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Taiwan: A Great Choosing Day is Coming (Part 4)

KMT press conference in the southern city of Kaoshiung, earlier this week John Keane

This is the fourth in a series covering the background and current dynamics of tomorrow’s fiercely fought ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.

The great choosing day in Taiwan is just hours away and it is no exaggeration to say that the country is shivering and twitching with excitement. For the handful of reasons already explained earlier in this series, tomorrow’s ‘nine-in-one’ elections are important. The KMT, the dominant party with its roots in the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, is facing widespread losses, possibly a rout. The Hong Kong factor looms large, Beijing is no doubt watching and voter turnout will be unusually high (around 70%) by local election standards. But there’s something more. Citizens here do elections in style, with tremendous passion, clever presentation, wit and great originality. For practically every citizen, even those who can’t vote because of unbreakable family or work commitments, the vote really matters, as the following field notes, hurriedly filed from Taipei, try to convey.

Independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je and his partner Chen Pei-chi joined by tens of thousands of supporters for a ‘walk-in’ in Taipei,November 23, 2014 Chien Jung-fong/Taipei Times

Animal Power

Under a cloudless blue autumn sky, 30,000 citizens, twice the number expected, flock to Taipei MRT’s Taipei Zoo Station, to join independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je and his partner Peggy Chen for a ‘walk-in’. Ko has a real chance of snatching the city hall from his KMT opponent, the well-connected former investment banker Sean Lien. It would be one of the biggest political upsets since democracy came to Taiwan, and the stakes are high.

Mayors of Taipei usually go on to become president of the country, and that’s one reason why there’s a strong whiff of excitement in the morning air. Just before the procession gets under way, Ko steps before the crowd, clutching 99 white roses. He gently hands them to his smiling partner. It’s his way of saying sorry for allegedly being annoyed about one of her recent Facebook postings.

The citizens applaud, but they’ve not assembled to witness marital make-ups, or even to see the popular pandas and latest species acquisitions in the nearby Taipei Zoo. They’re at the walk-in to demonstrate their support for a change of government. The citizens set off, strolling quietly, along the banks of the Jingmei River. In support of fellow citizens in nearby Hong Kong, umbrellas are conspicuously present. So are animals.

There are hundreds of them. The walk-in is in effect a celebration of their dignity, an ode to animal power. The signs say citizens need to care and show more respect for animals, that they should have voting rights, too. One sympathetic citizen brings along his pet snake, wearing it as a necklace, but the rally is mainly a canine affair. With a little help from the humans, some of the dogs speak out. A well-behaved group of brindle and white puppies hail from Cardigan and Pembroke. ‘Corgis support Ko p!’ chants one group, cleverly using the Mandarin term for Welsh corgi, ke ji. It resembles Ko’s nickname ‘Ko p’. The ‘p’ stands for ‘professor’, in recognition of his training as a medical doctor and current role as chair of the National Taiwan University’s traumatology unit.

Humour

‘The public feels apathetic over the vote, so candidates are resorting to publicity grabbing tactics, rather than focusing on critical issues’, complains a KMT campaign official, not wanting to be named. In the shadows of his remark lurks serious concern that a seismic shift against the KMT towards independents and pan-Green candidates may be happening. But the good citizen makes a good point: by global standards, these elections resemble a giant carnival featuring a weird and wonderful cast of characters.

With almost 20,000 candidates contesting a record 11,130 seats, campaign tactics have moved well beyond the usual leafleting, television ads and brash propaganda vans fitted with powerful loudspeakers. The Internet is awash with political opinions. Some observers expect turnout among young voters to reach record levels. Offline, on the ground, fresh things are happening as well. In Tainan, the KMT’s mayoral candidate Huang Hsiu-shuang casts herself as a ‘dark horse’ favourite against her more popular Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent, incumbent Tainan Mayor William Lai. Huang hires a black horse, sits in the saddle and clip clops through the city’s streets. Citizens seem impressed.

Corruption

The spirit of monitory democracy is alive and kicking in this election. Government figures say more than 2,400 people, both candidates and supporters, mostly in rural areas, are under investigation. Shortly after my arrival in Taiwan, prosecutors in the outlying county of Kinmen questioned a university student on suspicion of handing out cash to fellow students, on behalf of a city council candidate. The going rate is not bad (around US$ 165). Everybody knows that in Taiwan connections count, and that such cases of alleged bribery are merely the tip of a big iceberg, which is why independent Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Chou Ko-sheng decided to get to the bottom of vote buying allegations. Quite without warning, he addressed the problem - excuse the pun – by undressing in public. Shortly after drawing his candidate number, still standing on stage before a large crowd of excited citizens, he stripped to his underpants, shouting: ‘Naked to meet you! Honesty and openness are the best policy!’

