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Taiwan’s Great Choosing Day

Young supporters of newly-elected independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je celebrate his victory in Taipei, Saturday 29th November 2014 CNA

This is the final contribution to a five-part series of field notes covering the background dynamics and global significance of last Saturday’s fiercely fought ‘nine-in-one’ elections in Taiwan.

The great choosing day in Taiwan is over and the results, to put things mildly, have flung a whopping majority of its citizens into a state of surprised euphoria.

The unexpected outcome is of historic importance. For the first time since the lifting of martial law, the grip of the ruling KMT party on local government has been fully broken; multi-party democracy and the principle that government power should periodically be rotated have finally taken root throughout Taiwan. The standard bearer of the military past has suffered a country-wide rout. The KMT managed to capture only one of the six big cities. Its overall vote plummeted to 41 percent (compared with 48% for the Democratic Progressive Party and a sizeable 9% for closely-aligned independents). New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu, whom many regarded as a strong KMT candidate for the 2016 presidential election, was re-elected, but merely by the skin of his teeth. Premier Jiang Yi-huah and KMT secretary-general Tseng Tung-chuan both resigned. Then came (breaking news) the most highly-prized scalp: President Ma Ying-jeou announced his resignation as KMT chairman, his reputation badly soiled by rumours that he cannot last – that he will be forced from the presidential palace before his term expires in May 2016.

Mainstream media coverage has understandably played up the landslide defeat of the KMT, but these ‘nine-in-one’ elections have a richer significance, not just for Taiwan but for the wider region. On the ground as an election observer, I was struck by the way these elections have shown how the resilience of Taiwan’s uniquely post-sovereign democratic polity does not stem ultimately from economic growth, or gun barrels (Mao Zedong), or from the cool charm of government ‘soft power’ advertising. The resilience of its polity has deeper taproots: Taiwanese democracy rests ultimately on its citizens’ belief in democracy.

Last weekend’s elections serve as a reminder that a political order is ultimately propped up by people’s attachment to it. Potestas in populo is the classic Roman summary of this equation. The Chinese version might be: water that floats boats can overturn them as well (shuǐ kě zài zhōu, yì kě fù zhōu). In other words, what the KMT party machine has learned from this election is that command and obedience are tricky ingredients of any given political order, which always rests upon a silent or unwritten contract (mo xŭ) between governors and governed. Power over others functionally requires that citizens feel comfortable with those who rule them. The inverse is equally true: the powerful are only powerful insofar as they win people’s trust and support.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei mayoral candidate Sean Lien, centre, bows after conceding defeat, 30 November 2014 Fang Pin-chao/Taipei Times

There’s a second reason why the election results are much more than a re-aligning local election, to use a hackneyed phrase favoured by political scientists. Impressive was the way the losers left office gracefully, sometimes tearfully, but usually sporting a smile. On the great choosing day, 60,000 police officers were mobilised throughout the country. The presidential palace was wrapped in rolls of barbed wire, metal barricades and troops armed with machine guns. There was a similarly heavy police presence outside and inside the Central Election Commission, where I watched at close range the tallying of the votes. These security precautions proved quite unnecessary, simply because those who run for office in Taiwan have embraced in quick time a principle that took old Europe centuries to learn: elected office is not the private property of the elected. Those lucky enough to be elected understand that their victory is only temporary. When their time is up, they quit, with a farewell wave, not a clenched fist.

Sean Lien, the KMT loser of the battle to win the coveted office of Taipei mayor, demonstrated just how far Taiwan has come in this respect. Several hours after the polls closed, flanked by his wife and campaign staff, he arrived at campaign headquarters. Supporters applauded, then fell silent, to hear his departing words. Lien bowed slowly, not just once, but six times, before delivering a short speech. It included the usual stuff that defeated candidates say. ‘Although we lost the battle, we did not lose the war’, he said. ‘There are more formidable challenges ahead of us’, he added. ‘We have to continue to seek support for the values and ideals we believe in.’ But then came the heartfelt apology, the moment of humility when the big man fell to his knees, to admit he lost. ‘I am really sorry for failing to meet your expectations’, he told his wet-eyed supporters. ‘I take responsibility for the defeat. It’s because I didn’t work hard enough to win, and I apologise’.

