Taiwan’s Democracy Confronts Mainland China — A Case of Mistaken Identity
by Jane Walker Snider
For decades, China’s demands regarding Taiwan have remained unchanged. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) relentlessly asserts that it holds sovereignty over Taiwan. Never mind that Taiwan has been governed separately from the mainland for decades, first by the Japanese beginning in 1895, later by the Chiang Kai-Shek National government (KMT - pan blue) beginning in 1949. More recently, Taiwan has had a democratic government led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP - pan green.)
What I came to learn about Taiwan’s history and politics over the course of two visits was complex and challenging to a citizen of the U.S., for whom democracy and independence have been synonymous for generations. In Taiwan, I had to learn to separate the two. The government and the people have had to maintain a careful balance from election to election to protect the democracy they have constructed while taking steps toward more overt and formalized independence from mainland China.
On my first trip to Taiwan in 2001, I was informed there were 500 missiles across the Straits on mainland China aimed at the island. It remained an abstraction for me until my group was taken on a day trip to
outlying attractions. On our way back to Taipei, we stopped for a stroll along a beach. At some distance ahead of us, I saw a series of open-ended gray concrete structures that resembled oversized car ports. As we walked closer, I saw what each contained: twin sets of fighter planes. In that moment, the Straits narrowed for me. Back on the bus, I checked the distance to the mainland on a map; it was not reassuring.
In the campaign leading up to the March 20, 2004, presidential election, President Chen Shui-bian was careful not to call directly for independence. Instead he stressed Taiwan’s ‘separateness’ from mainland China, an appeal to his hard-line political allies who want formal independence. What was obscured in news coverage of the 2004 political debates and still astonishes me as a U.S. citizen is how recently such an election has been possible. The Chiang government’s martial law remained in force until 1987. The first direct presidential election was not held until 1996.
Madame Chiang Kai Shek and U.S. Policy
In reviewing press coverage from the 1950s and 60s, the ongoing oppression of the Taiwanese people is overshadowed by the celebrity and political acumen of its leader’s wife, Madame Chiang Kai Shek. She became one of the first international celebrities, rivaling movie stars in the glamour she projected and the press coverage she received. She was educated at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and then at Wellesley College in Massachusetts but retained a southern accent.
Mme. Chiang Kai Shek charmed both the U.S. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt, who in turn used the Chiang government to forestall Communist China’s aspirations. The British, especially Winston Churchill, and the Russians felt that the Communists, the dominant government on the mainland, ought to be recognized as China on the U.N. Security Council. They could only watch from the sidelines as Washington delivered billions of dollars to the man the British called “Gen. Cash My-Cheque.”
The U.S. led the international community’s recognition of Chiang’s Nationalist Party as China and granting of a seat on the U.N. Security Council. This muddled beginning laid the foundation of the dispute between mainland China and Taiwan, with the U.S. assuming the role of guardian of the island’s security.
Repression in Taiwan
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, people were living in “white terror.” Anyone who opposed the Chiang government was at risk of imprisonment or death. Taiwanese with long ancestry on the island were harshly suppressed. Even families coming recently from the mainland were at risk.
Some of the Taiwanese Americans I know in the U.S. have shared with me their experiences from those years. Children stood outside family doorways to warn of the approach of strangers when visitors were in their homes. Others were encouraged as young adults to emigrate to Canada, the U.S., or elsewhere for fear they would be swept up in the emerging democracy movement and be imprisoned, or even lose their lives.
In 2001, the ACWA hosted Dr. Peng Ming-min, “The Grandfather of Democracy and Freedom in Taiwan.” Peng, a fifth-generation Taiwanese, became the island’s most famous dissident. He was imprisoned by the KMT in 1965 for authoring “A Manifesto to Save Taiwan.” In 1970, he escaped to Sweden and was granted a visa by the U.S. He was only able to return to Taiwan in 1992 after a general amnesty was granted for political offenders.