Opinion polls are banned in the run-up to the great choosing day, so it remains unclear whether Chou’s exposé will be enough to tug the hearts of the undecided.

Surgery

The KMT is definitely feeling the heat. It’s also under the knife. The Appendectomy Project is a recall campaign targeted at three national parliament KMT legislators: Alex Tsai, Wu Yu-sheng and Lin Hung-chih. The organisers are using the local elections to collect as many signatures as possible. In a bid to attract voters to sign the recall petition, plans are in hand to set up stands right next to polling stations in the three legislators’ constituencies. Under Taiwanese law, 13 percent of eligible voters in any given constituency must sign a petition in order for an official recall referendum to happen. ‘Hopefully,’ says a spokesman of the Appendectomy Project, ‘tomorrow will not only be a day for elections, but also an historic day for the public to exercise their constitutional rights and recall politicians who have failed the public’. The choice of the name Appendectomy Project won’t be lost on voters, and potential petitioners. In Mandarin, the term for the pan-blue KMT camp legislators, lan wei (藍委) is pronounced in exactly the same way as ‘appendix’ (闌尾).

A ‘wishing wall’ at DPP campaign headquarters, Kaoshiung John Keane

Beijing

Tomorrow’s vote comes at the end of a turbulent year which saw the national legislature occupied in March by the Sunflower movement, in protest at President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to ram through a cross-strait services trade agreement. Ties with Beijing have officially warmed since the KMT came to power in 2008. Trade is booming and each year millions of Chinese tourists now visit Taiwan. Yet everybody knows that China is a shadowy sub-text of these local elections, and that public anxiety about excessive reliance on China runs deep.

Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou (right), speaking to reporters at a Taichung business conference this week Liao Chen-huei/Taipei Times

During a televised debate, when asked whether a candidate who had ‘pro-independence’ leanings could legitimately serve as a high-level state official, as Taipei’s mayor, Ko Wen-je replies that ‘cross-strait compradors’, the Kuomintang officials pursuing closer ties with China, are the ones whose patriotism should be called into question. It’s a clever reply. It compounds rows going on elsewhere. There’s anger (for instance) at a Reuters report that the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, is funding ‘election airlifts’, using Taiwanese companies based in the mainland to bring Taiwanese citizens home, to vote on Taiwanese soil.

Most of these bought citizens (an estimated 80%) unsurprisingly vote for the KMT. There are parallel concerns that Chinese companies operating in Taiwan are using their market power to leverage favourable election results. During the past several days, uproars followed Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou’s provocative remark that he would ‘invest more’ in Taichung city if the KMT is re-elected. The business tycoon’s threat prompted DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen to say that if he really cares about improving people’s lives then ‘he would start with the people in his own company, by taking care of his employees, protecting the environment and helping vulnerable groups, rather than intervening in elections’.

Tears

The KMT national government is under fire over cuts to pensions and benefits, and more than a few citizens are upset over a string of food safety scandals, the latest of which prompted the resignation of the minister of health and welfare after more than a thousand restaurants, bakeries and food plants were found to have used contaminated cooking oil, dubbed ‘gutter oil’.

KMT-backed mayoral candidate Yang Chiu-hsing (right), looking confident after floods of tears, Kaoshiung, earlier this week John Keane

There are other public concerns. Voters throughout the country, young people especially, are worried about stagnant incomes and soaring housing prices. That’s presumably why, at election headquarters in the southern city of Kaoshiung, the KMT-backed mayoral candidate Yang Chiu-hsing does something I’ve never before seen with my own eyes. During a press conference, half way through a ten-minute speech about challenges facing young people, he switches into Taiwanese dialect, then sobs uncontrollably. Journalists and campaign workers fall silent. It’s a solemn moment, but nobody looks embarrassed or much impressed by the spectacle of a would-be strong man weeping in public.

Whether the crocodile tears will be enough to win office remains to be seen. Local polls say he’s badly trailing in the polls. Things are not being helped by the fact that Yang, a former Kaohsiung magistrate, is a party hopper. He’s a former member of the DPP. After failing to win that party’s candidacy for the mayoral race, he withdrew from the DPP in order to run against the incumbent DPP mayor Chen Chu. A former Council of Labor Affairs minister (2000 to 2005), she’s a formidable political figure. Since becoming mayor in 2006, her popularity has grown on the back of the successful 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung and ongoing urban renewal and city-greening programs. Male tears seem unlikely to unseat her.

