Today's Lesson: Character

Here is the historical background at Reuters (June 27, 2006).

Taiwan's parliament on Tuesday failed to pass an unprecedented motion to oust President Chen Shui-bian over scandals besetting his family, parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng said.  A total of 133 deputies voted, falling short of the 148 votes needed for the motion to pass.  The vote, which had not been expected to pass, took place amid tight police security as thousands of Chen's supporters and opponents protested outside. 

(China Times; also at TECN and InMediaHK) Today's Lesson Character.  By Lung Ying-tai (龍應台).  June 28, 2006.

A glorious day is today.  Today is a glorious day.  Future history will record that on June 27, 2006, the people of Taiwan exercised to their right to urge a president to resign.

No matter what the outcome of today's parliamentary vote, the people of Taiwan will have erected a brand new milestone in the progress of democracy and constitutional history in the Chinese-language world.

On the surface, Taiwan is shaken up.  Every day, the people thoroughly surrounded in sight and sound by the exaggerations and sensationalisms in the electronic media, the incitements and turmoil up and down the streets, the exposure or cover-up of scandals, the annihilation of the dignity of the leaders and the sight of opinion leaders talking without communicating.  The apparent demise of democracy has left us with only political deceits, confused values, inversion of truth and lies and erosion of mutual trust in society.  It causes one to wonder if all this was worth it.

But you cannot fail but see that within the clamor and chaos, the people are collectively taking lessons to make up for those civic lessons that were banned during the authoritarian era.

Each exposure of corruption adds another degree of transparency to the exercise of government power.  Each report about financial collusion makes the  people more alert about public policies.  Each performance by a political figure makes the people more familiar with their tricks, detect the flaws and recognize their true nature.  You should not underestimate the people of Taiwan.  As the corruption cases pile up, the people of Taiwan learn about the nature of power.  The clamor hones his judgment about political figures.  The conflicts enable him to understand public policy.  The confusion fosters his ability to distinguish between true and false values.

He has thrown off the chains of power, he has tried elections and he has tried referenda.  Now, he has taken another step to attempt an ouster vote.  The ouster may not succeed, but the people have issued a clear warning to political figures: I can elect you, and I can also recall you.

Nobody in the world can deny this: Taiwan has a group of citizens who have the highest political sensitivity, maturity and autonomy in the entire Chinese-language world.

The price of having to make up for those missed lessons may be high, but the process of maturation is not without pain.  Today, I am proud to be a citizen of Taiwan.

Each country has its own historical burden.  Yesterday, I received an electronic mail from a 17-year-old German youth:

"A huge television screen has been set up in the middle of the Rhine river.  People can watch the live football broadcasts from either side of the river.  Both river banks were filled with people.  The news reports say that at least 300,000 people gathered on the river banks to watch.

"On the roads, by the river banks, in the plazas, inside the pubs, there were all sorts of people of different color ... Astonishingly, everybody was smiling, embracing, singing.  I have never seen German people so friendly with each other and so warm towards strangers.  I have never seen German people so happy and elated.

"I have never seen so many German national flags at the same time -- thousands and thousands of national flags were waving in their hands.  I have never seen Germans being so proud of their country.  Actually, I have never seen Germans being proud of their country at all -- this was the first time.  When people waved their national flags to cheer for the German team, it seemed that the shadow of Nazism has really disappeared and people suddenly discovered -- we are Germans and we are one.

"Thus I realized that how important and significant that the hosting of this football World Cup has done for the common identity of Germans.  I am surprised."

This 17-year-old German youth has just learned from the most naive way a rule that political leaders understand very well: Successfully hosting an international athletic competition will bring a sense of pride and a centripetal force.

When the eyes of the world are upon them, the people will be proud of their country if the competition is successfully carried out.  The sense of working together with each other against the competitors in these international competitions also deepen national self-identify and social cohesion.  Each capable nation will attempt to bid for the right to host the major international competitions or expositions.  Apart from economic considerations, a core reason is that this "consolidation of common identity" is a political consideration that will give a sense of pride to the people.

According to my understanding, the head of state has four core responsibilities.

First , no matter the hardship in which the country finds itself, he must have the ability to make the people feel proud of being citizens, so that the citizens will have a healthy sense of pride.

Second, no matter how powerful the opposition is, he must have the ability to bring together the sense of common identity of the people to identify with the country, society and especially with each other.

