Outside editorial: Democracy triumphs in Taiwan

The following editorial first appeared in the Kansas City Star:

The presidential election in Taiwan earlier this month handed a second term to incumbent Ma Ying-jeou, and the result allowed Beijing to breathe easier. Ma had pressed for less tension with mainland China, in contrast to his opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, who declined to renounce independence.

But for the long term, the Beijing leadership may have cause for worry. While news of the campaign and election was covered only grudgingly via official media, it flowed freely online. Many Chinese watched a presidential debate on the Web and some traveled to Taiwan to see the campaign for themselves.

What they saw was the first multi-party democracy to appear in 5,000 years of Chinese history. The campaign ran its course without violence. The loser made a gracious concession speech. As a Chinese businessman wrote in a blog post reported by The New York Times, “On the far side of the sea, Taiwan erected a mirror. And on this side of the sea, we saw ourselves in the future.”

The Beijing leadership won’t be able to put this genie back in the bottle. The Chinese have seen their compatriots competently managing the machinery of democracy and they yearn for the same thing on the mainland.

Many thought that after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989 — when the Chinese army forcibly put down a mass pro-democracy protest — it was only a matter of time before China’s authoritarian regime would fall.

But China’s rulers have kept a lid on discontent by giving only lip service to Marxism and delivering rapid economic growth. It’s telling that in recent months as growth has faltered, the number of strikes and protests is on the rise.

One result of China’s growth over the last generation is a steadily growing middle class. As in Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea, a rising middle class has a habit of eventually insisting on the right to self-government.

In corners of American foreign policy, some murmur that perhaps it’s time to cut Taiwan loose, lest it destabilize U.S. relations with China. Yet under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Washington is required to aid Taiwan’s defense.

That policy should be maintained. To do otherwise would tempt Beijing into bullying Taiwan. And it would raise worrisome questions about America’s staying power among other allies and thus weaken U.S. influence in the all-important Pacific region.

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