Editor’s note: On May 21, Richard Bush gave a presentation at the Lung Ying-tai Cultural Foundation Taipei Salon in Taipei, Taiwan.
(as prepared for delivery)
This is probably the most challenging talk I have ever given and will ever give. I usually talk about international relations, particularly cross-Strait relations, and the internal politics of places like Taiwan and Hong Kong. I could talk at length about President Tsai Ing-wen, her politics, her inaugural speech, or cross-Strait relations. I could talk about those subjects but I don’t intend to. So I must apologize to my friends in the media that I will not be making news this afternoon.
Dr. Lung had a different purpose in mind in inviting me to speak to you today. She asked me to step back and look at the bigger picture. I will talk about Taiwan’s future. But Dr. Lung also asked me to look at issues like generation and culture, specifically the gap between generations and cultures. These are big subjects and ones that I don’t necessarily think about on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, most of you are young and I am almost the same age as your grandparents. We also come from different cultures with different values. I could probably learn more from you than you will learn from me this afternoon. I do appreciate Dr. Lung’s invitation, but frankly I wonder whether it was a good idea for me to accept – or whether it was a good idea for her to invite me in the first place!
Of course I am not a total stranger to these issues. I was young once myself, and sometimes wish I could repeat my earlier years in order to avoid all the mistakes I made the first time around. I have children of my own plus three grandchildren. Brookings employs a lot of young people who have recently left school, and whose skills are very impressive.
I actually think that bridging the culture gap may be easier for me than the generational gap. One reason is that I have spent my whole professional life working on Asia issues, including Taiwan. Let me tell you the basic story-line of my life so far. What you probably need to know about me is the following:
- I was born after World War II as part of the baby boom generation.
- My age cohort, one of the largest in American history, has been making demands on society for services from before we were born and we will continue to do so until we die.
- My parents were missionaries in East Asia, first in the Philippines when I was a small boy; next in Hong Kong when I was a middle school student; and last in Taiwan, where my parents taught at Tunghai University. It was because I lived in Hong Kong for five years that I picked China as the focus of my professional career, so I am very grateful to Hong Kong.
- I first came to Taiwan in 1975, the year President Chiang Kai-shek passed away, to do research on my Ph.D. dissertation. During my ten months here, my wife and I adopted a baby Taiwanese girl who had been left by her unwed mother at a social service organization. My daughter is my strongest link to Taiwan.
- I am a political scientist by training but never taught in a university. Instead I worked for the U.S. government for nineteen years, with a strong emphasis on Taiwan, and at the Brookings Institution, a policy research organization for the last fourteen years.
- From twelve years of working in the Congress, I came to strongly value the importance of effective democratic institutions to reflect the people’s will and to hold governments accountable for their actions. While working in the Executive Branch I learned how the U.S. government tries to adjust to changes of administration in Taiwan.
- I have written four books about Taiwan’s domestic development and its relations with the United States and China.
That is enough about me. I wish I had the time to listen to each of your stories. I’m sure they would be very interesting, and that they would reveal different patterns concerning political identity and generation, among other things. Your stories would also reveal the gaps between me and all of you concerning culture, nationality, and generation.
Let me first speak to cultural differences. Culture, of course, is a broad and complicated concept that embraces many aspects: fine arts, folk arts, religion and philosophy, the norms of interpersonal relations, and so on. American culture is the partial homogenization of the cultures of many different ethnic and national groups that came to America at different times and were assimilated into the dominant society. Taiwan experienced its own unique assimilation process.
I am aware that at least some in Taiwan would say that the Taiwanese have their own culture that is separate from Chinese culture. My own uneducated view is that Taiwan culture is a regional variant of Chinese culture generally. It has done the best job of any Chinese society in preserving traditional Chinese culture. Taiwan’s culture has also evolved, and incorporated elements of our common global culture.
Let me begin by telling a story. It’s a true story that occurred around 1980, not long after the United States established relations with the People’s Republic of China. It concerns two, African-American jazz musicians who undertook a personal cultural exchange with Chinese musicians who were just starting to emerge from the horrors they had experienced during the Cultural Revolution. Accompanying the two American musicians was a writer for The New Yorker; you can find the reporters article by Googling “New Yorker Shanghai Blues.”
