Famine, disease and democracy

April 24, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Huang Wen-hsiung
Taipei Times
17 April 2003

After more than a decade of democratization, Taiwan now finds itself at an awkward juncture. Authoritarian habits, attitudes and impulses are still visible from time to time, but most people have accumulated different levels of vested interests in the possibilities and desirability of democracy. A return to authoritarianism seems increasingly unthinkable. However, a large gap still exists between democratic expectations from the anti-authoritarian era (mostly individual conjecture about long-democratized, advanced societies) and the benefits democracy has brought the country. The impatience and the anomalous feelings of helplessness have devalued the image of democracy and left people wondering if democracy is really all that it’s cracked up to be.

This is a process that is difficult for a young democratic nation to avoid. Patience is the first virtue of democracy: the patience to allow people to have their say; patience to listen to what people say; patience to discuss differences of opinion; patience to carry out long-term reforms and so on. The cultivation of this virtue takes a long time even for individuals. It is easy to imagine the difficulty for a society just liberated from an authoritarian system to succeed at the first try.

Even so, the feelings of helplessness that can develop during democratization need to be addressed. One way is to look for examples now and again to remind ourselves of the value and benefits of democracy. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that has caused global panic may provide such an example.

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics, once conducted a cross-temporal, cross-country study. The topic of his study was the relationship between democracy (and the freedoms and rights related to it) and the handling of famine. Using India as an example, Sen discovered that famine occurred continuously in India before 1947, the last and largest one being the Bengal famine of 1943, in which between 2 million and 3 million people died from hunger. Since independence and the establishment of multi-party politics, India has not seen serious famine, even though extremely poor harvests and dramatic falls in buying power have still occurred frequently, according to Sen.

For fanatic nationalists who believe this was because people “naturally” loved their own people after India’s independence, or because of increased food production, Sen pointed to the example of China. Famine caused 30 million people to die between 1958 and 1961, but even before the recent economic reforms, China was far more successful than India in many important aspects of economic development, according to Sen. Of course, we cannot say that a Chinese Communist Party glowing with socialist ideals in the early days of the revolution was not sufficiently nationalist or did not love their people.

What is the key difference between these two examples? The answer is simple: the cacophony coming from the opposition parties and civil society (including the media) is allowed and encouraged by democratic politics.
What does Sen’s study have to do with SARS? Famine is like a SARS outbreak in that both are disasters with both natural and man-made factors. The most important man-made factor is the question of whether or not a democratic system and its related human rights are in place.

The one-party Chinese government has turned the SARS outbreak into another Tangshan Earthquake by not reporting the outbreak to the World Health Organization and by banning media coverage of the situation. It has shown itself to be lacking even Mao’s kind of alertness and having no better understanding of democracy than Mao did. This attests to the insights revealed in Sen’s study. It is also the misfortune of the peoples of China.

A local commentator said in a recent article, “In the eyes of public-health experts, the spread of SARS in China absolutely has to do with the official cover-up and the lack of preventive measures. The SARS situation in Singapore has been more serious than in Taiwan. Whether this has to do with the Singapore media’s low-key handling of the issue and the resulting insufficient public vigilance remains to be proven. Talk of the outbreak makes the Taiwanese public turn pale. That’s certainly because they have been `scared’ by the media. China, Singapore and Taiwan provide three models between overdoing it and not doing enough.”

If Sen’s claims are correct, China, Singapore and Taiwan do not merely represent differences in degree. There must also be qualitative and categorical differences behind the matter. Democratization is a process that needs to be solidified and deepened continuously. We should indeed be impatient about the cacophony, but at the same time we should also understand that solidifying and deepening democracy takes time. We should appreciate Taiwan’s successful democratization, which we have created together.

Huang Wen-hsiung is a national policy adviser to the president and a consultant at the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.