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Preserving liberty is the priority
Nat Bellocchi

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Shortly after arriving in the US from a jail in China, Xu Wenli wrote an article for the Washington Post about what democracy means. In it he wrote that democracy is not just a political system, but a way of life.

For supporting democracy in China, Xu has suffered many years in jail, and -- now that he is free -- he seems eager to resume his crusade.

He faces a changed atmosphere in China. The growing middle class on the eastern coast now seems more interested in a lifestyle based on money, not on individual opportunity and open governance.

Even in Taiwan, where democracy already exists, a considerable number of the younger generation seems more willing to give up some of the country's hard-earned freedom in order to pursue the same objective -- money.

If such thinking persists, the rationale used by Beijing's leaders -- that democracy is not compatible with Asian values -- will be greatly strengthened, and the ability for Taiwan to maintain its liberty will be lost.

My personal experience with democratic countries is that this line of thinking is erroneous. In my half a century living in many non-Western countries, I witnessed the democratic way of life adapt under a set of fundamental human rights to a diverse set of circumstances.

Among some 12 overseas assignments I had, six were democracies.

In my first years in the Foreign Service, I was a diplomatic courier. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, I often traveled in Eastern Europe on the Orient Express. I also spent considerable time in Helsinki, where one could fly to Moscow on what was then the only Aeroflot plane that flew outside the Iron Curtain.

In the days spent in those communist countries at that time, the air itself always seemed stultifying. One could immediately feel the difference on returning to Helsinki. Democratic Finland, despite its difficult position next to the powerful and very undemocratic Soviet Union, managed its relationship with its neighbor very carefully and successfully. Most importantly, it kept its democracy.

I lived in Manila for two years. In recent times, one often errs in seeing the post-Marcos period as the time when the Philippines became a democracy. In fact, the country was a democracy before Marcos.

When, during that time, president Ramon Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash, without political debate or media pressure, the vice-president -- who was in Australia at the time of the incident -- immediately flew back and was sworn in as the new president.

That was an unusual event in much of the world in those days. Some years later, democracy in the Philippines was lost. Corruption and bad politics influenced the people to give up some of their freedom for stability. It took several years and continuous struggle to return to democracy. Eventually, the people showed that corruption and bad politics cannot trump individual freedom.

In the 1970s, I spent two years in Tokyo. Democracy there was well established -- a more disciplined type perhaps, but the people had the right to press for change, even when government opposed it. Crony politics and the entrenched bureaucracy were (and remain) formidable obstacles to change.

Until recently though, Japan's democracy was seen as an exception in Asia. The political reform of its election system and the coming of democracy to South Korea and Taiwan has changed that thinking.

India's democracy in the late 1970s was interrupted by the "emergency" laws pushed through by Indira Ghandi's Congress Party. The party had ruled since independence, and it had convinced the Lok Sabha (parliament) that foregoing some individual liberties was necessary for economic development.

During my three years in India, this undemocratic move, and the Congress Party itself, was defeated in a nationwide election. India's democracy was restored. The 600,000 voting stations and tens of thousands of monitors, throughout the country, assured that it was a clean, fair election and that it clearly represented the will of the people.

During my three years in Botswana in the mid-1980s, neighboring South Africa's policy of apartheid was still in place. Botswana has a long border with South Africa and there were occasional clashes between the two countries. Botswana, like all the other African countries, was opposed to the apartheid policy and supported those who were trying to defeat it.

Botswana itself, since its independence, has maintained a fully functioning, transparent and clean democracy. Though its economy even now depends on South Africa, it managed this awkward and sometimes dangerous relationship carefully but firmly.

These experiences are hardly a professional basis for a study on democracy and incompatible values. They would not pass muster with social scientists or political scientists, or any scholar for that matter.

But they are a personal basis for my thoughts about the democratization of Taiwan.

In all these cases, there was no external uncertainty about sovereignty, and therefore the people and their leaders were able to respond to calls of patriotism to overcome problems from abroad.

But Taiwan is different in several ways. The nationalistic void, for one, makes it more difficult to muster support for this purpose.

But globalization, not just in economics but in technology and in information, also presents an opportunity that did not exist in earlier times.

Nothing could be better for Taiwan than a democratized China. The PRC embraces economic and technological globalization, but resists unfettered information.

China's defense against the latter is not very effective. The more open the economy becomes and the more technology advances, the less effective will be efforts to contain the spread of information.

That information includes Taiwan's democracy. That democracy can demonstrate the benefits of limited government -- letting people's minds follow their own ideas, the advantages of choosing and changing those who lead the government, the respect democracy must give to the individual, among many other elements of freedom. And, certainly, Taiwan's demonstrations of the benefits of democracy can be conveyed to the people of China.

Democracies around the world have shown time and again that maintaining their freedom is the highest priority for their countries. These same countries have seen Taiwan as a beacon of liberty that could influence China, and a chance to open that large country's political system without bloodshed.

Yet many in the major democracies around the world are now beginning to doubt whether Taiwan has the will to play that role.

Other Asian democracies, such as the Philippines with the Marcos era, and India in the "emergency" period, were able to peacefully correct the errors they had made in curtailing democracy.

Taiwan doesn't have that luxury. Once its freedom is lost, it will not succeed in recovering it on its own.

* Nat Bellocchi is the former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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