Redder than the real thing

By Ian Williams, the Nation's UN correspondent (THE GUARDIAN, 03/01/08):

The leaders of China move into 2008 in celebratory mood in anticipation of this summer's Olympics - the culmination of two decades of unprecedented growth. The scale of that economic achievement has blunted criticism of the democracy deficit that is in inverse proportion to the payment surplus. But it is legitimate to ask how the "people" are doing in the people's republic. China's disparities of wealth and power are now greater than anywhere else in the world, even though most of its trading partners are prepared to shrug off the poverty and lack of democracy as the inescapable cost of growth or of some mystic Confucian cultural trait.

Ironically, across the straits, Taiwan shows that it is possible to combine prosperity and democracy, and indeed practice socialism - or at least European style social democracy - in a Chinese culture. Indeed we know it must be so, since Condoleezza Rice has just criticized Taiwan for wanting to hold a democratic referendum on its own future.

This is a turnaround. For years, based on a traditional reflexive anti-communism, American rightists were vociferous supporters of Taiwan. Needless to say, a paleo-conservative such as John Bolton speaking on Taiwan's behalf does not really do much to win support for the island from the left, many of whom already suffer from a historical hangover based on their former support for the mainland's claims for international recognition against Chiang Kai-shek's defeated rump "Republic of China", which had fled to the island.

One has to wonder whether Bolton knows that Taiwan is more like one of the European social democracies that he and his conservative friends hate so much. Chiang has long gone and Taiwan is far more socialist in every real sense than the alleged "people's" republic, whose people get shot for joining unions, organising strikes, or voicing opinions their government does not like.

With universal literacy, Taiwan has a vigorous and demanding media, free of the censorship and imprisonment that greets the unauthorised disclosure of information on the mainland. It is introducing a national pension scheme, even as Bolton's pals keep struggling to dismantle the US's social security system. It has unemployment insurance and social welfare programmes with none of the draconian welfare-for-work measures that Bill Clinton introduced under conservative pressure.

To be fair, many on the left are just as hidebound as Bolton. In the old days, leftists of the kind that could overlook purges, gulags, mass famines and bullets in skulls could point to China's advances in literacy, healthcare and the "iron rice bowl" guaranteed for workers as "actually existing socialism".

To maintain that illusion, they now have to close their eyes not only to the lack of democracy and human rights in mainland China, but to the disappearance of medical services and social welfare programmes under the new post-Mao regime. Indeed, the untold millions of migratory workers whose muscles are fuelling Chinese economic expansion do not have the most elementary rights, not even the assured right to live in the cities in which they toil.

Whatever passed for "socialist" in the Chinese Communist party agenda has been thrown overboard, to be replaced by a nationalist and militarist doctrine threatening to "reunify" Taiwan by force - whether its people like it or not.

In fact, the Taiwanese clearly do not want it, as repeated elections have shown. In Taiwan, not only is Chiang dead, his old party introduced free elections, and lost them.

Democratic socialists and supporters of democracy should support Taiwan in its bid for (social) democratic expression, free of the peculiar cocktail of unfettered capitalism and Beria-like political repression of the mainland. Certainly in the old Labour party sense, Taiwan is much redder than China - indeed, in terms of income distribution, its record is better than New Labour's.