Now jazz is not a style of music that automatically fits with music as it was understood in the Mainland at the time. Jazz is based on the principle of improvisation, and of creating variations on a musical theme. The musician creates these variations on the spot, based on his or her feel for the music. Jazz is a uniquely American style of music, not only because it was originally created by Afro-Americana musicians but also because improvisation is a very American trait.
During the cultural exchange, the two Americans talked about jazz at a musical academy in Shanghai. What most puzzled the students was that jazz musicians did not usually transcribe their improvisations—their variations on a theme. For Chinese musicians, music was always written down. For them, unless it was written down, it did not exist. This difference between Chinese musicians and American jazz musicians seemed, therefore, to be an unbridgeable cultural gap.
To try and bridge that gap, one of the jazz musicians challenged the Chinese musicians to play a tune that they could be certain he had never heard. He would then do his own improvisation. The American’s boldness—a kind of improvisation—astonished the Chinese musicians, and they asked a young Chinese pianist to play one of his own compositions, which therefore the American had never heard before. The tune had a clear Chinese character. The American jazz musician then improvised on that tune in a way that beautifully captured the spirit of the Chinese tune. For that brief moment, what had seemed to be an unbridgeable cultural gap was bridged, and there was a degree of convergence.
We are often told that the mainstream versions of Chinese culture and American culture emphasize opposing values: the group vs. the individual; restraint vs. freedom; authority vs. rights; harmony vs. contention; benevolence vs. selfishness; discipline vs. license; shame vs. guilt; preserving the other’s face vs. gaining superiority for oneself; and so on. Anyone who comes from the Chinese cultural world and spends time in America, or the West more broadly, is certain to notice these differences, and any American who spends time in a Chinese cultural environment likely feels the same. A Chinese who marries an American or an American who marries a Chinese sees the contrast every day.
The gap between these polar opposites is pretty wide, and they seem mutually irreconcilable. But I am inclined to think that the differences are not as great as they seem.
First of all, values are sometimes a function of history and how far a traditional social and economic system has developed. America in an earlier era had values that were not totally alien to Chinese culture. At least up until the Civil War, there was something called “Southern Honor,” which is very similar in content to the Chinese concept of face. But social and economic change produced value change in the United States, including the South. Modernization has changed Taiwan’s values. It is doing so on the Mainland. The Mainland’s and Taiwan’s Chineseness doesn’t disappear, and each has is distinctive character, but there is a growing convergence with what we might call not American values but cosmopolitan values.
Second, American and Chinese cultures, even though they may place emphasis on their dominant set of values, do not ignore the secondary or opposing set. Despite the value Americans place on individualism, all our religions emphasize personal restraint, personal discipline, and the need for benevolence. Those sound like Confucian values. We have always had a lot of civic organizations, to which their members are loyal even as they maintain their individuality. Americans’ respect for authority can be quite strong, especially when those in authority enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of those who are subject to authority. Conversely, in Chinese society, an emphasis on the group has not stopped ethnic Chinese people from being individualistic in certain respects. Indeed, I sometimes think that the Chinese emphasis on the group and on authority developed precisely because people so wanted to be individuals.
Actually, I believe that every great civilization has had to address the same fundamental questions, like the relationship of the individual to the group, the nature of authority, and so on. But each civilization has come up with somewhat different answers. Concerning Chinese and American cultures, perhaps it’s not a case of having to make a choice between freedom and restraint, for example. Perhaps each culture can creatively balance the two, and so find ways to increase the positive aspect of their second-place norms and mute the negative effects of their first-place norms. That is, Americans will see the need to encourage proper restraint despite individualism, and Chinese will see the need to encourage productive individuality in the context of a collective consciousness. I would guess that this is already occurring in Taiwan. Convergence replaces divergence.
I said I was trained as a political scientist. I also believe in the value of democracy. So it’s political values that have been most interesting to me. You won’t be surprised to know that in Taiwan before the late 1980s, people who had a stake in the KMT’s authoritarian system would sometimes use cultural arguments to justify that system. The argument was that the group was more important than the individual and discipline was more important than freedom. But political reformers in the KMT, pressure from the DPP, and encouragement from the United States brought about Taiwan’s transition to democracy, the first of its kind in the ethnic Chinese world.