At a Taipei polling station, a KMT supporter watching the count, spellbound by bad news, 29 November 2014 John Keane

A third striking feature of the fiercely-fought elections was their high level of integrity, certainly when measured by global standards. Citizens showed remarkable self-discipline and respect for the rules of the game. The tens of thousands of young people who travelled by bus back to their home constituencies, courtesy of civil society bodies such as the Taiwan Citizens’ Union (TCU), observed the strict election rules by not displaying party banners, blowing whistles, handing out leaflets or shouting out slogans. At the Taipei polling station I monitored, an elderly KMT supporter who’d gathered to witness the counting of ballot papers seemed spellbound by the incoming bad news; he was incredulous, not riotous. Throughout the country, winners were joyous. Losers were gracious. Even President Ma Yoing-jeou sounded chastened. ‘Every ballot represents the love that citizens have for Taiwan’, he said. ‘The poll results have reminded us that those in power must also be humble listeners.’

Counting ballots before an assembled public, Taipei, 29 November 2014 John Keane

By local election standards, turnout was high (67.5 per cent) and passions ran deep, yet voting irregularities were minor, almost comical in their banality. In the south-western city of Pingtung, a 22-year-old university student was cautioned after tearing up his ballot paper, reportedly because he couldn’t decide which way to vote. Further north, in Greater Taichung, another citizen cast his vote for mayor then tore up the ballot paper for the city councillor and borough warden. He later told polling station staff that he’d done so because he wasn’t much interested in casting his vote for them, and just needed to know where to place his torn-up ballot paper. And in the town of Puli, not far from beautiful Sun Moon Lake, another honest citizen was cautioned by polling staff after they heard the sounds of camera clicks. He apologised, offering the explanation that he’d just wanted to record for posterity the largest and most important local elections in Taiwan’s history.

Women officials counting ballots cast for mayor of Taipei, 29 November 2014 John Keane

Technically in breach of electoral laws that strictly prohibit the use of recording devices inside polling stations, the good citizen with a sense of history had a point: these elections demonstrated to the wider region, above all to Beijing, that Taiwan has come of age, that in east Asia free and fair elections and open public monitoring of power are sustainable practices. These elections proved that citizens and their chosen representatives can shake off the old habits of one-party rule, that a vibrant monitory democracy is not just possible but is a superior way of removing slovenly, unpopular or corrupt governments.

The Taiwan result has not been lost on the citizens of Hong Kong. Thousands there are being punished with batons, pepper spray, tear gas and arrest simply for demanding publicly what Taiwan already has managed to achieve. The KMT rout is intimately bound up with the political destiny of China. It is a small but significant victory for the local Sunflower movement that earlier this year rang the alarm about growing Chinese Communist Party influence in Taiwan. The huge vote against the KMT is also a message of solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong. It is a thank you gift to them as well: recognition of the way the pro-democracy protests of the umbrella movement affected the mood of many Taiwanese citizens, persuading them of the precious importance of freedom of communication and free periodic elections as weapons for refusing and controlling manipulative arbitrary power.

President Ma Ying-jeou addressing a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Central Standing Committee meeting, Taipei, July 5, 2014 CNA

The deepest significance of the KMT rout is that it has flung Beijing’s silent takeover strategy into crisis. The great choosing day in Taiwan has effectively turned Ma Ying-jeou into a lame duck president whose entire China integration policy has been holed by the reef of public opinion. Since 2008, under his leadership, nearly two dozen separate trade deals have been agreed with China. Beijing, supposing markets rather than guns are the best weapon for taming Taiwan, has funded ‘contact people’ from Taiwan’s various city and county governments to visit China, to attend workshops for which they received direct or indirect mainland government subsidies. Academics, students, doctors, war veterans and local leaders have been targeted by Beijing. Taiwan’s Village and Township Alliance, founded in late 2011, has also been heavily lobbied by Chinese officials. There has been much talk from Beijing of the need for ‘free economic pilot zones’ to relax restrictions on the flow of Chinese goods and services and the entry of specialised Chinese workers into Taiwan. Taiwanese businesses operating in China have reciprocated. Through such bodies as the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland (ATIEM), their members have become fifth columnists of CCP rule. They want more flights, more Chinese tourists, more Chinese investment in Taiwan. Their ‘peaceful unification’ philosophy is simple: carrots from China are better than sticks.

Such market thinking and business strategy are designed to give China a footing on Taiwan’s political ladder, to persuade Taiwan’s citizens that Beijing is a friend with money, not a foe with guns. The strategy was supposed to culminate in a high-level meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, but that option has now been decisively vetoed by a thumping majority of voters. These elections have sent a clear message to the CCP rulers that in matters of political emotion Taiwan is now lost to Beijing. The great choosing day turned out to be a celebration of free elections and monitory democracy. It was a reminder to Beijing that geopolitical realities are changing, that things are going badly for Chinese power on the fringes of its polity, that the grip of the CCP has been radically weakened on four fronts: Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and now Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing a CCP foreign affairs committee meeting, Beijing, 28/29 November 2014 Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng

How the Chinese rulers react to these election results is the critical question. Unfortunately, their first responses are not encouraging. ‘We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world’, Xi Jinping told a high-level Communist Party meeting on foreign affairs on the eve of the Taiwan elections. Defending ‘socialism with distinctive Chinese features’ (code words for the leading role of the Party), Xi said China had to keep abreast of regional and global developments and to cultivate ‘deep understanding of the underlying trend of the times’. He went on to say that just as China’s dependence on the world and its involvement in international affairs are deepening, so is the world’s dependence on China. In global affairs, China is coming of age. That is why, he concluded, China would strive to ‘act in good faith, value friendship, and champion and uphold justice’. It stands for ‘the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs’. China respects ‘the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries’ and everywhere favours the ‘peaceful resolution of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation’.

Unfortunately, Taiwan received no mention by name during Xi Jinping’s address. Its silent dismissal is normal, for what happens in Taipei is always considered a domestic matter in Beijing. ‘We should firmly uphold China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity’, Xi said in his address. When decoded, this sentence means: ‘Do not have illusions, people of the province of Taiwan. Your talk of autonomy is misguided. Do not imagine you can decide things for yourselves. You are part of a greater China, and together we shall prevail. Recognise your destiny. Embrace national unity. Acknowledge our common territorial sovereignty. Work for unification with the motherland. Support the CCP, the true representative of the whole people of China.’

The trouble is that Taiwanese voters have just resolutely refused this vision. And so a new spectre haunts China: intransigence from the centre, tougher resistance from the margins. Will the CCP deal with this contradiction by altering its policies towards Taiwan? That is most unlikely. Equally improbable is the willingness of the citizens of Taiwan to trade in their democracy – to buckle under mounting pressure from Beijing. Something will surely have to give for, to quote Chairman Mao Zedong, the time has come for the correct handling of contradictions among the people, using the democratic method, of course.

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 dynamics of last Saturday’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.


‘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.


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.


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, lán wĕi (藍委) is pronounced in exactly the same way as ‘appendix’ (闌尾).

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


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’.


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.


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.

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’ (gōngmin shèhùi) and a ‘democracy’ (mín zhŭ) that enabled citizens (gongmín) to cast a free and fair vote – to throw a ticket (tóu piào) as the Taiwanese like to say.

The early nineteenth-century Longshan Buddhist temple, west Taipei


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.