Hope

In Taichung city, the chosen location for Martin Scorcese’s new film ‘Silence’, I become aware of a basic ‘law’ of Taiwanese democracy. It’s a law that’s measurable, and can be stated simply: the vitality of a political party, its ability to connect with voters, is directly proportional to the ease of access to wi-fi at its campaign headquarters.

At DPP campaign headquarters, in downtown Taichung John Keane

Proof of the law is provided by the switched-on, wired-up DPP headquarters in the heart of the city. Compared with its KMT equivalent, where there is no wi-fi at all, this is another world. I’m greeted by a smiling, youthful, 74-year-old campaign volunteer who tells me he’s returned home from New York, especially to vote. He’s dressed in bright pink; other volunteers sport lime green. In one corner, a group of visiting Hong Kong citizens is gripped by a lecture on how Taichung does democracy. Buzz and excitement fill the building. Hope (shī wang) is the DPP campaign theme. There’s a ‘wishing wall’ on which visitors are encouraged to post their dreams. Most striking is the attention being paid to the question of how to spread the spirit and improve the rules of tomorrow’s great choosing day. ‘The real aim of these elections’, the young and savvy local campaign director John Chou tells me, ‘is not victory for our candidate, Lin Chia-lung'. He adds: ‘The aim is rather to fire the imaginations of citizens, especially young people, to raise their awareness, to get them interested in politics, to encourage them to vote, even if it’s a vote against us.’

We’ll know in a few hours' time whether Chou’s wish comes true.

To be concluded tomorrow.

Taiwan: A Great Choosing Day is Coming (Part 3)

Chiang Kai-shek bronze statues, rescued from oblivion, Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, near Dasi township, Taiwan John Keane

This is the third in a series covering the background and current dynamics of this Saturday’s fiercely fought ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.

As recently as two decades ago, free and fair elections were unimaginable for most citizens of Taiwan. Ground down by martial law, public conformity ran deep. Those who refused the ruling power were punished, often harshly. Heads-down cynicism flourished. The regime had mastered the dark arts of rigging elections. State-sanctioned factions, connections and local gangsters (hēi dào) transferred resources to the people that mattered. And the Leader, despite his death in April 1975, seemed immortal. Chiang Kai-shek lived on everywhere, in official portraits, songs, documentaries, busts and statues, some of them so large that public spaces had to be redesigned. Against great odds, a miracle transformation nevertheless happened. Political arrangements presumed to be permanent began to feel contingent, temporary and alterable. Political choice, great choosing days, like the one happening this coming Saturday in Taiwan, no longer seemed a wild fantasy.

Citizen Protests

Which forces lay behind this miracle transformation? The geopolitical weakening of the Chiang Kai-shek regime, for instance the downgrading of the Republic of China within the United Nations, was surely a decisive factor. But, as in all democratic upheavals, a key driver of the change was a change of public heart: the spread of the conviction among citizens that they could take things into their own hands. Local Presbyterians were among the first citizens to resist the regime. They called upon the military government several times to respect human rights, freedom of religion and the entitlement to social justice. They urged full re-election of the national legislature and recognition of ‘the right of the people’ to determine their own future in ‘a new and independent country’.

Violence on the streets of Kaoshiung, December 10, 1979.

These were brave words, which brought the secret police flocking to their chapels, but to no avail. Bit by bit, month by month, citizens’ resistance during the late 1970s began to cut the claws of the KMT state. A tattered string of open protests against election fraud led (in November 1977) to violent scenes at Chungli, where a flamboyant opposition candidate for county magistrate, Hsu Hsin-liang, was declared winner, denied victory by the government, then – after rioters wrecked a local police station – declared the winner. At Kaohsiung, a city on the southern coast of the main island, a large demonstration on International Human Rights Day (December 10th, 1979) produced martyrs when the city was shelled and its police rioted, killing and injuring scores of young civilian men and women.

Troubles doubled and began to spread, to the point where, by the mid-1980s, the KMT regime grew nervous, especially with the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It was soon to score the first of a string of electoral victories, by capturing the post of mayor of the capital city, Taipei. The party used well-targeted, witty, state-of-the-art campaigning methods, such as huge billboards featuring a smiling Mona Lisa and nativist themes (‘patching the broken fishing net’, ‘humble administration’, ‘have confidence in Taiwan’) that meant different things to different voters, especially when expressed in Taiwanese dialects, rather than the Mandarin used by the KMT authorities.