I sometimes hear a similar argument from officials and scholars from China. Taiwan’s transition to democracy and the desire of Hong Kong people for more democracy is a powerful refutation of that argument. Moreover, some of China’s traditional political philosophers have seen the defects of an authoritarian system. Of course, China has had many rulers who emphasized the power and authority of the state over the rights of individuals. Traditionally, Legalism and some parts of Confucianism provided a rationale for an authoritarian state ideology in Imperial China. Leninism has been the dominant ideology on the Mainland since 1949, as it was on Taiwan from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. But Mengzi and his followers challenged the advocates of autocracy and spoke of the need to have checks on absolute authority of the state.
So some of the principles that underlay open and accountable political systems are not absent in Chinese political thought – at least traditional political thought. The problem was that they were not given sufficient emphasis. Taiwan’s democracy has, at times, demonstrated that an open and accountable political system works much better in serving the public’s interest than an authoritarian system. Yet in both Taiwan and the United States, our democratic systems don’t always work so well. You will have your own views on Taiwan’s system. The defects of the American system are just as bad, or worse. I fear, for example, that whoever is elected U.S. president in November, he or she will not be willing to govern effectively because of the serious stalemate in the political system.
When it comes to cultural differences, therefore, when societies experience social and economic modernization and the globalization of economic activity, their previously different cultural values begin to converge. This is particularly true of a society like Taiwan’s, where a significant share of the population has been educated and lived overseas. In important ways, we become more alike than we differ.
I should qualify my conclusion about convergence by touching on the question of power. Taiwan has depended on the power of the United States for security for over six decades. Going back to the 1940s, the U.S. government on several occasions made decisions on its broader China policy that ignored the interests of people on this island. Even after Taiwan’s democratization brought a convergence in our political values, Washington did not necessarily agree with the policy initiatives of Taiwan’s elected leaders, because those initiatives were not in agreement with our interests. That divergence, which is not unique to Taiwan, led to tensions in our bilateral relations. Because the potential exists for a clash of interests between Taiwan and the United States, in spite of our shared values about democracy, it is important that Taiwan’s leaders and voters understand why and how the United States is a key element in Taiwan’s security strategy. It is just as important that American leaders understand the significant ways in which Taiwan is important to the United States. I believe that our leaders do have that understanding, but it must be sustained and adapted to changing conditions.
I will return to the dilemmas of democratic systems a bit later in my talk. But let me turn now to gaps between generations. As I said, this topic is more difficult for me. On this subject, I will speak mainly to those of you who are younger.
Knowing that I was going to give this talk gave me a good reason to learn more about the cohort of American young people closest to yours. We call them Millennials, because they became adults since the year 2000, the start of the new millennium. Fortunately, the Pew Research Center has already done the work for me. Let me summarize some of its findings:
- Frustrated by low wages, poor career opportunities, and the high cost of housing.
- Potential sources for creativity and innovation.
- Frustrated by the state of Taiwan’s politics.
- Increasingly focused on social issues such as land use, the environment, historical preservation, and engage in social movements around these issues.
- Tied together by social networking sites.
- As one observer put it, Taiwan young people “broadcast their beliefs within social movements and expand social movements by broadcasting their beliefs.”
Indeed, the rise of social movements powered by social media is one of the most significant changes in Taiwan politics in the last thirty years. The broader point is that American and Taiwan young people may have more in common American young people have with their elders and Taiwan young people have with their elders.
In preparing for this talk, I thought about why bridging generation gaps is so difficult. I came up with a couple of observations that are useful, at least for me.
First of all, people in one age cohort understandably find it difficult to appreciate the situation of people in other age cohorts. Younger age cohorts are at a particular disadvantage when trying to understand the priorities and anxieties of their elders. You would think, on the other hand, that older age cohorts would have an easier time appreciating what younger age groups are experiencing, but it’s not so easy. Parents and grandparents forget what life is like as a young child or as a teenager. Maybe, they don’t want to remember. I am now in a comfortable employment situation and only dimly remember the anxiety I felt in getting a job when I was young, in mastering one job and then thinking about the next job. So, as people go through their life cycle, they think differently at each stage. To a significant extent, when you become the age that your parents are now, you will look at life in the same way they do. For many of you, that will come as a great shock. It did to me.
