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Beyond the Commotion

Taiwanese Democracy: What Lies Ahead?


Over the past 60 years, Taiwan has managed to form a vibrant, yet fragile, democracy. Beset with carnival-style electioneering and pork-barrel politics, where is Taiwan, the Chinese-speaking world's laboratory for democracy, headed?



Taiwanese Democracy: What Lies Ahead?

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 427 )

Underscoring the changing political climate since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan in the autumn of 1988 for the first time allowed reunions of families that had been separated since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

On Nov. 14, renowned Confucian philosopher Chien Mu was waiting with some trepidation at the door of his elegant two-story residence in the Taipei suburb of Waishuangxi to welcome his daughter Qian Yi whom he had not seen for forty years.

Wearing a traditional Tang-style jacket, the 94-year-old scholar, who had lost his eyesight due to illness, jokingly told reporters that he was planning to chat the night away with his long lost daughter.

Qian Yi, at the time a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and two-term member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, became the first Chinese national to set foot on the island after Taiwan greenlighted cross-strait family reunions. After her arrival at then Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in Taoyuan, Qian hurriedly collected her entry visa for Taiwan and rushed to her father's home.

But little did Qian expect that her happy one-month reunion would be overshadowed by intense public controversy.

When Chiang Kai-shek invited Chien Mu to move from Hong Kong to Taiwan in 1967, the Presidential Office gave him a piece of land in Waishuangxi where he built a house at his own expense, which would become known as Su Shu Lou ("House of Simple Learning").

But in 1988 then Taipei City councilor Chou Po-lun of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was eager to address the favoritism of the authoritarian era, accused Chien of illegally occupying city property and demanded that the Public Works Department set a deadline for Chien to move out.

Hence the family reunion was disturbed by a political storm. And Qian Yi saw how quickly the tables had turned now that Taiwan was quickly moving toward democracy. As a result she left Taiwan early.

At the time, Chien Mu asked his students, "Why are these people so eager to get this house, and what do they want to do with it?" When a student told him that Su Shu Lou was supposed to become a memorial house, Chien responded wryly, "If they don't let me live there while I'm still alive, what's the point of commemorating me when I'm dead?"

Two years later Chien couldn't stand the accusations anymore and moved out. Less than three months after being forced out of his house, Chien, beset with grief and indignation, passed away.

Chien's bitter experience in his waning days illustrates Taiwan's transition from the old era to the new.

Laboratory for Democracy in Greater China

Regardless of the many twists and turns in Taiwan's political transition, in Western eyes it is the first country in the Chinese-speaking world that has managed to leave authoritarian rule behind and embrace democracy. Moreover, Taiwan stands out among the countries in the third wave of democratization for having installed democracy without severe bloodshed or a coup d'etat.

After the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, then vice president Lee Teng-hui stepped into the presidency amid a treacherous political environment. During the remaining two years and four months of the presidential term, Lee continued his predecessor's political course.

During his overall 12 years (1988-2000) as president, Lee had to deal with thriving progressive social forces on the outside and conservative forces within the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) that he headed. He deftly used the collective sentiment that was prevalent at the time – aspirations for all people to be equal, for an end to privileges and for popular sovereignty – to consolidate his own power.

The DPP, for its part, set out to deconstruct the KMT with a clarion call "against black gold (political corruption), against special privileges, against military rule," and swiftly rose to prominence as the largest opposition party in 1992, when Taiwan for the first time elected the full legislature.

Under Lee's presidency the Constitution was amended three times, effecting major changes to the electoral system. Lifelong legislators were forced to retire to make way for a fully elected legislature, and direct popular elections were introduced for the president, the provincial governor as well as the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung.

These changes paved the way for direct democracy, as well as Taiwan's tendency toward unfettered political competition and its singular emphasis on elections.

For Taiwanese voters, elections were like stars that lit up the dark night, triggering excitement and expectation. The feeling of political suppression that had built up over sixty years dissipated entirely.

Irresistible Election Mania

Since the 1992 parliamentary elections, Taiwan has seen 20 major elections (four presidential elections, six parliamentary elections, four elections for county magistrates and city mayors, four mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung cities, and two National Assembly elections).

Over the course of these 20 elections, a cumulative eligible electorate of 230 million has cast 160 million ballots.

Within the democratic system, elections have become an important tool for consolidating power. Election mania is increasingly getting out of hand. Politicians stop at nothing when it comes to spending money on campaigns and mobilizing supporters.

How much is being spent on Taiwan's elections? Conservative estimates put the total amount spent on the 20 elections since 1992 by the state and candidates at around NT$100 billion.

Even the DPP, which often plays the anti-corruption card and in contrast to the KMT lacks substantial party assets, has spent enormous amounts on election campaigns.

In 1989, when Huang Hsin-chieh served as DPP chairman, the DPP had an annual election budget of just NT$20 million. But in 1992, when Hsu Hsin-liang headed the party, its election budget topped NT$100 million, which it spent on advertising, campaign materials and election support infrastructure.

Elections seem to have become a competition to see who has deeper pockets and is more populist, not who has the better ideas and policies.

Uncontrollable Local Factions

Local factions are massively intervening in politics. The KMT, in particular, relies on farmers' associations and neighborhood chiefs to help secure votes.

As several scholars who have studied the history of Taiwan's local factions have noted, it was Lee Teng-hui who formed an alliance with factions formed by native Taiwanese in the early days of his presidency to consolidate his power against the KMT's mainlander-dominated top echelons.

In 1987 Taiwan-born KMT members accounted for just 18 percent of the First Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee. By 1999 at the time of the First Plenary Session of the 13th Central Committee, that ratio had risen to 52 percent.