The founding of Taiwan’s first genuinely oppositional political party was fuelled by a deepening sense among citizens that public protests were now legitimate, and that they could achieve important results. The peaceful and self-disciplined qualities of the protests were remarkable. They displayed deep respect for the rule of law and they harboured a strongly experimental air, for example in the way they made use of temples as places of refuge, as public spaces where citizens could gather in safety, to feel stronger by getting to know each other better. A memorable example in the mid-1980s was the staging of unofficial election rallies by supporters of the ‘dăng wài’ (‘Outside the Party’) opposition movement. In west Taipei, they chose as their venue the wonderfully ornate, early nineteenth-century Buddhist temple at Longshan. It was a safe haven where the riot police did not dare show their face, for fear of upsetting the calm routines of local people gently chanting from scripts and praying for the health and well-being of their children, their families and loved ones. No one knew what the local goddess Guan Yin thought of the rallies that took shelter there, in her presence. Just one fact was plain: when ten thousand citizens huddled in solidarity in the temple courtyard, protected from water cannon and tear gas by bright flowers and sweet fruits, gongs and drums, candles and smouldering incense, they quickly learned the arts of citizen politics. They spoke a new political language, telling journalists, for instance, that what they wanted was a ‘civil society’ (gōng min shèhùi) and a ‘democracy’ (mín zhŭ) that enabled citizens (gongmín) to cast a free and fair vote – to throw a ticket (tó piào) as the Taiwanese like to say.

The early nineteenth-century Longshan Buddhist temple, west Taipei

Cosmopolitanism

The new political language was incomprehensible to the ruling authorities. The KMT state tried to remain tough, like a bully losing his grip. Its thuggery served only to steel the resolve of many citizens, who were cheered by the growing visibility and numbers of supporters outside Taiwan. One very interesting thing about its democratisation is the way it could not have happened without long-distance, external support, from both governmental and civil society organisations. The active human rights diplomacy directed by the Carter administration against the KMT regime really mattered. So did the non-governmental overseas rescue network, as it came to be called. Bound together across borders by information that travelled through disguised ‘underground railroads’, the rescue network included many hundreds of initiatives, led by church groups, university links, Amnesty International letters and reports, press and media coverage, visits by lawyers to monitor political trials, as well as efforts by groups of exiles like the Formosan Association for Human Rights (based in New York) and the Taiwan Political Prisoner Rescue Association (based in Tokyo).

The effectiveness of these initiatives blessed the new democracy of Taiwan with cosmopolitan virtues. The strong sense among citizens that what was happening inside Taiwan was being co-determined by outside developments worked to neutralise moves to popularise simple-minded beliefs in ‘the nation’ and its right to a ‘sovereign state’. Nationalist rhetoric was conspicuous by its absence in the Taiwan transition. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, given the way (say) the Japanese conquerors of the past had unwittingly taught locals to suspect or detest talk of Nations and Enemies of the Nation. There was also the historical fact that prior to the arrival of Japanese colonisers, at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘Ilha Formosa’, or ‘Beautiful Island’, as Europeans called it, had been settled successively by Dutch, Spanish and Chinese forces. Hence the almost comical sequence of official and unofficial Chinese and English names given to the archipelago: province, nation, prefecture, China, Formosa, Free China, Nationalist China, Chinese Taipei and (most recently) the Republic of China.

Given this complex history, more than a few Taiwanese citizens clearly grasped their own fuzzy identity. Easy definitions of the Nation felt strange. It was as if they rejected the old European habit of worshipping and dying for their Country. Questions about who rightfully belonged to Taiwan, and why, were felt to be open questions, with no straightforward answers. Doctrines of racial or ethnic ‘purity’ - like that promoted by KMT rule, or by Beijing’s talk of One China - were to be doubted, feared and resisted. From the point of view of the democratic opposition, there was to be no ‘true’ Taiwan, simply because ‘Taiwan’ and ‘Taiwanese’ identity were felt to be power-ridden rhetorical terms.

There was a positive sided of this equation. ‘Taiwan’ was to be a place where many different ethno-national identities should freely live side by side. That point was courageously driven home, at the end of December 1984, during the last years of the KMT regime, by the formation of the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Aboriginal Rights. It was a civil society network that agitated for the right of the descendants of Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants to be publicly visible – to enjoy greater control over their lands and to be called by their tribal (non-Chinese) names. Respect for difference was also the theme of actions by the Malayo-Polynesian Tao people of Orchid Island, who on more than one occasion dressed up as ‘radioactive people’ to protest against the KMT decision to dump nuclear waste on an island famed for its natural scenery and butterfly orchids.

Orchid Island (Lanyu)

The right to be different equally motivated protests by Hakka people against the suppression of their language and culture, a right formally confirmed in 2003, when the first television channel broadcasting in Hakka came on stream. The general pattern was clear in the particulars: Hakka citizens were prepared to identify politically with ‘Taiwan’, a word despised by the KMT regime, but only on condition that it be used as an open signifier, a symbol and vision and reality whose meaning was to be kept incomplete, and not monopolised by any particular power group.

