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Tamkang University hosts Civil Society Talks

By Darcy Pan

"Democracy is an organism that grows," argued a political commentator from the Czech Republic yesterday, who added "the organism that I am mentioning is civil society. Jiri Pehe, an adviser to Czech Republic President Vaclev Havel, was speaking at an international conference on "Civil Society and Democracy in Periods of Political Transition - Observations from Czech Republic and Taiwan," where the role of civil society in the development of a democratic state was being discussed. Civil society was more clearly defined by Michael Hsiao (???), Taiwan's national policy adviser to the president. "Civil society is a public space or realm where the free associations of individuals and groups are allowed or even encouraged to reveal their sentiments and to voice their opinions to society or to the state." Pehe contended that "(for) new emerging democracies such as the Czech Republic or Taiwan, it's certainly very important that the (public) sphere of independent civic activities and rational discourse exists. If not, (the existence of) democracy is not very stable."

But Pehe also emphasized that a civil society may be a force that stands in opposition to the state, though not as a hostile opposition. "It's a force that's supposed to provide inspiration," said Pehe. That force, however, requires the active participation of citizens "to be engaged in democracy. Otherwise, democracy won't last" since democracy is not simply a system used to set up institutions or mechanisms, according to Pehe. He argued that it was also a necessity for a civil society to "have a few stronger groups such as think tanks or expert groups that can participate in formulating public policy on different levels," especially in emerging democracies where the public, and therefore, public opinion, is weak. He added that the current development of civil society in Czech society is still rather weak in this regard.

A strong legal framework is also a critical factor in the establishment of civil society, argued Pehe. "It has a lot to do with the creation of law, especially private law, which makes it possible for individuals and citizens to enter into a legal obligation to each other and with the state." Citing Taiwan as an example, the research fellow at Academia Sinica's (?????) Sociology Institute indicated that during Japan's colonial rule of Taiwan, a civil society surfaced for about twenty years. Farmers and workers were able to express their opinions and demands for more automony in defining Taiwanese cultural identity were also voiced.

"It was when the Kuomintang came in 1945 that the civil society was suppressed until the 1980s. But in the 1980s, civil society surfaced again in various forms, particularly in the form of social movements and advocacy of NGOs," explained Hsiao, saying the presence of civil society is a historical process. With the new forms of communication that exist today, including the emergence of the Internet, another form of civil society seems to be evolving in cyberspace where the physical contact exhibited in traditional concepts of civil society are not really called for.

Traditonally, "civil society has national borders," Pehe said, but "now many organizations can be mobilized across borders," because there are no borders in cyberspace, where "a global cyber civil society" may be formed. Held at Tamkang University, the conference was organized by the University's College of International Studies, the Forum 2000 Foundation in Prague and the Chang Fo-chuan Center for the Study of Human Rights.

Tamkang University hosts Civil Society Talks, Conference Civil Society in Developing Democracies, Tamkang University, Taipei, Taiwan - 12. 1.2003