These are differences in perspective that occur because older and younger people are at different stages of their life-cycles. But there can be other, more significant ones. Sometimes, some event or major set of events and experiences will change the consciousness of a whole generation of people, and the impact of those events will stay with that generation even as they go through their life cycle – and affect their children and grandchildren.
For example, my parents and my wife’s parents were children and teenagers during the Great Depression. Few Americans were spared the ravages of this economic collapse. Many people went without basic necessities and a normal of life, and they were scarred forever. Even though they lived in relative comfort during their adult lives, neither of my parents ever threw anything away. They and my mother-in-law never felt free to spend money on the good things of life, even though they had the money. My father-in-law, who probably had the worst experience during the Depression, seemed to get the most joy out of spending money later. The anxieties of my parents and parents-in-law about being poor were transmitted subconsciously to my wife and me. We in turn transmitted some of those anxieties to our children. Thus, the defining experience of one generation can get passed on to one or two generations that follow, but the receiving generations don’t necessarily understand the background of the feelings that are conveyed.
I imagine that your grandparents and parents went through formative experiences that were even more profound in their impact than the Great Depression. For people who came from the Mainland around 1949, there was the history of the war with Japan, civil war, the dislocation of fleeing to Taiwan, and long separation from family members left behind. For Taiwan people whose families had been here for many decades, there was the war, the arrival of the ROC regime, the 2-28 incident, the White Terror and martial law, and so on.
It is often the case that people of older generations do not wish to talk about past suffering even though that suffering may have shaped their whole psychology. They do not want to re-live the pain, and they do not wish to scare their children and grandchildren by talking about their bad experiences.
One of my deepest regrets is that I did not take the initiative to talk with my grandparents about their life experiences while they were still alive and talk as much as I should have with my parents before they died. One of the greatest services that younger generations can offer for their parents and grandparents is to draw them out about what they experienced in a different time and place. It is psychologically good for them to be able to talk about their experiences, and it is good for young people to know the ways they sacrificed and struggled. Each side will benefit because the information is shared across generations.
Those are my thoughts about generational interaction within families. Looking at society more broadly, two issues come to mind:
The first of these has to do with the obligation that younger generations have to older generations concerning the “big events” of the past and how those events caused members of older generations to suffer. In other words, transitional justice.
This is a subject of growing international attention, and it encompasses several different dimensions:
- Speed up economic growth.
- Transform the economy to one based on innovation.
- Promote energy security.
- Ensure Taiwan’s long-term competitiveness.
- Reduce economic inequality.
- Protect the environment in a sustainable way.
- Ensure enough good jobs and affordable housing for young people.
- Implement judicial reform.
- Ensure sufficient benefits and services for the elderly and those who will soon be elderly.
- Figure out what role aborigines and immigrants should play in this society.
- Craft a relationship with the Mainland that is mutually beneficial but does not undermine Taiwan’s fundamental interests.
- Ensure sufficient national defense.
- And, provide transitional justice.
As is usually the case, some of these important priorities conflict with others. Each requires resources as well as the time and attention of political and social leaders. But resources, time, and attention are scarce. Being successful on one goal may well have negative consequences for other goals. The people who might be required to make a sacrifice to achieve Goal A may be needed to play positive roles in achieving Goal B. Those people might ask, why should I help on Goal B if I am to suffer from achievement of Goal A? If achieving transitional justice divides Taiwan society, as it has in other societies, can society unite on other objectives?
So balancing these various objectives will be difficult. To get that balance, there must be a significant consensus in society on how to achieve all or most of these objectives at once. I don’t know the answer to these questions but I know that the questions exist.
Discussing transitional justice leads me to another subject. How a society views its past is related to how that society evaluates its present state and what it seeks for its future. It’s also related to how to get from the present to the future. Not surprisingly, different groups in society can disagree about past, present, and future. The difference may be defined by class, racial and ethnic identity, or generation. Or it may be a combination of all three. Certainly, class and identity differences are at play in Taiwan, the United States, and other advanced societies. But generational gaps are also significant. Again, young people in different societies and cultures may have more in common with each other in thinking about the future than they do with their respective older generations. Young people in Taiwan helped propel the DPP and President Tsai to power, just as young people in the United States propelled Barack Obama into the White House and have provided the principal support for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
When different generations take competing views on their society’s present and future, it often comes down to a difference between realism and idealism. There is a line from a play by George Bernard Shaw highlights the difference. The character who is an idealist says to the character who is a realist. He – or she – says: “You see things [as they are]; and you [explain] ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and I say ‘Why not?’” Obviously, not all young people are idealists and not all idealists are young. But when idealism comes to the fore, young people are usually in the vanguard. They may have legitimate grievances regarding “things as they are.” They may view political issues more in moral terms than their elders do.