The overall point is worth underscoring: the historic significance of the Taiwanese people’s struggle for free elections against KMT rule was that it stood beyond the world of narrow-minded nationalism. It wasn’t a repeat performance of the old play called the Third World struggle for ‘national independence’. To the contrary: the resistance to cruel power in Taiwan was fuelled by a new form of ultra-modern or ‘outward-looking’ patriotism that favoured mutual respect and solidarity among the different settlers of the archipelago. The formula required and implied political innovations (reserved seats for indigenous peoples, for instance). It also required a civil society comprising many different senses of the meaning of being Taiwanese. It implied citizens’ right to live their differences within a polity that had room for newcomers, such as migrant workers from south-east Asia, well over a quarter of a million of whom landed on the shores of Taiwan after the defeat of the KMT dictatorship. In a phrase, Taiwan was to be a fire dragon fruit democracy: a self-governing polity whose colourful civil society resembled the huǒ lóng guǒ fruit, the fish-shaped melon with white flesh and black seeds and pink, green and yellow skin that grows in abundance on its soils.

The Sacred

Taiwanese citizens managed to build something else that was rather special in the history of democracy: a polity in which many people felt a common dependence upon the sacred yet refused a single organised religion. Something like a spiritually secular democracy resulted. Local democrats used methods – flowers, temples, processions, smiling Mona Lisas - that served to sanctify democracy. There was respect for people’s different personal senses of the sacred (shén shèng). In search of the Way, many citizens visited temples and frequented worship circles (jì sì quān) to expiate their wrongdoings, and to nourish their vital powers. Some citizens even liked to call on the gods and goddesses to help them out of a tight spot. For instance, citizens active in environmental politics referred often to the sea goddess of mercy, Mazu; and among more than a few citizens, there were plenty of lingering beliefs in ‘small ghosts’ (xiăo gŭi) and magic (wū shù).

The new Taiwanese democracy nevertheless dispensed with serious talk of trusting in God, or in goddesses and gods. It proved that a secular, this-worldly democracy - a shì sú xìng democracy - was possible. It was felt by millions of spiritually savvy Taiwanese that their country should be bound together not by a common religion, but by something much more tangible: suspicion of unaccountable power and deep respect for the practice and principles of human rights, including the right to free and fair elections.

Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui- bian, with his wife Wu Shu-jen, January 2012. SCMP

Chen Shui-Bian, and Beyond

That at least was the way things were put by the politician Chen Shui-bian shortly after his successful presidential bid in mid-March 2000 – in a fierce but fair election that signalled the end of the KMT regime’s 55-year monopoly on governmental power. In his inauguration speech, the son of a poor tenant farmer and illiterate day labourer, dressed in a grey suit with a red tie, his wife Wu Shu-jen (disabled by an opposition assassination attempt in 1985) seated beside him in a wheelchair, pledged allegiance not to the flag, or to a God, but to the adherence of the Taiwanese government and its people to ‘rule by the clean and upright’, and to a peaceful way of life in which vote-buying, corrupt business and other ‘black gold’ practices would not be tolerated. Taiwan, he said, would commit itself to the vision of a multicultural archipelago. ‘We must open our hearts with tolerance and respect, so that our diverse ethnic groups and different regional cultures communicate with each other, and so that Taiwan’s local cultures connect with the cultures of Chinese-speaking communities and other world cultures.’ Chen Shui-bian went on to say that his country would support the best global trends of the twenty-first century. It would adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, incorporate international human rights covenants into domestic law, and establish - with the help of Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists - a National Human Rights Commission.

Such talk would later (in May 2006) skewer Chen Shui-bian. Both his political career and second term as president were ruined after he and his wife came under intense media and judicial scrutiny for their operation of a discretionary ‘state affairs’ fund used to conduct secret diplomacy. Chen Shui-bian left office enveloped in allegations of money laundering and abuse of presidential authority. He ended up behind bars, where he remains until this day.

At the time of his inaugural speech, citizens’ reactions to his talk of a ‘human rights nation’ were divided and suitably ambiguous – as one would have expected of a democratic country that was not a country in any conventional sense. The majority of voters seemed to accept the many anomalies associated with some loosely defined, de facto ‘independent sovereignty’. They sided with the principles of human rights, and accepted (as Taiwan’s leading campaign strategist Luo Wen-chia put it to me several years later) that ‘although democracy may not always be the most efficient way of making decisions, it is a way of dividing and controlling power that helpfully prevents mistakes from being made while positively encouraging respect for human beings, their choices, beliefs and different ways of living, such as same-sex partnerships.’