Challenges to the Chiang Government
In the 1970s, two challenges began to undermine the Chiang government. First, the U.S. responded to the
ongoing Cold War by making overtures to mainland China that resulted in the PRC taking Taiwan’s seat at
the UN. In Taiwan, a movement by a group called Dangwai (outside of the KMT) challenged the Chiang
government. On December 10, 1979, the Dangwai celebrated World Human Rights Day, leading to a massive crackdown by the KMT.
The Dangwai undertook a grassroots political movement that moved from winning county and city elections to some at the national level. In 1986, the Dangwai defied martial law to form the DPP party. Its candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the Taipei mayoral election in 1994, paving the way for his successful run for president in 2000. Mr. Chen won the presidency with 39% of the vote against main opponents James Soong (with more than 36% of the vote) and Lien Chan (with 23%).
In the presidential campaign of 2004, Lien Chan and James Soong teamed up. Their pan-blue flag carried the image of a tandem bicycle with two riders. When my delegation arrived from the U.S., surveys showed them in a dead heat with President Chen Shui-bian. However, the official polls were outdated, because by law no polling can take place within one week of an election.
The Taiwanese media had no restraints, so polling numbers appeared on television and in newspapers after our arrival. Interestingly, every Taiwanese citizen aged 20 and over is automatically registered to vote unless the right is rescinded. Overall, the voting turnout was expected to be about 80%.
During the decades between 1949 and the DPP political breakthrough, the Nationalists instilled the belief in the Taiwanese people that Taiwan was part of China, holding on to Chiang's aspiration of regaining control of the mainland.
By the time of the March 2004 election, however, the KMT faced an irreversible shift in how Taiwanese people regard themselves. A 2003 poll by the highly respected Election Center at the National Chengchi University showed that less than 8% of the population still consider themselves solely Chinese. The remaining 84% split almost evenly between calling themselves Taiwanese or Taiwanese-Chinese. The younger group of voters was projected to be an asset for Chen, because they poll higher on national identity as Taiwanese.
The Communist leadership of mainland China is either ignoring this change, lacks the vision to understand it, or fears upheaval among its citizens who are failing to benefit from economic growth in mainland cities. This is why I call China’s view of Taiwan “A Case of Mistaken Identity.”
Observing the 2004 Presidential Election Process
My delegation’s first full day in Taipei was Thursday, March 18, with an intense schedule of briefings. Taipei was calm, with people commuting to and from work on their motorcycles, playing tag in between traffic lights and jockeying for parking spaces.
The highlight of that first day was our visit to DPP campaign headquarters, where several thousand Chen supporters were congregated in the plaza, waiting for President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu
to pass by in an open-bed truck. Walking into the crowd, I saw long strands taped along the curb that looked like Christmas lights. As we moved closer, I saw hundreds of unlit firecrackers on the cording. I then recalled that exploding firecrackers were part of Taiwanese election campaigns.
As I moved through the throng, people began to embrace me and thank me for coming. Until that moment, I had not understood the extraordinary symbolism that U.S. citizens represent in countries much newer to democracy—especially one dependent on the U.S. for significant trade and security.
Others pulled me into circles to be photographed with them. Someone asked in English, “Where are you from?” Before I could answer, he told me, “I’m from San Diego.” He was one of hundreds of Taiwanese residing in the U.S. who had flown to Taiwan to vote in the election.
I was still at some distance from the street when the President’s entourage passed, including photographers and bodyguards. The crowd surged towards the street, held back only—as far as I could tell—by the firecrackers that were being set off, surrounding the passing vehicles in smoke. I was told this was typical of all of Chen’s appearances in a caravan. No protective dome. No protective vest. Well, this isn’t the U.S., I thought.
The Day Before the Election
The next day, Friday, was another full day of briefings. At 2:30 p.m., we sat, somewhat weary, with a woman from the Government Information Office, the inevitable cups of green tea on tables beside each of our club chairs.
An aide came in with a folded note. The woman rose and gasped involuntarily, “The President has been shot!” She excused herself, and those of us of the John F. Kennedy generation stared at one another in shock. I said, “They’re going to put us on the next plane to the U.S.” However, the woman returned in a few minutes and said, smiling, “It was just a minor accident. He was injured by exploding firecrackers.”
