As a politician in a young democracy, I have witnessed conflicts and disagreements. I often ponder on what the ultimate value is and what a politician’s mission should be. Through practice and experience, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is mutualism. I believe that mutualism is the ultimate value and the ultimate goal for development. Therefore, a politician’s primary mission is to offer and implement policies and strategies that help a society move towards mutualism.

What is mutualism?

To the best of my knowledge, the term ‘mutualism’ (pronounced as ‘Gong Sheng’ in Mandarin) or this concept has never appeared in any of the Chinese classics. Similarly, I have not been able to find a word or phrase in Western languages that fully captures the meaning.

Mutualism, in biology, denotes the interactions between two organisms where both parties benefit. When applied to human societies, it is often misunderstood as similar to anarchism, pacifisms or collectivism in western society. What I  mean by mutualism is a state where individual units co-exist and are interdependent on the basis of cooperation and positive reciprocity.

  1. Co-existence

The most fundamental level here is coexistence. It refers to a state where various organisms (including human beings or human organisations) live in the same space without disrupting one another. They tolerate differences, respect diversity and emphasise peace and harmony.

  1. Positive reciprocity

In mutualism, individual units not only co-exist but also interact and create mutual benefits. It is not the same as commensalism where one organism benefits from the other when the other does not suffer harm or parasitism where one benefits at the expense of the other. Mutualism at this level may be similar to the concept of positive reciprocity in social psychology. The results would show that the overall effects are greater than the sum of individual efforts.

  1. Interdependence

The third level of mutualism involves understanding the interdependence between individual units and their environment and the fact that every organism is intrinsically linked together. Only when individual units fulfil their potential can a society reach its optimal development and vice versa. This is the essence of a ‘community of common destiny’.

Interdependence may also refer to the causality or interrelatedness between events, in other words, karma. Every event can potentially be the cause or the effect of another, just like the butterfly effect in chaos theory. As such, mutualism is associated with the Buddhist idea of ‘shared karma’. Human beings cannot survive without others and an environment but at the same time influence others as well as the environment.

To me, mutualism is not simply a biological or social phenomenon but symbolises the ultimate value, a universal ideal and the highest good. Different religions or cultures have different names for what they see as the ideal world. Confucianists call it ‘the world of harmony (大同世界)’; Buddhists call it ‘the pure land on earth (人間淨土)’.  Some may emphasise ‘we are the world (四海一家)’; some emphasise compassion (慈悲) and love without discrimination (博愛). Even though the terms are different, I believe that they all come down to the same concept, which I call mutualism.  When talking about humanity, the core philosophy is mutualism. When asking for peace, the basis is mutualism. Even when we promote democracy, the aim is to achieve mutualism. Therefore, when I advocated building Taiwan as a community of common destiny in 1987, the principle was also mutualism.

Mutualism indicates progress

As mutualism is the ultimate value that goes beyond cultures, time and space, it can be regarded as an indicator for development. The starting point of a human civilisation is survival. Survival itself is instinctual and therefore considered neutral. When most people in a society live by survival instincts, the society is usually considered irrational. When most people not only ensure self-survival but live by mutualistic principles, the society would be considered more rational. As such, the ultimate indicator for the development of a society should be how much closer it is moving towards the state of mutualism.

As every right comes with a set of obligations, when we enjoy the rights to live with respect and dignity, we also have the obligation to positively reciprocate. In this regard, the assessment of a politician’s achievements should also be based on how much he/she facilitates the move towards mutualism.

Mutualism as a winning strategy

Mutualism can be seen as a non-zero sum game and also the ultimate winning strategy. The success of mutualism is not the total of each zero sum game. It should create a win-win situation for the whole through changing strategies. No one should resort to tactics that may win a battle but lose the war.

Game theory can offer some explanations here. The development of human civilisations and even evolutions are about moving from zero-sum to non-zero sum games. In zero-sum games, individuals may resort to violence or underhand tactics to eliminate competitions. The logic here is very simple and fits in with survival instincts. The sum is fixed, as one’s victory means the other’s failure; one’s gain is at the expense of the other.

In non-zero sum games, all participants have to consider the others’ views and interests and work on the basis of trust in order to maximise the overall gain and then distribute it appropriately. As such, non-zero sum games are more complex than zero sum games. The more a society adopts a non-zero sum approach, the more sophisticated and advanced it is. If a society goes back to playing zero-sum games, it indicates regression or even destruction.

The problems we face now are a lot more complicated than before. Therefore, we need a more sophisticated system to deal with all the issues. We need to turn zero-sum games into non-zero sum games in order to tackle problems that could not be solved before.

How to achieve mutualism?

To achieve mutualism, trust needs to be established first. In the prisoners’ dilemma, if both parties trust each other, then both would make decisions that are mutually beneficial. If they do not trust each other, then they are likely to make decisions that benefit themselves but cost the other, resulting in losses for both parties.

Trust is very important but can be easily destroyed. Trust can be regained but it is going to be a slow process. Therefore, building people’s trust in democracy, in the system and in the authority is a responsibility shared by all politicians.

Here, I need to clarify that mutualism does not mean amalgamation or surrender. When moving towards mutualism, individual survival and existence should not be under threat. All individual units must be able to keep their identity and autonomy, co-exist and have positive interactions with others. After all, respect for one’s own and others’ rights to exist is the very basis of co-existence.

Similarly, mutualism does not eliminate competitions. The key is to ensure that everyone competes with respect and ethics. Mutualism certainly does not mean no tension or no resistance between individuals or groups. The key is to have fair and mature mechanisms to deal with conflicts and disagreements. If the focus is solely on a stable appearance and reconciliation, injustice and unfair treatment will never be gone.

Mutualism for Taiwan

Taiwan has always been an immigrants’ society. Other than the aboriginal population, there have been immigrants from China. The island has also been occupied by European forces and the Japanese in the past. In recent years, there have been also more and more immigrants from South East Asia.  Official statistics show that approximately 1 in 7 newborns are now from transnational marriages. Diversity brings a lot of strengths but also comes with issues. For the country to function effectively, developing a mutualistic system is very important.

Living by the principles of mutualism may be the best contribution Taiwanese can make for the world. If we can resolve the animosity between political parties and become an example of mutualism, Taiwan will be much closer to the global standard and better able to have positive influence on the Chinese people.

Taiwan was once an economic miracle. We have also created a political miracle by establishing democracy peacefully. If Taiwan can work towards mutualism, another miracle may just be around the corner. The reality is that the whole world has no other options but adopting mutualism. We Taiwanese can learn the necessity of mutualism the hard way, i.e. through conflicts, disruptions or even destruction or we can let our inner wisdom prevail and avoid potential harm by moving towards mutualism early on.


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