The majority of voters embraced the fact that the shrinking army of Taiwan was dependent ultimately for its survival on American naval and air power. But they also expressed approval of another fact: that in the year 2000, around 50% of Taiwanese trade and investment was with China (according to local black humour, Taiwanese businessmen favouring unification with China supported the policy of ‘one country, two wives’). Only around a quarter of the voting population (the figure depended on the wording of opinion poll questions) favoured an outright declaration of independence; that figure dropped to around one-sixth of voters when it came to a formal change of the name ‘Republic of China’.

In the early years of the 21st century, and still today, not everyone agreed with the tricky geopolitical compromises of the new democracy. While many people seemed to accept that Taiwanese democracy resembled an evening television soap series, with constant script changes and everything shot at the last minute, some citizens bitterly disagreed and, accordingly, scrambled to scupper government plans that tried to preserve the status quo. Hard-core recidivists within the KMT, now forced to play the role of opposition or governing party in what had become basically a two-party system divided between ‘blues’ (the KMT and a splinter party or two) and ‘greens’ (the DPP and the pro-independence party TSU, led by a former KMT president, Lee Teng-hui), attacked Chen’s vision as a long-winded diversion from the immediate goal, the ‘return’ of Taiwan to its rightful owners, the regime run by the Chinese Communist Party. In response to ‘one-China’ talk, some Taiwanese politicians, government officials, businesses and citizens meanwhile thought of themselves as engaged in a struggle for ‘independence’. In the face of opposition from the government of China, some even dared to talk defiantly of ‘sovereign independence’.

The two apparently contradictory viewpoints were in fact cut from the same cloth. Both indulged the originally European, early modern belief that democracy can only survive in territorial states that are ‘sovereign’, in the sense that those who govern a population within a given territory have the ultimate say, backed up by their monopoly over guns, police and the army. Both positions failed to grasp the historical novelty of the new Taiwanese democracy. By the early years of the 21st century, Taiwan was a post-nationalist, spiritually secular democracy blessed with both free elections and a lively mix of different identities that managed to survive its transition, all of this within a region brimming with armed states hungry for territory and resources.

Democracy and Security

Karl W. Deutsch ( 1912 - 1992)

But (many asked) what would protect democracy made in Taiwan from local predators? It is important to recall when answering this question that democracies survive and best thrive within what Karl Deutsch and others long ago called a ‘security community’. In other words, democracies require a like-minded group of democracies that share some sense of community and sets of overlapping institutions. These mechanisms must be sufficiently strong to withstand internal and external ‘shocks’, so guaranteeing with a fair measure of probability, over a fairly long period of time, that peaceful co-ordination and change can take place among the members of the group, who can settle their differences without sabotage and war.

Only a handful of democracies have escaped this ‘security community’ rule. One of them was the new American republic, which managed to democratise itself during the first half of the nineteenth century, thanks to loose and shifting military alliances and the protection afforded by two oceans in the age of muskets and wind-powered ships. Taiwan was different. It was not describable in terms of the American or any other pathway to ‘sovereignty’. It was an entirely new democracy, with post-sovereign features.

Born of struggles to shake off two imperial powers (Japan and China), Taiwan was a democratic orphan with diverse parents. Enjoying free and fair elections, it was the resultant of many intersecting forces, both at the level of government and civil society. The upshot was that its identity as a political unit remained permanently controversial. That also made it unique. Thanks to such forces as the American 7th Fleet, doing business with China, diplomatic recognition by several handfuls of states and vigorous ‘soft power’ efforts to make its presence felt in the affairs of the world, Asia’s orphan managed to do more than survive. It came to thrive, as a new type of democracy determined to show the wider region, and the whole world, that great choosing days still really matter.

Taiwan: A Great Choosing Day is Coming [Part Two]

Gaomei Wetland, on the central coastline of Taiwan Chi Po-lin

This is the second in a series covering the background and current dynamics of this week’s important ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.

Among the surprise political developments of the final decades of last century was the birth of a lively young democracy on a thickly forested, densely populated archipelago in the East China Sea. It came to be known as Taiwan. The archipelago was once called Asia’s orphan (Wú Zhoúliú), and for a good reason. Born of a heavily militarised region hostile to constitutional government, Taiwan managed to survive, using many different names: China, Formosa, Free China, Nationalist China, Chinese Taipei and the Republic of China. As this week’s local elections will confirm, Taiwan managed something else: it demonstrated that democracy with ‘Asian’ characteristics was possible, even that democracy had distinctively indigenous ‘Asian’ roots.