In my view, a good society needs both realists and idealists. Convergence is better than divergence. Reform is an inevitable feature of modern societies. So realists, whether they are older or not, need to be open to new ideas and sensitive to the concerns of young idealists. After all, the young represent society’s future. At the same time, young idealists will be more effective if they understand in practical detail why society works the way it does and why reform may be less easy to carry out than they originally think.
There is a related issue here, that is, the role of institutions in society – again, the question of power. I mentioned at the outset that I value the importance of effective democratic institutions to reflect the people’s will and to hold governments accountable for their actions. I would include here parties, legislatures, the civil service, civil society, the media, and so on. But my emphasis is on the word effective. By their nature, institutions are conservative. They can lose their effectiveness as circumstances change. They can be corrupted by people who wish to use institutions for their own parochial ends. Just because a society has democratic institutions doesn’t mean they are effective. They can work in ways that distort the popular will rather than reflect it. When democratic institutions are no longer effective, society’s idealists inevitably press for reform.
One solution that reformists sometime propose is a shift from representative or indirect democracy—which just about all democratic systems are—to direct democracy. The Progressive Movement in the United States, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, proposed moving the American system from indirect to direct democracy because it believed that existing institutions were distorting the popular will in favor of the rich and powerful. To reform the American political system, Progressives proposed adoption of direct democracy institutions like initiative, referendum, election, and recall. In fact, Dr. Sun Yat-sen adopted those mechanisms from the Progressive Movement, and we see the same reformist logic in the DPP’s long-term emphasis on using referenda in Taiwan’s political system.
I am not opposed to direct democracy mechanisms in principle, but I regret to tell you that they do not necessarily work as well as their proponents claim. Just as social and economic interests can distort the institutions of indirect or representative democracy in order to further their own parochial agenda, those same institutions can use the mechanisms of direct democracy for the same purpose. Indeed, in California, which has these mechanisms, big business often uses initiatives and referenda to secure adoption of policies that serve its interests, but skillfully disguise these as populist measures. I therefore believe that the task for reformers in America and Taiwan, whether they are idealists or not, is to make the institutions of representative democratic institutions effective.
So these are my thoughts—or speculations—on questions of culture, generation, and power. Let me repeat what I think are my key findings:
- Each great traditional culture has addressed the same set of issues. Each has addressed them in different ways, but the differences are often differences in emphasis, not in fundamentals.
- Because of social and economic modernization, American culture and Taiwan’s mix of Chinese and global culture are converging, not diverging.
- Even though our cultures may be converging, the interests of our two countries may sometimes diverge. It is therefore important for American leaders to have a clear and balanced understanding of Taiwan’s interests and Taiwan leaders should take American interests into account.
- As cultures converge, young people in Taiwan and young people in America may have more in common than each group has with their elders. That’s probably a consequence of the globalization of culture.
- Young people can help their parents and grandparents speak to the major events that most shaped their lives and consciousness. Similarly, societies must find effective ways, like transitional justice, to ensure that people today know what happened in the past.
- In both Taiwan and America, it is very important that we ensure that our democratic institutions work well to reflect the popular will rather than distort it, and to act in the best interests of all the people rather than just a small segment.
Let me conclude by offering a few thoughts about Taiwan’s future.
I spoke earlier about the policy challenges that the new administration will face: restoring growth, ensuring energy security, reducing inequality, meeting the needs of the older generation, managing relations with the Mainland, and so on. These challenges are real and they are serious. They are inter-connected, so solving one may make it harder to solve another. Meeting the needs of the elderly and reducing inequality will affect growth, while ensuring energy sufficiency may damage the environment. So, I don’t envy any Taiwan leader who has to face even one of these problems. But President Tsai and her team face at least several of these problems right away and all of them over time. Because these problems are inter-connected, it will probably be necessary to find balanced solutions and acceptable trade-offs between various priorities. That is easy for me to say, but it’s very hard for Taiwan to do.
