies which are constructed against neo-liberalism.”

Wu Yu-shan, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, weighs in (Photo: 黃謙賢 / TFD)

Calling Whitehead’s remarks on Taiwan “very encouraging,” TFD President Hsu Szu-chien said that the significance of holding the lecture was not only to commemorate the struggles that led to Taiwan’s democracy, but also to redefine and reposition democracy.

“When global democracy is backsliding, it is even more exceptional that Taiwan’s democracy is able to firmly persist,” Hsu said.

In his opening remarks for the lecture, Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan, who doubles as chairman of TFD, said that since Martial Law was lifted in Taiwan 30 years ago, democratic appeals have been implemented one by one and there have since been three peaceful alternations of ruling parties.

“But Taiwan’s democratization and reformation is not over,” Su said. “Democratization is not a single event, but a process that continues to evolve. We need to continuously adjust our footsteps for the sustainable development of our country.”

Legislative Speaker and TFD Chairman Su Jia-chyuan makes opening remarks at the lecture (Photo: 黃謙賢 / TFD)

Dr. Hsu Szu-chien, president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, delivers remarks during the lecture (Photo: 黃謙賢 / TFD)