The Taiwanese experiment was, and remains, a major challenge to textbook treatments of democracy. It defied the rule that secularism is a functional pre-requisite of democracy. It contradicted the old belief that democracy cannot live happily with multi-cultural ways of life. Democracy made in Taiwan also challenged Orientalist prejudices. It showed that ‘Asians’ were not by nature deferential to superiors, or condemned by poverty to superstition; and it discredited the bigoted view, today propagated from Beijing and elsewhere in the region, that fair and free elections promote political disorder, or that the word ‘democracy’ (mín zhŭ) is a synonym for Western bumbling and conceit, gambling and prostitution, family breakdown and other forms of social decadence.

Taiwan had another, larger significance. It turned out to be remarkable above all in its defiance of the modern textbook rule that democracy could only survive in a ‘country’ defined by a strong sense of homogeneous national unity and sovereign territorial borders. The Taiwanese population, a diverse people living on islands without an internationally recognised state, defied the gravity of so-called realist politics. The Taiwanese experiment confirmed that the issue of official statehood did not first have to be resolved in order for democracy to be possible. Representative democracy and sovereign territorial statehood, it showed, were conjoined twins that could be separated. Taiwan resembled a laboratory whose people embarked on a lonely search for a new solution to a problem that first appeared among the scores of self-governing city states in the early years of Greek assembly democracy: the problem of whether a democracy could in practice create and maintain a wider peaceful environment, that is, a ‘security community’ in which the scavengers of violence, fear and war are not welcome.

From Colonisation to Dictatorship

The Taiwanese experiment with democracy was something of a miracle. It was born of war, military conquest and colonial rule. The whole process started during the period of Japanese colonisation that lasted from 1895 (when the Qing Dynasty handed over the archipelago as a spoil of war) until 1945. Colonisation brought violence and bossing and the enforced assimilation of subjects usually associated with imperial rule. But, from the point of view of democracy, Japanese rule also produced some ironic effects, with long-lasting implications. It had the unintended consequence of ‘nationalising’ local identities. A certain feeling among the local educated elites of being ‘Taiwanese’ (dái wán láng) was strengthened, along with some aspirations for self-rule. There was some talk of the nation (min zoku) and popular sovereignty (min-pon shugi) and self-rule (the Japanese term jichi was used for this) and the right of people to participate in politics (sansei ken). In 1920, a Movement for the Establishment of the Taiwan Parliament was born. It dared even to petition the Imperial Diet in Tokyo, which had the effect of stimulating the strong growth of local associations and factions (some of which had antecedents in traditional Chinese associations, known locally as hùi guăn). Compliments of the Japanese, local elections arrived; the first was held in 1935.

Chiăng Kài-shék preparing to read a national radio address, January 1 1950

While the bulk of the aboriginal and settler population had not been drawn fully into the resistance to Japanese imperial rule, it was plain that the seeds of non-violent, constitutional government were planted locally, by the efforts of the people of Formosa, as they were still called at the time. The sentiments stood them in good stead for the painful history that awaited their archipelago. With the crushing surrender of Japan after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Formosans were handed over by the Allies to the Kuomintang government of Generalissimo Chiăng Kài-shék. The change was at first welcomed locally, but his rule quickly proved unpopular. On February 28, 1947 it sparked an island-wide uprising that was eventually crushed through a murderous campaign (the so-called ‘Countryside Sweep’) waged by Chiăng Kài-shék’s KMT troops. The wanton cruelty and violence, in which at least twenty to thirty thousand people died, prefigured something much worse: the arrival of between one and two million refugees (the local population was around six million) and Chiăng Kài-shék’s army of 600,000 troops after their defeat by the communist forces of Mao Zedong in 1949, the year of the ox.

White Terror

So began nearly four decades of White Terror – the twentieth century’s longest unbroken period of martial law. The Chinese nationalist government of Chiăng Kài-shék resembled an over-sized Leviathan. It was a garrison state apparatus bent on rooting out and destroying all local resistance, in preparation for the day when it would return to the Chinese mainland, to replace the communists and govern an empire that would include 600 million Chinese people, plus Tibetans and Mongolians.

