Written by John Keane.

As recently as two decades ago, free and fair elections were unimaginable for most citizens of Taiwan. Ground down by martial law, public conformity ran deep. Those who refused the ruling power were punished, often harshly. Heads-down cynicism flourished. The regime had mastered the dark arts of rigging elections. State-sanctioned factions, connections and local gangsters (hēi dào) transferred resources to the people that mattered. And the Leader, despite his death in April 1975, seemed immortal. Chiang Kai-shek lived on everywhere, in official portraits, songs, documentaries, busts and statues, some of them so large that public spaces had to be redesigned. Against great odds, a miracle transformation nevertheless happened. Political arrangements presumed to be permanent began to feel contingent, temporary and alterable. Political choice, great choosing days, like the one happening this coming Saturday in Taiwan, no longer seemed a wild fantasy.

Citizen Protests

Which forces lay behind this miracle transformation? The geopolitical weakening of the Chiang Kai-shek regime, for instance the downgrading of the Republic of China within the United Nations, was surely a decisive factor. But, as in all democratic upheavals, a key driver of the change was a change of public heart: the spread of the conviction among citizens that they could take things into their own hands. Local Presbyterians were among the first citizens to resist the regime. They called upon the military government several times to respect human rights, freedom of religion and the entitlement to social justice. They urged full re-election of the national legislature and recognition of ‘the right of the people’ to determine their own future in ‘a new and independent country’.

These were brave words, which brought the secret police flocking to their chapels, but to no avail. Bit by bit, month by month, citizens’ resistance during the late 1970s began to cut the claws of the KMT state. A tattered string of open protests against election fraud led (in November 1977) to violent scenes at Chungli, where a flamboyant opposition candidate for county magistrate, Hsu Hsin-liang, was declared winner, denied victory by the government, then – after rioters wrecked a local police station – declared the winner. At Kaohsiung, a city on the southern coast of the main island, a large demonstration on International Human Rights Day (December 10th, 1979) produced martyrs when the city was shelled and its police rioted, killing and injuring scores of young civilian men and women.

Troubles doubled and began to spread, to the point where, by the mid-1980s, the KMT regime grew nervous, especially with the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It was soon to score the first of a string of electoral victories, by capturing the post of mayor of the capital city, Taipei. The party used well-targeted, witty, state-of-the-art campaigning methods, such as huge billboards featuring a smiling Mona Lisa and nativist themes (‘patching the broken fishing net’, ‘humble administration’, ‘have confidence in Taiwan’) that meant different things to different voters, especially when expressed in Taiwanese dialects, rather than the Mandarin used by the KMT authorities.

The founding of Taiwan’s first genuinely oppositional political party was fuelled by a deepening sense among citizens that public protests were now legitimate, and that they could achieve important results. The peaceful and self-disciplined qualities of the protests were remarkable. They displayed deep respect for the rule of law and they harboured a strongly experimental air, for example in the way they made use of temples as places of refuge, as public spaces where citizens could gather in safety, to feel stronger by getting to know each other better. A memorable example in the mid-1980s was the staging of unofficial election rallies by supporters of the ‘dăng wài’ (‘Outside the Party’) opposition movement. In west Taipei, they chose as their venue the wonderfully ornate, early nineteenth-century Buddhist temple at Longshan. It was a safe haven where the riot police did not dare show their face, for fear of upsetting the calm routines of local people gently chanting from scripts and praying for the health and well-being of their children, their families and loved ones. No one knew what the local goddess Guan Yin thought of the rallies that took shelter there, in her presence. Just one fact was plain: when ten thousand citizens huddled in solidarity in the temple courtyard, protected from water cannon and tear gas by bright flowers and sweet fruits, gongs and drums, candles and smouldering incense, they quickly learned the arts of citizen politics. They spoke a new political language, telling journalists, for instance, that what they wanted was a ‘civil society’ (gong min shehui) and a ‘democracy’ (minzhu) that enabled citizens (gongmin) to cast a free and fair vote – to throw a ticket (tou piao) as the Taiwanese like to say.