This story held up until 4 o’clock when we reached our next location, joining a seminar at the Westin
Taipei Hotel. By this time the media had received a garbled version of the incident and a download of photographs from the site via e-mail. The shooting had occurred in Tainan in southern Taiwan, which in fact is President Chen’s hometown.
My small group was still on hold, dealing in rumors, until we were handed off to a liaison administrator of the DPP government. He spent some time reassuring us that President Chen and Vice President Lu were doing well at the hospital where they were being treated.
Then the liaison spoke about his personal situation and the complexities he had to deal with in serving the DPP government. A favorite cousin with whom he grew up is now a professor at Beijing University, he told us. His wife and two sons live in Silver Spring, Maryland, and he had been away from them for four months. He raised one arm, pointing to a cuff link. “My sons’ pictures are on these,” he told us. They were 12 and 14, and he missed being part of their lives.
The commitment of this man, coupled with his sacrifices, seemed to me to be typical of most of the people we met in briefing sessions, both in government and in business.
Saturday was Election Day and, despite the protests of the KMT, the election took place. Under the Taiwanese constitution, the only justification for canceling an election is if one of the candidates dies. The KMT’s next strategy was to wait out the election results and then file motions to invalidate it.
Taipei was calm. We were free to observe the actual polling, which is quite transparent. There are no hanging chads in Taiwan elections. However, voters may cause balloting errors if they stamp in the wrong place or fold a ballot so the stamp ink transfers to another part of the ballot.
The ballot for president is a single sheet, with the opposing parties' colors used: blue for the DPP and green for the KMT. Each of the sections carries photographs of the candidates for president and vice president. A unique stamp for voting is given to each voter. The voter stamps in either of the circles beneath the two slates. The resulting ballots, as they are counted, are held up for viewing by officials, by the media, and by anyone else who wants to observe.
In the late afternoon, we were driven to the sports arena where the ballots were being received and
tabulated. Journalists and guest observers sat in folding chairs at long tables, watching a closed-circuit monitor at the front. In between sat several television sets, each tuned to a different channel. The media was predicting a very close election, and everyone was on edge.
In the end, President Chen received just over 50 percent of the vote, significantly increasing his support from 39 percent in the 2000 election when he ran against Soong and Chan. Informed observers considered this a mandate for moving towards independence during his term in office.
The response of the KMT surprised me. Not that they sought to invalidate the election or obtain a recount, but by staging demonstrations that verged on, or actually became, riots. For a party that also professed to stand for democracy and eventual independence, their actions played right into the hands of China, which responded by threatening military action.
When I later asked a Taiwanese diplomat in the U.S. about the Chinese threat, he dismissed it as a “gesture.” I would call it “scary,” considering the 500 missiles aimed at Taiwan across the straits, which were frequently referenced by people I met on my trip.
The KMT’s recount request moved through a Justice Department that is considered fair and impartial. The outcome was that President Chen was affirmed as President. Rioting in Taipei continued on timing that
seemed to have no effect on people’s coming and going from work or on errands.
My personal opinion about the demonstrations by KMT supporters was that the KMT actually orchestrated the riots to maintain a degree of order. Both the KMT and DPP parties have extreme elements among their supporters.
When I returned to the U.S. the following week, I again sought the opinion of my Taiwanese diplomat contact. Again he seemed unconcerned. “We think the unrest will be over before the end of May. The KMT has to think about the legislative elections coming up in December 2004.” I can only imagine the complexities of international politics hidden behind such statements.
Another possible factor of restraint was that the highly regarded Mayor Ma of Taipei was reported to be the heir apparent to run as the KMT’s candidate in the 2008 presidential election. Certainly the KMT or Ma could not allow rioting to go too far.
Meanwhile, the shooting incident remains unsolved. Apparently the police on the scene were caught so unawares that people dispersed and any evidence was swept away. I was surprised by my lack of shock in response to the attack, realizing that political life in the U.S. had inured me in ways I had not realized. I was also reassured that the stability of Taiwan’s political process had held up to such a test.