These were of course times of Cold War. Dictators using ruthless - communist and fascist - methods of rule were welcome in the world of democratic freedom, so long as they did not call themselves communists or fascists. There was naturally a ticket required to enter the gates of freedom. Dictators had to be seen to be on the side of liberty. This meant signing up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and choosing a good name for the state - Formosa was blessed with the democratic-sounding Republic of China - as well as allowing a good measure of private property and market freedom, crowned by the staging of periodic – rigged – elections.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with President Chiăng Kài-shék, waving to crowds during his visit to Taipei, June 1960

The colonised population of the archipelago proved to be no pushover. Elections, even though they were held only at the local level, kept alive memories of past struggles against the Japanese. They had the added effect of extending a hand of hope by encouraging people to imagine the day when the nationalist KMT dictatorship got its comeuppance. The military regime did its best to ensure that its day of reckoning was a long time coming. Protected from Mao’s China by the US Seventh Fleet, the KMT constitution was used as if it were a book of instructions issued by the Generalissimo and his faithful officials. There was lifelong tenure for Him and for some two thousand KMT parliamentarians, who claimed (following elections on the Chinese mainland in 1948) to represent the will of their constituents in support of the only ‘legitimate government of China’. The death penalty was brought in for the designated crimes of rebellion and trouble making. Local religious bodies, such as Yī Kuàn Tào and the popular Buddhist Nichiren sect, were treated like worms in the guts of the body politic. A blanket ban on visits abroad, especially to visit relatives on mainland China, was enforced. Everyone aged fourteen or older was required to carry an ID card at all times, or otherwise run the risk of being carted away as a ‘communist agent’. Billboards were splattered with messages like ‘Caution! A spy is by your side!’

Nets of suspicion were cast widely, so that imprisonment was sanctioned for ‘knowing but not reporting bandits’. That commitment to eradicating enemies meant that virtually all friends and every household and workplace were placed under suspicion. Fear spread through the body politic. Those who grassed on their fellow citizens, or who made false accusations, were rewarded with thirty per cent of the assets of the convicted dissident (thirty-five per cent was awarded to personnel actually handling the case, so increasing the chances that sycophants and other law-abiding subjects would strike it rich by proving that crime paid after all). Anyone suspected or accused of favouring local ‘independence’ from mainland China was treated harshly. Plainclothes police, telephone tapping, mail inspection, the fabrication of facts, and trumped-up accusations were their lot. Whole families and villages were rounded up. There were disappearances. More than a few citizens were tortured. Plenty were murdered. Some were buried secretly in unmarked graves. Not even lovers were safe, as the tragic fate of Sū Sū-hsiá showed. Su was a talented young entertainer whose dalliance with an advocate of independence for Taiwan, the musician Tsēng Kuó-yīng, attracted the sexual jealousy of a secret agent who had been shadowing the couple. He promptly arranged for the arrest and imprisonment of Sū Sū-hsiá’s lover. Trapped in a cat’s cradle of fear and violence, she bravely secured the release of Tsēng by marrying the secret agent. He quickly grew nasty at her blanket bedtime refusals, so leaving her with no free choice except that of committing suicide.

Sū Sū-hsiá

Christian missionaries were meanwhile banned from carrying on their work in local vernacular languages, such as Hoklo, Hakka and several aboriginal tongues. Communication media were heavily controlled. In general, the regime did everything it could to turn journalists into hierophants, guardians and enforcers of the mysteries of state. In the name of conserving paper, newspaper production runs were strictly controlled. Magazines and publishers suspected of disloyalty were closed down; in one year alone (1969), 4.23 million copies of ‘bad publications’ were burned, buried or shredded. Private radio stations were banned; official radio stations were controlled with heavy hands; and all listeners were required to register for a user’s licence and to pay a monthly fee.

School textbooks and materials were vetted. Bans were slapped on so-called effeminate songs, local folk music and any tunes that were inclined to social realism. The KMT regime did everything it could to define and exterminate what it called ‘red poison, yellow harm, and black crime’ (communist, pornographic, and gangster influences). It even waged a war against bodily resistance to power. It tried to get under people’s skin, beginning with young people at school. Men’s hair could not be longer than one centimetre. Girl’s hair that crept over their ears was not permitted. The regime was otherwise even-handed in matters of appearance: hirsute young men in bell-bottomed trousers and mini-skirted young women with funky hair were equally subject to arrest and imprisonment, or worse.

There was a local saying that those who create enemies pay high prices. So it was with the Kuomintang regime. Its unexpected moment of reckoning came with its enforced withdrawal (in 1971) from a seat on the United Nations Security Council and, the following year, the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing for the purpose of negotiating an end to two decades of frosty relations between the United States and China. Opening the UN door to Communist China signalled the end of an era.

From that moment, the regime of Chiăng Kài-shék suddenly lost its raison d’être. It became the orphan of Asia. Its relations with Mao’s China grew tense. Once more, the settlers of Taiwan found themselves playthings of big powers. The effect was to embolden many Taiwanese citizens, to make them see they were now on their own, and that taking things into their own hands, for instance demanding free and fair elections, was not just desirable, but a life-and-death imperative.

To be continued.