Written by Ben Goren.

Taiwan’s democracy has been called many things.  First it was a ‘budding’ phenomena erupting at the end of the Cold War, then it grew unsteadily into an ‘immature’ and unpredictable entity, and now, according to much international commentary, it has grown to reach the milestone (or millstone?) of being ’young’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘rigourous’.  These standard descriptions are found in much analysis of Taiwanese politics and history. They are also almost entirely wrong, or at the very least limited and misleading.

A basic mistake when examining what Taiwanese democracy is, is to start in the 1970s. Misunderstanding Taiwanese history can undermine efforts to determine why democracy is so important to Taiwanese people, and why so many Taiwanese march the streets. The ideological and cultural roots of democracy movements and civic home rule in Taiwan first took hold in the early 20th century during the Japanese Colonial Period. It is in the 1920s and 1930s that we see, (alongside increased literacy, industrialisation, and the implementation of nation-wide transport, communications, and media), the rise of Taiwanese economic, and cultural, elites and the blooming of a number of social and political organisations which took an active interest in contemporary issues of social and economic rights, local self governance, as well as international trends in geopolitics and ideology.

These early Taiwanese ‘active citizens’ were faced with a seemingly implacable and permanent status as colonial subjects of the Japanese Emperor.  Nevertheless, they organised, discussed and they put pressure on the ‘local authorities’ for reform. On his only visit to Taiwan at the time, Dr Sun Yat-sen was struck by the high level of discourse and organisation.  Likely one of the reasons he advocated independence and democracy for Taiwan (and Korea) was because he saw that they were ready for it and wanted it. Despite this, Taiwanese were stuck in the position of a native people petitioning their foreign colonial administrators for a greater say, both economically and politically. The Japanese, for their part, failed to understand the benefits to the Empire of providing greater freedoms for Taiwanese, and were worried it would set an unwelcome precedent for similar claims in their other holdings.

Whilst limited in impact, these democracy pioneers in Taiwan, most notably Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), left a legacy of active citizenry seeking emancipation and participation. Accused of violating security laws, Chiang was first incarcerated in 1923 after he united students and social leaders under the banner of the Taiwan Cultural Association in opposition to Japanese colonial policies.  In 1927, he founded the Taiwan People’s Party, the nation’s first political party, and also went on to help play a part in the New Taiwan Alliance and the Taiwanese Labor Alliance in a quest for a more liberal and independent Taiwan. He was jailed 12 times during his lifetime and was later lauded as “the saviour of Taiwanese” when he died in 1931 at the age of 40.  It is a sign of Taiwan’s difficult, compromise-ridden road to democracy, and as yet uncompleted process of transitional justice, that statues of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek are still ubiquitous across Taiwan today yet Chiang Wei-hsui remains a marginal and relatively unknown figure.

By the latter half of the 1930s, the Second World War had enveloped Taiwanese lives and relegated issues such as democracy and self-determination to the back burner. They were arguably then reanimated by the end of Japanese rule and the protests of February and March 1947. Chinese Governor of the time Chen Yi interpreted Taiwanese demands for stable, relatively uncorrupt, and effective governance as a direct challenge on the authority of the State. Chen misunderstood and hugely underestimated Taiwanese capacity and desire for effective civic engagement with their ruling administration.

Over in China, Chiang Kai-shek, embroiled in a losing fight with Mao’s communists and mired in paranoia, perceived Taiwanese civil disobedience against Chen Yi’s administration as an existential threat – Taiwanese who criticised the Government were all communist spies and insurgents, constituting another front in the civil war.  Chiang ordered dispatched soldiers to ‘kill them all’, setting off a democide which ended in the imprisonment, torture, and death of tens of thousands of Taiwanese, many of them social elites such as civil servants, doctors and teachers.  Many of them died just for asking that the democratic provisions contained in the Republic of China Constitution be put into practice.