Lee's approach encouraged the localization of the KMT, making it a more Taiwanese party. It also caused an internal split in the party into mainstream and non-mainstream blocs, and it made local factions more powerful.

But the complicated structure of local factions, including the prominent roles that local leaders and even gangsters played in them, led the KMT farther and farther away from its traditional elite leadership built on fostering good, capable people for positions as party cadre.

Instant Democracy that Failed to Take Root

In 1994, after the KMT government relaxed restrictions on radio and television, lifting a freeze on commercial broadcasters and legalizing cable TV, a plethora of diverse voices was unleashed. Virtually overnight, Taiwan had the world's highest density of electronic media and satellite news gathering vans for live broadcasts.

In the early 1990s highly professional legislators such as Frank Hsieh, Shen Fu-hsiung and Ting Shou-chung undertook their task of questioning administrative officials with serious purpose, employing 10 to 20 legal assistants, and presenting limpid, robust interpellations.

But later on, legislators began to seek exposure and name recognition, and drafting laws was no longer important. Instead of employing research assistants, the lawmakers' offices were busy preparing props and writing posters for attention-catching appearances in the legislature. They questioned government officials with provocative slogans, booming voices and rude language, often taking over the podium of the parliamentary president or getting into fistfights.

In the past, decisions were made slowly after due consideration in a closed-door environment. But nowadays, decisions seem to be made in a glass house under constant scrutiny by the media and experts. Instead of carefully analyzing problems based on figures and other data, politicians play to the "reactions of society." Policymaking revolves around public sentiment, and the direction of policy changes with the ups and downs of public support reflected in opinion polls.

Due to the vulgarization of politics, many talented people are no longer willing to enter the political arena. The political parties have lost sight of their ideals and watered down their principles.

The KMT, which had more than 2.3 million members before 2000, has abolished a ceremony that formerly required new party members to swear allegiance to the Three Principles of the People, the political doctrine of party founder Sun Yat-sen. The DPP is making even greater efforts to boost its membership with nominal party members. After gaining control of the presidency in 2000, the DPP took in a number of highly controversial people to consolidate its power at the grassroots level, thus damaging its image.

The political parties no longer care about cultivating political talent. As long as candidates look good, speak smoothly or enjoy backing from a powerful clan, their moral blemishes are of little concern.

Taiwan has fallen into a dilemma described by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau – democracy being reduced to mere elections.

DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen frankly admits, "In 20 years of democratization, we have done only one thing, namely, open competition in a political jungle without the basic infrastructure of a democratic system."

Ethnic Chauvinism Undermines Democracy

In order to deepen democracy, Taiwan needs not only to build the foundations for good governance, but also to address the divisive issue of national identity, which pitches early immigrants against those who came after 1949.

As they competed for governmental power, the KMT and the DPP both used their stances toward China – friendly and hostile, respectively – to mobilize support for individual politicians and the party.

Citizens began to stick pro-China or anti-China labels on one another, while the media used incendiary language and launched witch hunts against perceived opponents based on the logic that "who is not with us is against us." As a result, Taiwan was split into opposing camps!!.

Sechin Yeong-Shyang Chien, associate research fellow at Academia Sinica, asserts that Taiwan's pursuit of self-identity has devolved into mere nativism, and compares this process to a "democratic civil war." Populism, ironically, has ended up undermining the maturation of democracy.

Democracy at a Dead End?

Saddled with heavy burdens, Taiwan's democracy has reached an impasse in recent years and become riddled with flaws. But in the eyes of many outside observers, Taiwan has still made valuable progress.

Jay Taylor, research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, believes that Taiwan's democratization proves that ethnic Chinese people are able to shift from authoritarian paternalism to an open modern society. Taylor, who specializes in democratic development in East Asia, argues that the Taiwan experience is valuable for both China and the world.

Chinese democracy activists Jin Guantao and his wife Liu Qingfeng have been living in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen Incident of June 4, 1989. This year they came to Taiwan to serve as guest professors at National Chengchi University in Taipei. The couple reveals that in the past when they depended on media reports about Taiwan, they gained the impression that "Taiwan is too chaotic." But after moving to the island, the scholars found that the Taiwanese are friendly, free, and tolerant. They describe Taiwan as a "democratic new China" that is particularly adept at assimilating progressive ideas from the West.

Like many other liberal scholars from China, Jin and Liu are bullish on Taiwan. "If I could choose anywhere in the Chinese-speaking world to live, my first choice would be Taipei, because the democracy here gives it a lot of culture and freedom," Jin enthuses.

At a restaurant near their university, Jin and Liu declared with one voice, "What does Taipei have to feel inferior about?"

In Whom Should the People Place Their Hopes?

The strengthening of democracy is an arduous process, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

A narrow path leads to Su Shu Lou from the southwest corner of Soochow University, past stone stairs, maple trees, rows of bamboo and lush greenery.

Not long after Chien Mu passed away, the Chien family generously donated his book collection and manuscripts to the public. Subsequently, the Taipei City Government turned the philosopher's former residence into a memorial library.

Having been expelled from his home, Chien would hardly have imagined it would become a Mecca for students of Chinese philosophy. Nowadays, German scholars can often been seen there, their hair tied back in ponytails and clad in Tang-style jackets, discussing Confucian thought in fluent Chinese.

Democratic Taiwan has preserved the kindling of Confucian culture. Confucianism and academic freedom have grown roots in Taiwan.

But in whom should the people place their hopes?

In pursuit of democracy, Taiwan has fallen into a number of snares of its own devising. It is time for Taiwan to step beyond its self-made boundaries and once again sound out the breadth and depth of democracy.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz