Games to open China to democracy
Games to open China to democracy

Taipei Times, Monday, May 29, 2006

One of the great advantages of studying South Korean affairs is that it provides a mirror in which to contrast Taiwan's experience. Since Taiwan and South Korea have developed along similar lines, there are many examples of the two studying, learning and adopting ideas from each other.

I correctly predicted the winners of the four presidential elections in South Korea between 1987 and 1994: Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun -- I have the newspaper clippings to prove it -- and then used that experience when looking at Taiwan, where I also correctly predicted the presidential winners, from Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1996 to Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) re-election in 2004.

It's not that I am divinely accurate in my judgement, or that I have almost prophetic abilities like Kim Young-oak -- South Korea's most influential philosophical thinker -- but rather that the democratization processes in Taiwan and South Korea have been mutually influential in ways that guide a keen eye.

When Chen won the Taipei mayorship as an opposition candidate in 1994, Seoul residents thought that if Taipei can do it, then why not Seoul? One year later, the opposition candidate Cho Soon, a former vice premier, was indeed elected mayor of Seoul. This is one good example of how Taiwan has influenced South Korea.

Then in 1996, Lee was elected president and the Taiwanese people stood up for the first time, once again influencing the South Korean campaign climate the following year. In December 1997, Kim Dae-jung, of the same political generation as Lee, was elected president amid the East Asian financial crisis, in what was not only a transition of power but also the first time in living memory that people from Cholla Provinces ( Paekche Kingdom) stood up.

Kim Dae-jung's election gave great encouragement to opposition parties throughout Asia. Following that, Taiwan managed its first power transition in 2000, which also was a generational transition. Chen's election then stimulated the South Koreans, and in December 2002 South Korea's Internet generation gave the presidency to Roh Moo-hyun, a man born after World War II. In May that year, I told Chen during one of his trips around Taiwan that the year-end presidential election in South Korea would produce a left-leaning, anti-US, pro-North Korean president.

This makes it all but clear that the outcome of the presidential election in South Korea in December next year will be of great value as a reference when thinking about the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election in 2008.

Extrapolating the way Taiwan and South Korea influence each other to the Asian region as a whole, would surely imply that Asian nations also are studying, imitating and influencing each other.

When South Korea hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, it emulated the way Japan went about hosting the Games in Tokyo in 1964 by making it the overall framework for national development. With the slogan "All construction is for the Olympic Games," it mobilized both the general public's fighting spirit and economic development.

In the same way, Beijing is emulating South Korea of 20 years ago as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2008. The Chinese government is applying the strength of the whole nation by using the Games to build Chinese-style capitalism. Thus, Japan influenced South Korea, which in its turn now is influencing China.

Let's go on to take a look at the influences and changes that the Seoul Olympic Games brought to South Korea.

Before the Seoul Games, forces in South Korean society that long had been suppressed by the despotic military dictatorship had begun to move, and the longing for democratization grew steadily stronger with growing economic affluence and the formation of a middle class. The struggle for democratization culminated in June 1987 when the public displayed its strength in the streets, turning almost every major South Korean city into a war zone.

In mid-June, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued an ultimatum to the South Korean government, saying that if the riots were not stopped and continued to spread, the IOC would revoke South Korea's rights to host the Olympic Games. This stern warning turned out to be the death knell for the South Korean dictatorship. Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were forced to accept that times were changing and had to give in to public opinion. This is what lay behind the Democratization Declaration issued by Roh Tae-woo on June 29, 1987.

Kim Young-oak said at the time: "The Seoul Olympics became a burden that the dictators had hung around their own neck. It was a crucial event in South Korean history that condensed every national problem. The South Korean people used the Olympics to bring about democracy, making democracy the `war booty' of the Olympics. Its historic importance to the nation cannot be underestimated."

With the floodgates opened by the Seoul Olympics, there was no stopping the democratization and liberalization that took place after Roh Tae-woo. South Korea had started down a road of no return -- the road leading toward democracy.

As expected, once the Seoul Olympics had been concluded, Chun Doo-hwan and his wife offered a public apology for the family's greed and wealth accumulation before locking themselves up for two years in a temple deep in a mountain forest to reflect on their mistakes. As a result of investigations by prosecutors and amendments by the legislature, Kim Young-sam's two predecessors -- who had taken power through a military coup and had gotten their hands dirty -- were locked up under Kim's presidency. Their appearance in handcuffs before the court made international headlines.

So this was the Seoul Olympics. But what about Beijing? Will the Beijing Olympics be preceded by the same democratization struggle?

Social forces in China have exploded onto the stage, almost like in Taiwan prior to the lifting of martial law or in South Korea prior to the Seoul Olympics. According to international news reports, more than 85,000 demonstrations involving the protection of local rights occurred in China last year. In addition to the Shanwei incident in Guangdong Province, which became internationally known due to the bloody crackdown on protesters, there have been other protests that have been covered up locally. Since the news of those events never made it to Beijing, they are not as well known.

The question is how long the Chinese authorities will be able to keep the lid on. The Chinese people, of course, know that the run-up to 2008 is their best opportunity to gain benefits. They of course also know that Beijing will have to compromise to be able to pull off a successful Olympics. They will have to allow more freedom and they will have to open up, both of which are fundamental components of the democratization process.

Next year will be Beijing's equivalent to South Korea's 1987. We'll just have to wait and see how many "complaints" the authorities will receive. We have seen from South Korea that it is not at all impossible that people will take to the streets of Beijing en masse, nor is it impossible that such protests will become unstoppable and lead to a warning from the IOC that it will revoke Beijing's right to host the Games.

If the South Korean people were able to use the Seoul Olympics to initiate the democratization process, then why wouldn't the Chinese people be capable of the same feat? Crafty Beijing hardliners say that China is different, and anyway, how could a country as vast as China be influenced by tiny South Korea?

But they would do well to watch their tongues. Has tiny Korea never influenced China? Modern history provides us with a prime example: The March 1 Independence Movement in 1919 influenced the May Fourth movement which occurred in China later that year. It was the influence of Korean nationalists advocating independence from Japan that caused Chinese intellectuals to wake up. The March 1 Movement also influenced Taiwan, where a movement asking for a local representative body arose.

It is natural for neighboring Asian countries to learn from and influence each other, and preventing such interaction may even be impossible. Even though countries differ from each other in terms of national characters and systems, and therefore cannot necessarily be directly compared. It will be impossible to successfully host the Olympic Games without full-fledged freedoms and an open and democratic society with a free flow of information.

The question of how rights protection movements will develop in China next year will affect the success of the Games, and it will also affect China's democratization process in the wake of the Olympic Games. In addition to internal pressures, China will also face continuing external challenges.

Next year is the 60th anniversary of the 228 Incident. The overseas Chinese community is watching how Taiwan will define the incident and reassess the historical verdict. Next year is also the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China. How many of its promises has China implemented and how many have been ignored in this decade-old "one country, two systems" experiment? Hong Kong has been overtaken by Shanghai and is now in decline. Why? We are all awaiting Beijing's explanations.

Even if the Beijing Olympics are held as planned, 2009 will be the real beginning of Beijing's democratic challenge. That year is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and in the open and free atmosphere that the Olympic Games are certain to bring, the people of Beijing will demand a reassessment of that event. Once the Tiananmen incident is reassessed, a precedent will be set, and then reassessments of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward will follow.

Isn't that exactly what happened because of the Seoul Olympics? Knowing history, could it be that the people of Taiwan do not see what will happen in Beijing over the coming years? Democratization is certain to be the result of the Beijing Olympics.