Like Chen, Chiang did not understand Taiwanese history from a Taiwanese perspective, and he did not seem to be aware of the substantive development in social  and civic movements that had occurred during the Japanese Colonial Period.  Had he known that literacy per capita in Taiwan in 1945 was far higher than in China, and that the democratic institutions built into the new ROC Constitution would have likely had a better chance of functioning effectively than in civil-war torn China, perhaps he would have chosen to also implement the Constitution in Taiwan when it was declared ratified on January 1st 1947. Instead, Chiang regarded Taiwanese as provincial, inferior, not yet ready for constitutional rule, and tainted by Japanese colonialism.

Chiang’s assimilationist nation-building education policies, authoritarian control of all public expression, and lethal penalties awaiting anyone caught actively engaging in any non party-state approved political activities, were rooted in a geopolitical strategic need to maintain the fiction that the Republic of China was still the legitimate and viable representative polity of the Chinese nation and people. For Chiang, the ROC Constitution was the definitive symbol of Taiwan’s identity as a province of China. Chiang felt it was already democratic and was, according to standard procedure, ‘frozen’ owing to the need for martial law in a time of national crisis. Criticisms of Chiang from Taiwanese seeking to play a role in their own governance were interpreted as a form of subversion. Taiwanese were marginalised and denied political participation by the new occupying administration to a much greater extent than had been the case before the war. In turn, Chiang’s policies did not eradicate opposition but rather engendered it, in the rarified and fleeting places that it could survive and grow. Chiang had put Taiwanese back in the position of a native people petitioning their foreign colonial administrators for a greater say, except that this time petitioning was ‘inconvenient’ and public demonstrations banned. The White Terror period buried Taiwanese democratic activism for a generation, but did not kill it.

Civic activism in Taiwan re-emerged again in the 1960s and 1970s. It began as a collection of civic movements based on issues not directly related to the Government, such as environmental damage (perhaps something similar is happening in China today?). Under rising domestic and international pressure Chiang Ching-kuo eventually legalised opposition parties and created the political space for the actual full implementation of the constitution of the ROC on Taiwan for the first time.  After he died, under the stewardship and direction of his successor President Lee, Taiwan’s ruling and new opposition parties hashed out a piecemeal reform that froze parts of the 1949 ROC Constitution, added additional articles, and crucially made legislators and the President directed elected from the Taiwanese people.  For the first time, Taiwanese had achieved some semblance of the ‘home-rule’ and self-determination they had been seeking for close to a hundred years. They had their own Parliament and President, and both were in theory accountable directly to Taiwanese voters via regular elections.

This the point where conventional narratives of democratic development in Taiwan usually stop, but the level, depth, and frequency of social, political, and economic activism of the last five years in Taiwan begs us to investigate further.

In a recent paper, Hung Chin-fu examines the role of the internet and information communication technologies (ICT) in enabling the revival of civic movements in Taiwan. He does so using the example of a case of military abuse that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, damaged the Government’s reputation, forced the resignation of a Minister of Defence, and led to changes in the penal code and system for military personnel convicted of crimes.

Hung argues that a small group of less than forty people were able to utilise ICT to raise awareness and mobilise vast numbers of the public in protest. ICT in this instance played a pivotal role in providing an alternative media narrative to support the protest and provide meaning for passive observers on the issue. This narrative was generated by a combination of citizen journalists and netizen ‘clicktivism’. Hung writes that,

These activists engaged in increased online public deliberations, raising general awareness on public social issues, and eventually attempted to organise demonstrations and rallies offline …The Hung Chung-chiu case exemplifies how the concepts of the public sphere and of civic participation are not simply discussed but are increasingly realised in practical new social movements in Taiwan.

Importantly, the protests were neither initiated by the Government nor the main opposition parties, but were entirely grass roots manifestations. The author notes how the Hung case was initiated in cyberspace, relayed by mainstream media, then reinforced on the net. A growing shared sense that Taiwan’s media climate is self-censoring to please China has left many young and middle class Taiwanese concerned that their democratic institutions are once again failing or falling prey to elite interests. In return, rather than source news from pro-China and pro-KMT media such as TVBS, China Times, or UDN, active citizens, particularly students, are making their own media content and news productions, free of self-censoring or filtering for political sensitivity. Critically, these active citizens enjoy in cyberspace a freedom and ability to react quickly, spread news, and mobilise as events change on the ground.