Cosmopolitanism

The new political language was incomprehensible to the ruling authorities. The KMT state tried to remain tough, like a bully losing his grip. Its thuggery served only to steel the resolve of many citizens, who were cheered by the growing visibility and numbers of supporters outside Taiwan. One very interesting thing about its democratisation is the way it could not have happened without long-distance, external support, from both governmental and civil society organisations. The active human rights diplomacy directed by the Carter administration against the KMT regime really mattered. So did the non-governmental overseas rescue network, as it came to be called. Bound together across borders by information that travelled through disguised ‘underground railroads’, the rescue network included many hundreds of initiatives, led by church groups, university links, Amnesty International letters and reports, press and media coverage, visits by lawyers to monitor political trials, as well as efforts by groups of exiles like the Formosan Association for Human Rights (based in New York) and the Taiwan Political Prisoner Rescue Association (based in Tokyo).

The effectiveness of these initiatives blessed the new democracy of Taiwan with cosmopolitan virtues. The strong sense among citizens that what was happening inside Taiwan was being co-determined by outside developments worked to neutralise moves to popularise simple-minded beliefs in ‘the nation’ and its right to a ‘sovereign state’. Nationalist rhetoric was conspicuous by its absence in the Taiwan transition. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, given the way (say) the Japanese conquerors of the past had unwittingly taught locals to suspect or detest talk of Nations and Enemies of the Nation. There was also the historical fact that prior to the arrival of Japanese colonisers, at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘Ilha Formosa’, or ‘Beautiful Island’, as Europeans called it, had been settled successively by Dutch, Spanish and Chinese forces. Hence the almost comical sequence of official and unofficial Chinese and English names given to the archipelago: province, nation, prefecture, China, Formosa, Free China, Nationalist China, Chinese Taipei and (most recently) the Republic of China.

Given this complex history, more than a few Taiwanese citizens clearly grasped their own fuzzy identity. Easy definitions of the Nation felt strange. It was as if they rejected the old European habit of worshipping and dying for their Country. Questions about who rightfully belonged to Taiwan, and why, were felt to be open questions, with no straightforward answers. Doctrines of racial or ethnic ‘purity’ – like that promoted by KMT rule, or by Beijing’s talk of One China – were to be doubted, feared and resisted. From the point of view of the democratic opposition, there was to be no ‘true’ Taiwan, simply because ‘Taiwan’ and ‘Taiwanese’ identity were felt to be power-ridden rhetorical terms.

There was a positive sided of this equation. ‘Taiwan’ was to be a place where many different ethno-national identities should freely live side by side. That point was courageously driven home, at the end of December 1984, during the last years of the KMT regime, by the formation of the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Aboriginal Rights. It was a civil society network that agitated for the right of the descendants of Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants to be publicly visible – to enjoy greater control over their lands and to be called by their tribal (non-Chinese) names. Respect for difference was also the theme of actions by the Malayo-Polynesian Tao people of Orchid Island, who on more than one occasion dressed up as ‘radioactive people’ to protest against the KMT decision to dump nuclear waste on an island famed for its natural scenery and butterfly orchids.

The right to be different equally motivated protests by Hakka people against the suppression of their language and culture, a right formally confirmed in 2003, when the first television channel broadcasting in Hakka came on stream. The general pattern was clear in the particulars: Hakka citizens were prepared to identify politically with ‘Taiwan’, a word despised by the KMT regime, but only on condition that it be used as an open signifier, a symbol and vision and reality whose meaning was to be kept incomplete, and not monopolised by any particular power group.

The overall point is worth underscoring: the historic significance of the Taiwanese people’s struggle for free elections against KMT rule was that it stood beyond the world of narrow-minded nationalism. It wasn’t a repeat performance of the old play called the Third World struggle for ‘national independence’. To the contrary: the resistance to cruel power in Taiwan was fuelled by a new form of ultra-modern or ‘outward-looking’ patriotism that favoured mutual respect and solidarity among the different settlers of the archipelago. The formula required and implied political innovations (reserved seats for indigenous peoples, for instance). It also required a civil society comprising many different senses of the meaning of being Taiwanese. It implied citizens’ right to live their differences within a polity that had room for newcomers, such as migrant workers from south-east Asia, well over a quarter of a million of whom landed on the shores of Taiwan after the defeat of the KMT dictatorship. In a phrase, Taiwan was to be a fire dragon fruit democracy: a self-governing polity whose colourful civil society resembled the huǒ lóng guǒ fruit, the fish-shaped melon with white flesh and black seeds and pink, green and yellow skin that grows in abundance on its soils.

The Sacred

Taiwanese citizens managed to build something else that was rather special in the history of democracy: a polity in which many people felt a common dependence upon the sacred yet refused a single organised religion. Something like a spiritually secular democracy resulted. Local democrats used methods – flowers, temples, processions, smiling Mona Lisas – that served to sanctify democracy. There was respect for people’s different personal senses of the sacred (shén shèng). In search of the Way, many citizens visited temples and frequented worship circles (jì sì quān) to expiate their wrongdoings, and to nourish their vital powers. Some citizens even liked to call on the gods and goddesses to help them out of a tight spot. For instance, citizens active in environmental politics referred often to the sea goddess of mercy, Mazu; and among more than a few citizens, there were plenty of lingering beliefs in ‘small ghosts’ (xiăo gŭi) and magic (wū shù).

The new Taiwanese democracy nevertheless dispensed with serious talk of trusting in God, or in goddesses and gods. It proved that a secular, this-worldly democracy – a shì sú xìng democracy – was possible. It was felt by millions of spiritually savvy Taiwanese that their country should be bound together not by a common religion, but by something much more tangible: suspicion of unaccountable power and deep respect for the practice and principles of human rights, including the right to free and fair elections.

Chen Shui-Bian, and Beyond

That at least was the way things were put by the politician Chen Shui-bian shortly after his successful presidential bid in mid-March 2000 – in a fierce but fair election that signalled the end of the KMT regime’s 55-year monopoly on governmental power. In his inauguration speech, the son of a poor tenant farmer and illiterate day labourer, dressed in a grey suit with a red tie, his wife Wu Shu-jen (disabled by an opposition assassination attempt in 1985) seated beside him in a wheelchair, pledged allegiance not to the flag, or to a God, but to the adherence of the Taiwanese government and its people to ‘rule by the clean and upright’, and to a peaceful way of life in which vote-buying, corrupt business and other ‘black gold’ practices would not be tolerated. Taiwan, he said, would commit itself to the vision of a multicultural archipelago. ‘We must open our hearts with tolerance and respect, so that our diverse ethnic groups and different regional cultures communicate with each other, and so that Taiwan’s local cultures connect with the cultures of Chinese-speaking communities and other world cultures.’ Chen Shui-bian went on to say that his country would support the best global trends of the twenty-first century. It would adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, incorporate international human rights covenants into domestic law, and establish – with the help of Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists – a National Human Rights Commission.

Such talk would later (in May 2006) skewer Chen Shui-bian. Both his political career and second term as president were ruined after he and his wife came under intense media and judicial scrutiny for their operation of a discretionary ‘state affairs’ fund used to conduct secret diplomacy. Chen Shui-bian was forced to resign from office, enveloped in allegations of money laundering and abuse of presidential authority. He ended up behind bars, where he remains until this day.

At the time of his inaugural speech, citizens’ reactions to his talk of a ‘human rights nation’ were divided and suitably ambiguous – as one would have expected of a democratic country that was not a country in any conventional sense. The majority of voters seemed to accept the many anomalies associated with some loosely defined, de facto ‘independent sovereignty’. They sided with the principles of human rights, and accepted (as Taiwan’s leading campaign strategist Luo Wen-chia put it to me several years later) that ‘although democracy may not always be the most efficient way of making decisions, it is a way of dividing and controlling power that helpfully prevents mistakes from being made while positively encouraging respect for human beings, their choices, beliefs and different ways of living, such as same-sex partnerships.’