The DPP subsequently took several steps to assure the Taiwanese people and the international community that the attack was not staged, bringing in a forensic team from the U.S. to assess the situation. They found that Chen was shot from a distance and actually wounded in a way that could have been deadly if the shooter had had better aim.
Dr. Henry Lee, who appears on CNN commenting on high-profile murders, led the team of experts to Taiwan. He verified that the shots were fired from outside the jeep, passing through the windshield. However, he could not definitively prove that the shooting was not staged, as the KMT maintained.
As an American, I was surprised at the extent of the disclosure of President Chen and Vice President Lu’s wounds. Photos on TV, including CNN Asia, and in newspapers showed Chen and Lu being treated, including a close-up of Chen’s wound. I can’t imagine that kind of exposure in the U.S.
China Rattles a Saber and the U.S. Responds
So what about China’s response to the election? In mid-April, Vice President Dick Cheney met with PRC President Hu Jintao. The U.S.’ long-standing policy regarding Taiwan was reaffirmed: no U.S. support for Taiwanese independence; but, then again, “no” to China’s request to stop selling weapons to Taiwan. Cheney also raised the issue of the 500 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan as the justification for additional sales to Taiwan of military equipment.
On March 31, 2004, the Pentagon had announced it would sell Taiwan $1.78 billion in radar equipment to increase the nation’s ability to detect ballistic missiles. However, there is a U.S. motive in this, as the radar will be part of our nation’s new Asian network of defense, which could reshape the balance of power in the region. The sale is controversial in Taiwan. One has to ask what benefit Taiwan will receive from this early warning system, given the relatively short distance across the Straits.
Challenges Facing the Chen Government
The four years between the 2000 and 2004 elections have been difficult ones for Taiwan and for Chen’s DPP party. Some of the political hotspots for the DPP may sound familiar to us in terms of our own election year issues:
- Chen ran in 2000 with the promise of a set of new economic and social programs, all costly to implement. The very next year, Taiwan suffered its first recession in 30 years, so these had to be mostly deferred.
- Taiwan continues to be on the short end of economic exchange with China, even though China is the largest buyer of Taiwanese products. Billions of dollars in Taiwanese investments have flowed to the mainland, along with human resources. The effect of this is rising unemployment in Taiwan.
- Tourism from Taiwan to the mainland is not matched by a reverse of this, and tourists spend money when they travel, leaving it behind on the mainland.
As for what the KMT party stands for, it is a vast menu of how it can do everything better than the DPP, if only its party could resume power, along with constant criticism of every move Chen, Vice President Lu, or anyone else in the government makes.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the University of Michigan, sums up the political environment as follows: “There is nothing pragmatic about what’s happening in Taiwan (politically). Identity politics are rarely pragmatic — and rarely stoppable.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan continues to expand its network of “friends,” including significant numbers of U.S. Members of Congress and other interested people, such as myself. By “pushing the envelope” toward independence, Taiwan intends to be in the news on a regular basis.
One diplomat I talked with was candid enough to tell me that, in his opinion, the worst thing would be for Taiwan to pull back from the pathway it has chosen. If it did, he believes Taiwan would disappear from the thoughts and concerns of foreign leaders. Somehow, however, I don’t think this is going to happen!
While in Taiwan, I continued my ongoing mission of person-to-person contact in Asian countries that I visit. Whenever I was free from formal obligations, I went into the streets and talked with people of all ages, asking permission to photograph them. I also documented my experience of the election in photographs that appear here.
We live in a global media age. I have met very few people who would not
agree to participate with me. One young man said, “Say hello to the world for me!”
Taiwan still finds itself held back from its goals, including participation in the U.N., formal diplomatic recognition by most countries in the world, including the U.S., and other alliances most nations take for granted. Those interested in updates can consult the reliable sources listed below.
Sources consulted for this article:
This article copyright © 2005 Jane Walker Snider