Of course what they had“done”was represented by an accumulation of learning and experience of living, which was precisely what the students so manifestly lacked. Watching the documentary, I kept thinking that the students were struggling with precisely the kinds of issues debated in the Federalist Papers, issues that need to be thought through after a commitment to democracy is made. The movie effectively makes the point that, having created a democracy movement, the students quickly fell into patterns of behavior that reflected the same mistakes made by previous Chinese would-be rulers. It would be surprising if they hadn't. It's not as if they had access to the kinds of information that would have better equipped them for what they were trying to do. The middle-aged intellectuals were able to warn them about the nature of the Chinese state, but still would have been limited in advising them on how to create real democratic structures within their movement.
That's why Taiwan's democracy is so important, and so dangerous for the authoritarians. Taiwan is providing a living civics lesson to a generation of Taiwanese, and potentially, to Chinese as well. Taiwan demonstrates that there is nothing in Chinese culture that is incompatible with democracy – democracy needs to be learned, and adapted to the culture, is all. Democratic countries have only emerged in the last two hundred plus years. It has been an unprecedented, and new, idea everywhere it has been tried, whether in the American colonies, India or Japan. The argument is made that Chinese is a culture that values the interests of the group over the individual, and therefore democracy is inappropriate for Chinese. Japan and Korea, also Asian cultures that emphasize consensus, have already provided eloquent rebuttals to this idea – but for Chinese authoritarians, the example of Taiwan is especially threatening. Chinese authoritarian doctrine is a closed system , and Taiwan breaks the loop: Taiwan is culturally Chinese, therefore it belongs to China; democracy and Chinese culture are congenitally incompatible; therefore, Taiwan cannot be a democracy, and if it is, it must be made to cease being so, by force if necessary. What Taiwan promises is that the next time the Communist leadership has to sit down with Chinese democracy advocates, it won't be a kid posing for an MTV video, but someone like Chen Shui Bian or Hsieh Chang Ting- serious, smart people, sitting up in their chairs and wearing suits - people who have done democracy. That's a long way from 1989.