Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Cary Huang
Cary Huang

Taiwan, Asia’s leading democracy, cannot escape Beijing’s watchful gaze

  • Cary Huang says Taiwan’s referendum last month makes it the undisputed champion of direct democracy in the region, with inevitable implications on its domestic politics and already tense cross-strait relations

Compared with the mature democracies in the liberal West, Taiwan is still an infant given that it only held its first full multiparty legislative elections in 1992 and the first direct presidential election in 1996. Nevertheless, the self-ruled island has made strides in its democratic development and has now become the undisputed champion of direct democracy in Asia.

In local elections held on November 24, Taiwanese exercised their right to cast their ballot on 10 divisive issues, ranging from same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, to nuclear energy and food safety. It was one of the most extensive referendums held in the world.

The legislature enacted the Referendum Act in 1993, granting citizens the rights to both initiate new laws and repeal existing ones through holding a referendum. While several island-wide and local referendums have been held in the past, none succeeded, as the law contained many hurdles, including high thresholds and strict procedures.

Revisions to the law last year led to the roll-out of one of the most citizen-friendly systems in the world. The new law reduced the required number of signatures in the first stage of proposing a referendum from 0.1 per cent to 0.01 per cent of the electorate, and from 5 per cent to 1.5 per cent in the second stage of collecting supporting signatures. This is a lower threshold than in Switzerland, the world’s haven of direct democracy, where 100,000 signatures, or about 2 per cent of eligible voters, are needed to trigger a citizen-initiated referendum.

Taiwan’s new law also dramatically reduced the turnout quorum from 50 per cent to 25 per cent of the eligible electorate. In addition, the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18. These changes have turned the island into one of the few places in the world where a plebiscite is easily accessible to citizens.

In the dozen or so nations in Asia that allow referendums, most set higher thresholds and stricter procedures for the vote. In Singapore, for instance, a referendum can be held under several circumstances, such as when a constitutional amendment passed by Parliament is rejected by the president, or when the nation needs to decide on a change of its sovereignty status. In other countries, referendums or plebiscites can only be held on critical issues, changes to the constitution, the sovereign status or government, as seen in the Philippines and Thailand.

While political scientists are still debating the merits and flaws of direct democracy, most agree that it remedies the shortcomings in representative government. They see referendums as an effective tool of direct democracy that help promote civil rights and encourage political participation. Direct democracies offer citizens full control, accountability and equality on state affairs, which are among the biggest accomplishments of a free democracy.


Taiwan has become a model of modern direct democracy, with perhaps the most liberal referendum law in the world. Bruno Kaufmann, co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, hailed Taiwan’s referendum system as an “innovative” model that is “very citizen-friendly”. Underlining the international endorsement of the island’s remarkable progress in promoting political participation, the Swiss-based organisation decided to hold its 2019 global forum on modern direct democracy in Taichung city, in central Taiwan, next year.

However, these developments might have deep implications for Taiwan’s relations with mainland China, as well as its domestic politics.

Beijing’s communist leadership views Taiwan’s speedy democratisation with suspicion and displeasure. Although Taiwan’s current law notably rules out the holding of any referendum on a formal declaration of independence from China, Beijing is still preoccupied with worry over any attempt by the independence-leaning ruling Democratic Progressive Party to eventually amend the law to allow an independence referendum.

If the old law was a “birdcage”, as some people have described it, the legislative changes now allow Taiwanese to fly off freely into the wide, blue sky. However, Taiwan’s democratic aspirations still have their limitations as Beijing is determined to thwart, by the use of force if necessary, any attempt by any means to change Taiwan’s sovereign status.

In a sigh of relief, voters vetoed a proposal to change the name of the Taiwanese delegation at the Olympic Games, in the just-finished referendum, which reflected Taiwanese sensitivity, prudence and maturity on this politically explosive issue.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a veteran China affairs columnist since the early 1990s