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  • Chinese Culture and Political Renewal
  • Lee Teng-hui (bio)

It is an honor to be with you today at this significant conference, which brings together political leaders and distinguished scholars from nearly 30 nations who share a keen interest in the noble cause of democracy.

In 1994, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev accepted an invitation to visit the Republic of China. During my meeting with him, we exchanged views on reforms in the former Soviet Union. I stated then that political and economic reforms are simultaneous equations with two unknowns. What I meant was that political and economic reforms are mutually indispensable; it is difficult to get anywhere by focusing on either one alone. Which equation should be solved first depends on the conditions and problems of each country. For the Republic of China on Taiwan, economic reforms clearly led the way, while political reforms just fell into place when the time and conditions were right.

Indeed, political reform or development cannot depend solely on economic improvements for support, but must be determined by each individual situation. What we call political development is an enormously complex social project that involves all sorts of social organizations and forces and is intimately bound up with cultural heritage. In every society, culture influences political development to one degree or another. Culture can be compared to the x in the mathematical expression f(x)—that is, each distinct cultural heritage will result in a different political outcome.

Scholars examining China’s political development from a historical or cultural standpoint have generally been enamored of constructing theories based on historical data to explain current political issues and predict [End Page 3] future directions. For instance, some scholars contend that China could not possibly break away from authoritarianism in its political development, because Chinese society has traditionally valued authority, is strongly group-oriented, lacks individualism, and does not respect human rights. While this kind of opinion can of course be analyzed in depth as an academic issue, it must also provide a reasonable interpretation of the actual situation if it is to be acceptable. Clearly, most theories based on Chinese history and traditional culture cannot adequately explain Taiwan’s political development over the last five years. Thus we must first sort out the actual facts of a nation’s political development and then study its cultural heritage before we can determine the links between the two with any objectivity.

Of course, the determinants of successful political reform or development are highly complex. We cannot take cultural heritage as the only important factor. Probably most political scientists would admit that the political order is not just an abstract concept. For example, although democracies have certain core principles in common, there are differ-ences—and not so minor ones at that—in actual substance and manner of implementation, even among the countries of Western Europe and the United States, which are culturally rather similar. These institutional differences follow directly from the differences in historical conditions and cultural traditions between one country or society and another. Therefore, I would like on the occasion of this academic seminar to offer our political reform and development here in the Republic of China on Taiwan as an example, and present a historical and cultural explanation instead of an economic interpretation. Please then share with me your views on its academic merits. We certainly would like to learn from all of you.

The Republic of China on Taiwan is a part of the greater Chinese cultural system. For two millennia, the Chinese political order involved a government of centralized power headed by an emperor. It lacked the features of Western-style democracy and a parliamentary system. These are all facts of history. Following the War of Resistance Against Japan from 1937 to 1945, the Chinese Communist Party rebelled, and in 1948 the ROC government promulgated the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion. The following year, the ROC government relocated to Taiwan. Because of communist threats, the Temporary Provisions remained in effect for 43 years before being abolished in 1991. These provisions restricted the rights given to the people by the ROC Constitution, leaving the Republic of China in a state...