This technological empowerment might be one reason why Taiwanese may be more actively engaging with issues such as government land expropriation, Nuclear Power, political accountability and participation, and transparency in negotiations with China, and at the same time becoming less tolerant of government maladministration and the impotence of their mainstream democratic institutions. When Taiwanese are informed, they are both vocal and active participants across a whole range of issues, many of which share the key element of being ‘citizen-wide’ issues that affect a majority of people.

Combining a relatively liberal media environment and networking through ICT, Taiwanese have more information than ever before and they are using that information to question their Government, and to enter into a dialogue with their democracy.  Such was the success of netizens following the 318 Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan, and then the street occupations by anti-Nuclear groups, that the Government admitted a lack of ICT capacity to frame the online debate was the reason they were failing to maintain ‘social order’ and neutralise public discontent with their policies. In response, they ordered the National Police Administration to set up special internet units to ‘monitor’ opinion and activity, and ‘correct’ misinformation, and they have moved to institute preventative detention for political activists. By reflexively swinging towards authoritarian information control, the Ma Government has demonstrated that it too doesn’t understand Taiwanese history and the Taiwanese desire for ever greater accountability and democratic participation.

Hung points out that past activism in Taiwan was mostly ‘driven by forces of militarism, industrialisation, and democratisation’. Today, Taiwanese activists are in part driven to push back against forces of emasculation: an electoral system that allows a major national or local vote only once every four years, a referendum system that makes initiating and passing plebiscites almost impossible, an opposition party until recently riven by factions, egotism, and gamesmanship, and a seemingly permanent KMT legislative majority willing to block every policy and law of opposition administrations, then contemptuously treat Parliament like a rubber-stamp when it is in power.

If there is one thing that Taiwanese have wanted since the concept of democracy first arrived in the country, it is the right and ability to be represented, to be heard, and to be actively consulted and involved in the running of their communities and nations. In the case of Hung, they made themselves heard and they forced their Government to respond. ICT gave social movements such as Citizen 1985 informational and logistic potency – and in return it gave its followers a genuine sense of participation, involvement, and influence. It gave them a sense of emancipation.

Taiwanese democracy is evolving and Taiwanese citizens are shaping it with netizen ‘clicktivism’ – they are using ICT to add a new dimension to the existing stymied political structures and institutions and they are gaining more control from the Government and media of political, social, and economic narratives. The increasingly, reactionary, strident, and panicked noises in defence of ‘traditional democracy’ emanating from Government allied Mayors, the Premier, and other KMT officials suggests that the active citizens are winning. The danger is that they provoke an ever harsher and disproportionate response from a resurgent party-state fearful of losing control over the national policy agenda, or losing power altogether.

Taiwanese democracy is not ‘young’. It strived for life for over eighty years before it became finally became manifest. Even then, it emerged in spite of a process of democratisation whereby the KMT negotiated to yield as little direct voter or citizen influence on the corridors of power as possible. Taiwan’s ‘Compromised Democracy’ emerged and struggled to embed itself but it did eventually thrive, featuring (alongside the occasional brawl in the Legislative Yuan) a full peaceful transition of power, as well as more constitutional reforms that activated (albeit in a birdcage manner) clauses for referendums found in the Constitution. Taiwan’s democracy today, in just a generation, now resembles the ‘advanced’ democracies of other long-established nations. Taiwan is as much beset by the same kind of problems other democratic nations experience: a lack of real representation in the electoral system, institutional inertia, the capture of the State by plutocratic and oligarchic interests, self-censoring corporate media, and a declining and tightening environment in terms of freedom of dissent and protest.

The rise of ICT and the direct democracy of social movement active citizenry is arguably now having an evolutionary influence upon Taiwan’s democracy, taking it upon a new trajectory, one that many other ‘developed democracies’ have yet to explore. Perhaps then, it is time commentators stopped patronising and mischaracterising Taiwan’s democracy and instead give it a description that is up to date and accurate. “Taiwan is a developed nation with an ‘advanced’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘digital’ democracy”.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan, one of the most prominent blogs on Taiwan in English. He tweets@BanGaoRen.