Third, he must have the ability to offer a long-range ideal for the country.  The people identify with this ideal and they are willing to work together towards this ideal.

Fourth, he does not have to be a saint but he must have a high degree of morality.  To the outside, he represents all the people.  To the inside, he symbolizes the consensus values of society.  When an elementary school students writes the standard "When I Grow Up, I Want To Be ...," he should be the ideal that children want to become.

If these standards are used to assess the leader who took us into the 21st century, then it is true that he was a nearly catastrophic failure.

When he was on his "lost journey" of airborne diplomacy, he let the overbearing American government directly and indirectly insult him.  The people of Taiwan had no sense of pride to speak of and they only had a silent sense of shame.  When he used violence-filled hints and inflammatory speech to tell the people: "I am willing to sacrifice myself -- just pull the trigger," Taiwan society was ripped apart by careful design as opposed to being brought together and reconciling.

When he cannot come clean on one after another corruption case, contradicting himself over time and refusing to self-reflect, he was not a paragon of virtue.  He was the model for subversion and mockery.

As for an ideal that we can look forward to -- who can say what the ideal of Taiwan is?  In this society, it has been years since anyone talked about ideals.  The entire efforts of the country are invested in the debate over one person.  A critical key to solving problems became the source of problems instead.

The mission that we assign the leader is for him to use a moral force greater than ours to educate children by being a paragon of morality.  We want him to go beyond our vision to find the direction for us and to indicate where the dream lies.  We want him to use a breadth of vision wider than ours to stitch together what was torn; to reverse the hatred; to reconcile opponents; to dissolve the tensions.

But what he gave us was precisely the opposite of all these things.

The rights and wrongs of the matter are obvious to my eyes.  The leader is not just a corporate CEO who only talks about operational efficiency and legal liabilities.  For a leader of the nation, legal liability is the least and last thing; his first thing is to assume political responsibility and moral responsibility.  Both political responsibility and moral responsibility are not spelled out in articles of law.

Political and moral responsibility are determined by the overall culture and upbringing of the system.

When a national leader is condemned by the masses, a deeper problem must be to ask just how this kind of leader and his family organization came to be produced?

Did their families and elementary education teach them that it is a basic conduct principle is not to steal and that honesty is the first principle?  Did their secondary education teach them that the private and public spheres should be strictly separated and that people must assume responsibility for their actions?

Did the law school education of the leader's university teach him: the greatest power should be assumed with the greatest humility?  Did they teach him what Han Yu taught us 1,200 years ago: "If an official cannot do his job, he should leave"?  Did they teach him about what Samuel Smiles said 130 years ago: "The wealth that a great leader leaves behind for his nation is a flawless life model, which will be imitated by posterity seeking a model character."

The social environment when he grew up -- parents, elders, teacher, community, media, the entire educational system -- did anyone give him influence and lesson to tell him: without character, power can be a catastrophe.

Did the political party that brought him up -- the party that made tremendous contributions as Taiwan progressed towards democracy -- recognize that the people turned the power over to it because they trusted the character of this party?  Does it know that the people will continue to need that party to rebuild a fresh force of character in order to supervise and oppose what may be another generation of new rulers?

Why are the people who are defending him today really defending him for?  Do character and morality matter anymore in democratic governance?  Why are the people who are opposing him today really opposing him for?  A genuine insistence on principles, or a calculation of convenience for the sake of political party power?

If our families, schools, society and political parties have never treated character and upbringing as key contents in education and if our government never treated civilian quality as part of the grand educational plan of the nation, then even if there is a democratic system, the people in this system will be a group which is basically indifferent about character.  So why should we be astonished to find that we have elected an incompetent and ignorant president with no sense of shame.

Any political figure is the product of the entire culture and upbringing of society.  When we criticize him, we must think deeply about the civic education and character nurturing of this society.

Therefore, how could the question of whether this vote passes or not today be the true meaning of all this?  The true historical meaning of the recall is that through the vote, the people of Taiwan have made a clear declaration: Democracy is not populism; democracy is not laissez-faire; tolerance is not the abandonment of principles; as people grow up, it does not mean that they don't want model characters.  Through the recall vote, the people are testing how much they care about rights and wrongs, how much confidence they have in the progressive forces in society, whether they decide that the behavior is insufferable and how to keep struggling towards the worthwhile goals.

The lessons are learned one at a time and the barriers are overcome one at a time.  On this road, Taiwan person, you are not bad at all.