REPORT: Democratization in Taiwan

Kristen Looney, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown moderates the event panel. Photo Credit: Olivia Letts

By Olivia Letts, Reporter

Today, Taiwan is one of the highest-ranked nations in the world across several freedom indices. It has achieved this feat after a long history of internal difficulties and a period of strict martial law, and its democratic transition was fortified by personal bravery on the part of outspoken Taiwanese advocates for democracy. However, maintaining a veritable liberal democracy such as Taiwan’s requires a considerable effort. The challenges and successes of Taiwanese democracy were discussed at a conversation panel hosted by Georgetown University’s Asia Studies Program on March 22 entitled “Democratization in Taiwan: Past and Future.”

At the event, Michael Fonte, Michael Chen, and Janice Chen discussed their informed perspectives on Taiwanese democracy based on their experiences, their strong ties to the current party in power, and their relationships to Taiwan. Fonte, who once served as a Catholic missionary in Central Taiwan, is Director of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Mission in the U.S. With the DPP Mission, he fosters dialogue between Taiwan’s DPP and Washington policymakers. Michael Chen is a Research Associate at the DPP Mission in the U.S. and has been active in Taiwanese political affairs, formerly serving as Legislative Assistant to Legislator Kuen-Yuh Wu. Finally, Janice Chen is Deputy Director of the DPP Mission in the U.S. where she helps to connect the DPP Mission with players in the US government and Asia policy community. She has worked on public outreach campaigns promoting Taiwan’s international recognition and democratic institutions.

The conversation was moderated by Kristen Looney, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown. She began the discussion by encouraging the speakers to share their insights on the status of democracy in Taiwan.

Fonte explained the nature of the struggle for democracy of Taiwan in the past, which is important to consider when trying to understand the state of contemporary Taiwanese politics. In 1955, through the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States confirmed its support for Republic of China (ROC) administration of Taiwan (not the People’s Republic of China, or PRC) in the context of a tense Cold War climate only exacerbated by Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. Thus, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party was able to continue its authoritarian rule over Taiwan. Fonte served as a missionary in Taiwan during this time, a period in which the Vatican Council was focusing on questions of social justice. But “social justice was a dirty word” in Taiwan due to the strict martial law imposed by the KMT. Fonte described the era, which lasted up until the 1980s, as one of brutal repression in which spies were everywhere. The Taiwanese, whose distinct cultural identity had been sublimated into the Chinese identity, were not treated as equal citizens of China, but rather as occupied peoples. “Suspicious” individuals or people who opposed KMT rule were often killed or tortured.

Fonte remarked on the importance of memorializing and recognizing those who never gave up the fight for human rights in Taiwan. One of these leading figures is Peng Ming-min, who Fonte met at the University of Michigan while pursuing his M.A. in Asian Studies. Peng, who is still active in politics to this day, had been arrested in Taiwan in 1964 for circulating a manifesto advocating for democratic governance. He escaped from house arrest in Taiwan in 1970, obtained political asylum, and traveled to the University of Michigan to teach. It is there that he wrote his memoir, A Taste of Freedom. Decades later, Peng could peacefully return to Taiwan and pursue a political career, but other freedom fighters were not always so lucky.

The event that finally transformed the Taiwanese democratic movement into a tour de force was the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, in which military police confronted and clashed with peaceful pro-democracy protestors on Human Rights Day. Following the incident, the KMT arrested many of the movement’s leaders, which only added fuel to the democratic cause. In 1986, Taiwan’s liberal political party, the DPP, was officially formed, and according to Fonte, “they were and continue to be energetic in pursuit of democracy.” Today, Taiwanese democracy persists even under the specter of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which carefully observes from across the Strait.

Given this long history of democratic proponents struggling to assert their place in Taiwanese politics, the stakes continue to remain high, especially for the DPP. Michael Chen noted that since the 1996 election (in which Peng Ming-min ran as a DPP candidate), when Taiwanese could first directly vote for their president, Taiwan has been remarkably successful as a “third wave” democracy outside of the West, both in terms of its transition and its consolidation. However, he also argued that “Taiwan’s democracy is facing an existential threat, because its sovereignty is under threat.” Michael Chen explained that Beijing has adamantly pushed for Taiwan to adopt the “one country, two systems” system. Despite Taiwan’s rejection of this offer, its open democracy has been targeted by various misinformation campaigns and other threats from China.

