Dr. Stephen Young ’73 gave a lecture on the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Singapore in PAC002 on the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 2. Young, since retired, is a 33-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service. He has held several distinguished posts in the Service, including Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic from 2003 to 2005, Director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2006 to 2009, and Consul General of the Consulate General in Hong Kong from 2010 to 2014. Young graduated from Wesleyan with a Bachelor’s Degree in History, and would go on to earn a PhD in Russian History from the University of Chicago in 1980. He currently teaches a course at the University on China post-1945.
The lecture was organized by the Wesleyan International Relations Association, the Hong Kong Students’ Association, and the Office of International Students. The lecture was followed by a discussion, during which Young further developed his ideas and responded to questions and challenges from members of the audience. Young began the talk by detailing his personal history, discussing how the University did not even offer a Chinese language class when he attended.
“…So I got here and thought, ‘Perhaps I’ll study Chinese,’” Young said. “I told somebody and they said, ‘Well, you know, we don’t offer Chinese at Wesleyan.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And I was told, ‘What would you use it for?’ I say this to you because it sounds funny, but in 1970 it was actually a legitimate question, because prior to Richard Nixon’s visit to China, China was on the other side of the rainbow. It was just a forbidden zone.”
Young went on to discuss the current state and future prospects of democracy in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. Taiwan, he stated, has a healthy and maturing democracy that could provide a role model for other states in the region.
“The emergence of competing national parties in the 1990s led Taiwan to be the first in its field to transform itself into a vibrant, young democracy in a Chinese ethnic entity,” Young said. “There’s various theories about what constitutes a democratic state…. It’s a system that has gone through two democratic transitions to different parties and their candidates. That could be considered mature. By that standard, the KMT’s return to power in 2008 under Ma Ying-jeou marked a certain maturation of the Taiwan model of democracy.”
Hong Kong faces a far different situation than Taiwan, however. Young said that the semi-autonomous special administrative region faces a curtailing of democratic ambitions from Beijing, in light of China’s increasingly closed political environment.
“In Hong Kong, in its long history, the British never really considered implementing democratic processes to the colony until the very end,” Young said. “The hope we had then was that post-Mao China, under Deng Xiaoping’s Gaige Kaifang [Reform and Opening Up] policies, was heading in a good direction, and that possibly by 1997 Hong Kong’s peaceful return to the PRC would not be such a big deal…. I think it’s safe to say that the underlying premise was that Deng’s commitments to opening up economically would eventually turn to the political equation and do something similar. At least, that was our hope. Tiananmen, of course, shattered that illusion for all of us.”
Young described what he saw as an increasingly repressive political environment in China, stating that with the country’s current economic slowdown, environmental crises, and closed one-party system, a potentially unsettling situation is arising.
“So under Xi Jinping—the leader of the Communist Party—[the Chinese government] remains deeply afraid of its own people, and thus is dead set against any loosening of the standard for a closed political system there,” Young said. “By this measure, China—on the heels of 35 years of steady economic growth—is ripe for reform. My second point though is that the Chinese Communist Party, which has monopolized power in China for seven decades, is dead set against precisely this movement…. History has shown that government that stand against their people court more open challenges over time. As a student and a diplomat working in the former Soviet Union, I can certainly underscore the experience there.”
He explored the ramifications of former Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yew’s assertion that democracy was incompatible with traditional East Asian values, stating that the millions of Chinese tourists that visit Taiwan each year were seeing that that statement is not necessarily true.
“With several million mainland tourists visiting Taiwan each year, they’re going to see an ethnically, linguistically, and culturally similar population that is being entrusted to freely choose their own leaders, and I think that’s going to have a big impact on those who visit, and on China in general in the longer term,” Young said. “It certainly gives lies to the claim, from Beijing and Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew, that democracy is incompatible with Asian or Confucian values.”
Nina Stender ’16, the event’s organizer, described the motivation for planning the lecture.
“I’m writing a senior essay on a topic that’s sort of related,” Stender said. “I’m writing about the political role of the economic elite in Hong Kong…. I think a lot of things were happening last year and we had some talks and teach-ins about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, but like one year later and people aren’t really thinking or talking much about it, and I think it’s something that’s still very worthy of discussion, so I thought it would be a good time to reinvigorate the conversation.”
Angus Kan ’17 stated that Young’s lecture resonated with him strongly.
“It’s very much something I expected it to be,” Kan said. “Dr. Young is obviously a very experienced diplomat who worked in the region for a long time, so I feel like the stuff he said resonates for me a lot, sort of because I’m from Hong Kong, and also because you would want to see what’s the view of a Westerner in America…I very much enjoyed it. I like the fact that he kept the discussion open.”
Although the scope of the lecture was broader than was originally planned, Stender stated that she enjoyed the event and that the broader focus allowed for more interest on campus and a more diverse audience.
“It was broader than the original proposed topic, but I think that was good because it reached out and involved a bigger group of people, and I thought that was pretty valuable so, I liked it,” Stender said. “I’m glad we had a big discussion component because I think a lot of people come to talks like with their own sort of ideas and agendas and they can take the opportunity to flesh that out.”