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Bread and freedom

Published Dec 2, 2014, 11:24 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 9:53 am IST
Students leading pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong issued an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging him to consider political reforms in the city and blaming the city's unpopular leader for the demonstrations. Protesters sit on a main
 Students leading pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong issued an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging him to consider political reforms in the city and blaming the city's unpopular leader for the demonstrations. Protesters sit on a main

The defeat of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party in mayoral elections of Taiwan’s capital city Taipei is a reflection of rising discontent over domestic economic problems and a rebuff of authoritarian China and its developmental model of bread without freedom.

Since 2008, Taiwanese President and KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou has hitched his country’s wagon to mainland China via a “sunshine policy”, contending that intertwining the two economies across the Taiwan Straits would earn enormous material benefits for Taiwan’s people. But President Ma’s “sunshine” is being upstaged by the spirit of the “Sunflower Student Movement” — a series of protests by Taiwanese youth earlier this year opposing a trade deal engineered by the KMT to merge Taiwan ever more closely into the Chinese economy.

As voters in Taipei and several other cities and counties of Taiwan punish the KMT resoundingly in local polls, their message is unmistakable. The so-called windfall gains from economic union with China are not trickling down to average Taiwanese people. Rather, President Ma’s policies to economically conjoin his country with China are enriching an ensconced business elite in Taiwan to the detriment of the majority of middle class Taiwanese who are vexed with skyrocketing housing costs and shrinking incomes.

The KMT’s rout in local elections, which has set the stage for a big defeat for the pro-Beijing ruling party candidate in the all-important 2016 presidential election in Taiwan, is a democratic verdict against Taiwan’s tycoons who are being wooed and embraced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over the past decade, Beijing has perfectly executed economist Albert Hirschman’s theory of a “commercial fifth column” by cultivating Taiwan’s mercantile crème de la crème , some of whom dream of complete reunification of Taiwan with mainland China.

Investigative journalists from Reuters recently exposed the shadowy workings of China’s “United Front Work Department”, which influences election results in Taiwan and mobilises the Taiwanese business class to create an environment where Taiwan can be reabsorbed into China. This intelligence arm of the CCP is also “targeting academics, students, war veterans, doctors and local leaders in Taiwan in an attempt to soften opposition to the Communist Party and ultimately build support for unification.”

Yet, despite these propaganda machinations by Beijing, the people of Taiwan have realised that their democracy and hopes for a just and equitable society cannot be guaranteed if China is the arbiter of their destinies. The rout of the KMT, which has been ruling Taiwan since 2008 and steadily integrating the breakaway island with mainland China, is part and parcel of a new reverberation in East Asia that is growing warier of Beijing’s lengthening undemocratic shadow.

The same political consciousness which imbued Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement is echoed in the latest Umbrella Movement uprising against China’s denial of democracy in Hong Kong. As in the case of Taiwan, residents of Hong Kong are bitter about exorbitant living costs and stagnating opportunities for all but the privileged comprador elites, who are unequivocally backing China’s tightening grip over their notionally autonomous Special Administrative Region.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, C.Y. Leung, is an outright plutocrat and dismissive of the concerns raised by the Umbrella Movement. His comment that genuine democracy is a “numbers game”, which would force the state to pay heed to “half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month”, reveals the full extent of Beijing’s heartless authoritarian capitalism, which crushes the poor and the weak.

Historically, the CCP’s state-controlled capitalism did indeed lift hundreds of millions of mainland Chinese people out of poverty. But this model has now hit a low where party-affiliated big shots in China and in its surrounding territories and countries appropriate the pie, leaving nothing for the teeming masses who seethe with resentment about deteriorating lifestyles.

The argument that obeying, following and integrating with mainland China will expand prosperity and raise living standards is ringing hollow in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, not to mention restive minority regions of China, like Tibet and Xinjiang. As the juggernaut of China’s powerful thrust of commercial diplomacy advances in its peripheral territories and immediate neighbourhood, the truth is emerging that Beijing does not actually generate what economists call “public goods” for all layers of societies in East Asia.

Instead, China enables vast accumulation of wealth by favoured elites in the “Greater China Region” (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), forging a top-down system of alliances and vested interests which disempower the laity.

With Hong Kong and Taiwan up in arms against China’s lopsided bargain of no democracy and fading economic equity, can Singapore be far behind? Nearly 75 per cent of Singaporeans are of ethnic Chinese origin and they too are progressively frustrated with stifling economic and political conditions. Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of Singapore’s marginalised Democratic Party, has argued that his island nation’s China-like authoritarian polity “has backfired” and is “robbing Singaporean society of the verve needed to take the economy to the next level where ideas and innovation are essential.”

The pressures of surviving in a hardscrabble ambience for the Singaporean middle class and working poor are mounting, even as the country’s Prime Minister, who is the son of the legendary father of authoritarian capitalism, Lee Kuan Yew, refuses to countenance democracy as a solution. There are, of course, numerous democratic countries which are also failing to lift the economic standards of their citizens. But the Chinese template of economic stagnation with gagged mouths is the worst of both worlds.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov first outlined the “bread versus freedom” dichotomy, wherein an authoritarian Grand Inquisitor condescendingly talks of captive and poor humans: “they will bring us their freedom and place it at our feet and say: enslave us if you will, but feed us.” Dictatorships spin yarns out of this fable by withdrawing personal liberties of citizens and claiming to deliver economic growth and welfare in return.

However, the disenchantment with establishments in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose people are not abjectly poor but whose living circumstances are becoming desperate, are reminding us that bread cannot be within reach on a sustained basis if freedoms are manipulated and eroded.
The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs



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