The majority of voters embraced the fact that the shrinking army of Taiwan was dependent ultimately for its survival on American naval and air power. But they also expressed approval of another fact: that in the year 2000, around 50% of Taiwanese trade and investment was with China (according to local black humour, Taiwanese businessmen favouring unification with China supported the policy of ‘one country, two wives’). Only around a quarter of the voting population (the figure depended on the wording of opinion poll questions) favoured an outright declaration of independence; that figure dropped to around one-sixth of voters when it came to a formal change of the name ‘Republic of China’.

In the early years of the 21st century, and still today, not everyone agreed with the tricky geopolitical compromises of the new democracy. While many people seemed to accept that Taiwanese democracy resembled an evening television soap series, with constant script changes and everything shot at the last minute, some citizens bitterly disagreed and, accordingly, scrambled to scupper government plans that tried to preserve the status quo. Hard-core recidivists within the KMT, now forced to play the role of opposition or governing party in what had become basically a two-party system divided between ‘blues’ (the KMT and a splinter party or two) and ‘greens’ (the DPP and the pro-independence party TSU, led by a former KMT president, Lee Teng-hui), attacked Chen’s vision as a long-winded diversion from the immediate goal, the ‘return’ of Taiwan to its rightful owners, the regime run by the Chinese Communist Party. In response to ‘one-China’ talk, some Taiwanese politicians, government officials, businesses and citizens meanwhile thought of themselves as engaged in a struggle for ‘independence’. In the face of opposition from the government of China, some even dared to talk defiantly of ‘sovereign independence’.

The two apparently contradictory viewpoints were in fact cut from the same cloth. Both indulged the originally European, early modern belief that democracy can only survive in territorial states that are ‘sovereign’, in the sense that those who govern a population within a given territory have the ultimate say, backed up by their monopoly over guns, police and the army. Both positions failed to grasp the historical novelty of the new Taiwanese democracy. By the early years of the 21st century, Taiwan was a post-nationalist, spiritually secular democracy blessed with both free elections and a lively mix of different identities that managed to survive its transition, all of this within a region brimming with armed states hungry for territory and resources.

Democracy and Security

But (many asked) what would protect democracy made in Taiwan from local predators? It is important to recall when answering this question that democracies survive and best thrive within what Karl Deutsch and others long ago called a ‘security community’. In other words, democracies require a like-minded group of democracies that share some sense of community and sets of overlapping institutions. These mechanisms must be sufficiently strong to withstand internal and external ‘shocks’, so guaranteeing with a fair measure of probability, over a fairly long period of time, that peaceful co-ordination and change can take place among the members of the group, who can settle their differences without sabotage and war.

Only a handful of democracies have escaped this ‘security community’ rule. One of them was the new American republic, which managed to democratise itself during the first half of the nineteenth century, thanks to loose and shifting military alliances and the protection afforded by two oceans in the age of muskets and wind-powered ships. Taiwan was different. It was not describable in terms of the American or any other pathway to ‘sovereignty’. It was an entirely new democracy, with post-sovereign features.

Born of struggles to shake off two imperial powers (Japan and China), Taiwan was a democratic orphan with diverse parents. Enjoying free and fair elections, it was the resultant of many intersecting forces, both at the level of government and civil society. The upshot was that its identity as a political unit remained permanently controversial. That also made it unique. Thanks to such forces as the American 7th Fleet, doing business with China, diplomatic recognition by several handfuls of states and vigorous ‘soft power’ efforts to make its presence felt in the affairs of the world, Asia’s orphan managed to do more than survive. It came to thrive, as a new type of democracy determined to show the wider region, and the whole world, that great choosing days still really matter.

John Keane is Professor at the University of Sydney. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.