Then there is the issue of resources. Problems are easier to solve if the problem-solvers have plenty of money, time, and talent to deploy against them. Certainly, Taiwan has substantial resources, but leaders first mobilize the resources and then spread them over a number of competing priorities. Again, that’s easy for me to say, but hard for Taiwan to do.
Looming over Taiwan’s domestic issues is the shadow of China. Its long-term objective for Taiwan is well known. It does not fully understand the dynamics of this island’s democratic system. It apparently doesn’t appreciate how some of its policies toward Taiwan are counter-productive and alienate Taiwan citizens rather than winning their hearts and minds. Taiwan must find a proper balance between securing the benefits of Mainland relations and protecting its own core interests. it would be a mistake to ignore the need for strong armed forces. Again, easy for me to say but hard for you to do.
Ultimately, all of these hard-to-do issues are political issues. It is through politics that a society tries to reach consensus on how to address problems and set competing priorities. Now, the United States political system doesn’t work very well, particularly at the federal level. So perhaps I shouldn’t be commenting on the quality of another country’s political system. Perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones while living in a glass house.
But I do have the impression that Taiwan’s political system spends a lot of time on political infighting and not on making the hard choices necessary to address policy problems. There are a number of reasons for this. Among them is that the design of various institutions and the relationship among them needs a lot of improvement. That itself is a challenging political issue. A spirit of comprise often seems to be lacking
Does this mean I am pessimistic about Taiwan’s future? It certainly means that I am not overly optimistic—but it isn’t easy to be optimistic about the prospects for any of the world’s democracies today. Let’s just say that I worry about the number of challenges that Taiwan leaders must address and the limited resources they have to do so with China’s shadow looming overhead. Although every country in East Asia and the United States must cope with the growing power of China, Taiwan has a lot more at stake than others. I do have a lot of admiration for President Tsai Ing-wen, and I wish her well as she begins her presidency. But I do not envy the task she faces, and I agree with her when she said yesterday that Taiwan needs a democratic system that is unified, efficient, and pragmatic. That’s easy for her to say—and correct, by the way—but it’s hard to do.
Taiwan does have certain advantages. One is that it has met serious challenges before. In the early 1950s, Taiwan was a poor society that faced external danger and had recently had to incorporate two million Mainlanders who came here for refuge. The KMT regime did not treat the Taiwanese majority very well either. But over a twenty year period, Taiwan transformed itself and made the take-off to rapid economic growth. It had a lot of American help, but it could not have achieved this success without the determination and hard work of many ordinary people.
In 1971-72 and in 1978, Taiwan suffered major diplomatic setbacks as the United States opened its relationship with the PRC. But it did not give up in despair. Instead, it took the economy to a new level, again with the determination and hard work of a lot of people. Moreover, Taiwan gained the respect of the international community by undertaking and completing the transition to democracy, which is not an easy task.
Just because Taiwan has overcome adversity before, does not mean that it will automatically do so again. Hard work and determination are not the only requirements for success. But past success should give some confidence that future challenges can be met. By the way, one reason for young people to ask their parents and grandparents about their past experiences is to gain a better understanding of how Taiwan has met adversity before.
To put it differently, Taiwan’s future will be brighter the more it strengthens itself. This self-strengthening must include the economy, the military, diplomacy, its sense of sovereignty, and so on. Most of all, the political system must be strengthened so that it does a better job of addressing the challenges facing society. A stronger Taiwan will become psychologically more confident about the future, and will be better able to meet the challenge that China poses. In this regard, idealists and realists must work together to find the optimal and innovative solutions to pressing problems.
Taiwan is not unique in this regard. There are many ways that the United States must strengthen itself, and I worry that the problems of the American political system will prevent us from doing so. But the transfer of power in a democratic system does provide the opportunity for a new beginning. New leaders with a different vision can bring energy to the challenge of reform and foster new and positive habits for the conduct of politics. While I cannot forecast Taiwan’s future, I do hope that the various forces in Taiwan society—young and old, Blues and Greens, rich and not-so-rich—can work together to seize the opportunity that now exists. That’s very easy for me to say and very hard for you to do. So I wish you good luck!