Why Taiwan ended one-party rule and embraced democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am


Visitors to Taiwan who have been to the mainland could be forgiven for feeling confused when they see the names of some of the major roads and buildings on the island. Many are the same as those across the Taiwan Strait.

Stretching from north to south in the bustling city centre of Taipei is a boulevard named 'Zhongshan' after Dr Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China.

Crossing Zhongshan, from the east to west, visitors may come across three principal roads - running parallel to each other - bearing the names of the late revolutionary leader's political philosophy or 'Three People's Principles'. The streets are minzu (nationalism), minquan (democracy) and minsheng (people's livelihood).

As well as roads, there are monuments, schools, parks and other structures in the 390-odd townships, counties and cities in Taiwan named either after Sun, who was educated in the United States and Hong Kong, or his Three People's Principles.

Travellers will also see the names used in numerous places on the mainland, including Beijing, Nanjing , Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Such tributes show the great esteem in which Sun is held by the authorities on the mainland and in Taiwan. Sun's 1911 revolution led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the first Chinese republic.

The Kuomintang continued to honour Sun after defeat by the Communists at the end of the civil war in 1949 and its leaders' flight to Taiwan, where they set up what was originally intended to be an interim Republic of China government on the island.

The KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, hoped to show respect to the late founder of the original Republic of China, but more importantly it wanted to remind the people of Taiwan of the importance of developing the island according to Sun's Three People's Principles to pave the way for future cross-strait unification.

But while they both continued to honour Sun, the leaders in Taipei and Beijing implemented different visions of Sun's political philosophy.

While Beijing focused on nationalism, Taipei pushed for democracy, and now boasts the most mature democracy of any Chinese society, after years of development.

'Today we can see the great progress Taiwan has made in the development of a democratic society,' Carl-Eugen Eberle, chairman of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, told hundreds of foreign and local dignitaries during the opening of the 2011 IPI World Congress in Taipei on September 25.

Eberle was not the first Westerner to applaud Taiwan's democratic development, which has even impressed visitors from the mainland who are more used to hearing about minzu than minquan in discussions of Sun's political doctrines.

'The locals are eager to take part in election campaigning activities and many ethnic Taiwanese voters who live abroad even return to Taiwan to vote for their favoured candidates, indicating that democratisation in Taiwan is successful,' noted mainland businessman Charles Xue Manzi on his Weibo microblog this month. Xue has visited the island almost 30 times.

But democratic development in Taiwan did not start straight after the KMT moved to the island. Until 1987, democracy was a political taboo, much as it is on the mainland. In fact, fully-fledged democracy started taking shape in Taiwan only in 1996 when the island held its first direct presidential election.

In the beginning, the KMT had no intention of introducing minquan in Taiwan, despite instituting Sun's Three People's Principles as part of the Republic of China's constitution.

Like the Communist Party, the KMT set aside Sun's principle of democracy, and it chose instead to implement authoritarian, one-party rule in Taiwan.

'Chiang Kai-shek imposed martial law shortly after the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949, and whoever called for political freedom and democracy was subject to imprisonment or even secret execution,' said Chang Mao-hsiung, 72, a former political prisoner. He was put behind bars for five years for criticising Chiang.

About 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned or executed for showing real or perceived opposition to the KMT during the period of 'white terror' between 1949 and 1987, according to a recent report released by the government of mainland-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou.

At first, most of those prosecuted were branded 'communist bandits or spies', but as time went by more were labelled 'secessionists' for advocating Taiwan's independence from China. Often secessionist views stemmed from a deep-seated bitterness and hatred towards the KMT, whom the locals saw as 'mainlanders' or 'outsiders' imposing dictatorial rule in Taiwan and silencing political dissent.

Following the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo started to realise that his father's ambition to 'recover the mainland and reunify China' was an impossible dream.

During the Republic of China's first 20 years in Taiwan, Taipei was recognised by most of the world as the legitimate government of all of China. But as Beijing's power increased, countries such as the United States and Japan began to recognise the communist government, while the United Nations gave China's seat to the Beijing government. Such developments shattered any ambitions the KMT might have retained of returning to the mainland in triumph.

This prompted Chiang Ching-kuo to focus on developing the third aspect of Sun's philosophy, minsheng or people's livelihood.

His national development programme laid a firm foundation for the island's progress, and it came to be known as one of the 'four Asian tigers' along with South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Being named among the four most rapidly developing economies in Asia attracted envious glances from the mainland, which was still struggling to achieve internal growth.

'Not even the [opposition Democratic Progressive Party], which viewed Chiang Ching-kuo as a character of the authoritarian era, would deny his political and economic achievements in Taiwan,' said Beijing-based Taiwan expert Li Jiaquan.

Chiang Ching-kuo was widely praised for creating Taiwan's economic miracle between 1978 and 1988, despite the island's diplomatic isolation. His success in making Taiwan economically affluent also ushered in growing calls for political reforms.

Unlike his father, who gave key positions to people born on the mainland, Chiang Ching-kuo was credited for recruiting a number of native Taiwanese politicians to his government, including a former governor of Taiwan province, Lin Yang-kang, and Lee Teng-hui, his vice-president and eventual successor, which paved the way for the 'Taiwanisation' of the KMT. Chiang Ching-kuo was also remembered for working to stamp out corruption.

In July 1987, months before he died in January 1988, Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law after 38 years, in response to mounting calls from the opposition pro-independence camp for political reform.

Under Lee, Taiwan moved closer to Sun's democratic principle, permitting freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. The legislature was democratically elected and Lee won the first democratic presidential poll in 1996.

But with Lee's 'Mr Democracy' image tainted by allegations of corruption, the DPP ended five decades of KMT rule in the election of 2000. This was a turning point for Taiwan's democratisation.

'It was the first transition of power in Taiwan, and notably conducted in a peaceful way,' said Peter Zarrow, research fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica in Taipei.

But the DPP's rule lasted for only eight years, with president Chen Shui-bian bowing out at the end of his second term after he was implicated in a series of corruption scandals which subsequently landed him in prison.

In 2008, Taiwan experienced its second transition of power, with the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, known for his squeaky clean image, beating his DPP opponent Frank Hsieh Chang-ting to win the presidency.

Born in Hong Kong to mainland parents, Ma's policy of engagement with Beijing does not mean he advocates a political reunion.

'No unification, no independence and no use of force,' said Ma repeatedly when asked for his policy towards the mainland.

Taiwanese pundits said Ma's stance was not surprising, despite the fact he professed support for Sun's Three People's Principles, which included Chinese nationalism.

'Taiwanisation, which started during the Chiang Ching-kuo period, promoted by Lee Teng-hui and further propped up by Chen Shui-bian, can best explain why Ma holds such a stand,' said George Tsai Wei, professor at the Sun Yat-sen Institute for Globalisation Studies at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

Development of Sun's minzu had taken a different course along with progress of democracy in Taiwan, Tsai said. 'It is Taiwanese nationalism rather than Chinese nationalism, to be politically correct,' Tsai said of mainstream views on the island.

In terms of minsheng, Taiwan - once a major manufacturing hub in Asia - saw its economy fade rapidly under Chen. Pundits said Chen's push for independence repeatedly stoked cross-strait tensions, while his policy of restricting mainland trade discouraged investment and growth in Taiwan.

Various government statistics in Taiwan show the island relies heavily on the mainland, which has replaced the United States as the biggest buyer of Taiwanese products. Even KMT officials admitted that Ma's active economic exchange policy with the mainland was one reason the island's economy had improved since Ma took office in May 2008.