Janice Chen said that as a Taiwanese-American, she has taken pride in Taiwan’s democratic liberalization, which few countries have accomplished successfully. She has some memories of Taiwan’s martial law in the 1980s but observed that the 2000s were a period of democratic affirmation. Chen said that young Taiwanese quite naturally accept the idea of “tian ran du,” or “natural independence.” That is, they were “born that way,” and the liberal identity of the country they were born into is part of their makeup, which they do not want to give up. A recurring theme in all the speakers’ comments was that people cannot grow complacent in a democracy, a mode of governance that requires consistent tending and vigilance to maintain.

Many of the questions that were posed to the speakers touched on Taiwan’s complex relationship with China, America’s relationship with Taiwan, and the future of the DPP.

Regarding the future of the DPP, the speakers were optimistic about its capacity to continue fulfilling its dynamic role in Taiwanese politics. The party, which is currently in the process of nominating its candidate for the 2020 presidential election, maintains a progressive outlook on global issues. However, it has attracted the ire of China for several reasons, including its pursuit of greater defense spending for Taiwan. Janice Chen commented that the KMT party has floated a proposal for a peace agreement with China that would investigate the possibility of reunification, but the DPP has inserted itself into every level of the discussion to create a series of democratic approval processes. Michael Chen urged that if there is going to be any such agreement, it must be on equal footing, and with no preconditions.

It is possible for China and Taiwan to seek a positive relationship, and Michael Fonte said that this can be achieved even as Taiwan stands firm on its democratic values. The close ties linking the two countries are undeniable. However, the plain reality of their two very different political systems stands in the way of truly more empathetic and unguarded cooperation between them. China has favored the KMT party and engages disproportionately more with KMT-administered municipalities than it does with those governed by the DPP.

Michael Chen commented that the Taiwanese have been given insufficient reason to trust China’s intentions and that excessive Chinese influence down the line could eventually erode some of Taiwan’s hard-earned democratic gains. Janice Chen added that the most obvious example of China’s intimidation of Taiwan is the simple fact that Taiwan has not declared independence despite polls consistently revealing that many Taiwanese want to do so. Chinese military coercion has played a role in preventing the country from declaring formal sovereignty.

One of the attendees asked about the potential impact of recent controversies in which high-profile Taiwanese pronounce their support of the “one country, two systems” principle. These individuals have included celebrities and KMT politicians who were forced by China to come out and espouse unification with the PRC, subsequently undermining the DPP. Michael Chen responded that he does not believe that this strategy can win hearts and minds in Taiwan because the Taiwanese public detects “the stench of appeasement” emanating from those coerced individuals.

In response to China’s impingements on Taiwan’s right to self-determination, Taipei’s democratic leaders have the will and capacity to adopt many different policy responses. As part of an effort to free Taiwan from some of its dependence on China, Taipei has expressed a desire to increase its economic ties with Japan and Southeast Asia. Janice Chen remarked that Taiwan can benefit from its “unique, valuable understanding of how China works,” but also continue to enjoy strong relationships with like-minded democracies. Furthermore, it can leverage its skilled hacker groups to target disinformation, and integrate media literacy into its school curriculum.

In general, the United States has a protective attitude toward Taiwan, but Fonte pointed out that it is in a “delicate position” whereby it seeks to bolster Taiwan’s defensive capabilities but, at the same time, counsel Taiwan against provoking China. Fonte summarized the American stance on Taiwan’s current sovereignty as “undetermined.” The U.S. acknowledges China’s position on the matter, but he believes the American acknowledgement of the Chinese position means little more than, “we hear what you say but don’t agree with it.” Moreover, the U.S., like the DPP, wants any political agreement between China and Taiwan to be peaceful and consensual.

Fonte explained that some containment-minded members of Congress have a tendency to discuss Taiwan as if were a bargaining chip on the front lines against China, but “Taiwan does not want to be seen as the biggest floating battleship.” He believes that it is a better approach for the U.S. to encourage Taiwan to assert itself economically rather than via a military or political approach. As Janice Chen explained, U.S. defense planners are most focused on ensuring that Taiwan could fend off an invasion. In order to preserve the harmony of Taiwan and comity with China, the U.S. should focus on maintaining the status quo for the time being. Meanwhile, the DPP and Taiwanese people can be expected to keep taking the lead on liberalization and pushing onward.




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