by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-Wen/Facebook
WITH CELEBRATIONS regarding the 30th anniversary of the end of martial law in Taiwan yesterday, perhaps what is called for in Taiwan is not self-congratulations, but a firm reminder of the long path which remains to be walked for democracy in Taiwan. Namely, for all talk about the completion of Taiwan’s democratic transition, there remain many ways in which Taiwan is still not democratic and Taiwanese democracy still continues to face an existential threat from China.
Since the end of martial law and the opening of free elections in Taiwan for members of legislature and the president, we have seen three political transitions of power in Taiwan, first from the KMT to the DPP with the victory of Chen Shui-Bian in his 2000 presidential run, then from the DPP back to the KMT with the victory of Ma Ying-Jeou, and back to the DPP again with the 2016 victory of Tsai Ing-Wen.
But this should evidence the peculiarity of Taiwan’s so-called democratic transition, that the former authoritarian party was allowed to continue to exist and participate in electoral politics. Namely, one of the unusual aspects of Taiwan’s democratic transition is that the former authoritarian party relinquished power willingly in order to avoid being forced to dissolve, and this is what has allowed the party to continue its designs on political power in Taiwan, as well as its efforts to realize the unification of Taiwan and China. Oftentimes, party members remain nostalgic for the former authoritarian period and prove willing to undermine democracy, as we see in efforts by the KMT to circumvent legislative oversight and pass the CSSTA into law in 2014 under the Ma administration, in which the CSSTA was forced through legislature in under thirty seconds through the series of events which prompted the Sunflower Movement.
Demonstrators gathered during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: 綠魚/Flickr/CC
While political scientists sometimes fear that should the KMT ever collapse, this will lead to an unhealthy and undemocratic one-party dominance by the DPP, one also does well to remember that the KMT in this way is also not a ”normal” political party which accepts the rules of the game, where democracy is concerned. So long as the KMT continues to exist, it will continue to prove a threat to Taiwanese democracy. The KMT is aided in this by the fact its clientelist political networks dating back to the authoritarian period remain unbroken in many parts of Taiwan, including key government bureaus and elements of the ROC military.
Likewise, until recently, the KMT was also aided by the vast party assets it possessed, dating back to land and property seizures made by the KMT from the authoritarian period. And, while the party is presently in the midst of an internal crisis which threatens to tear the party apart from within and increasingly facing public backlash, this is a fairly recent development. Despite the claim that Chen Shui-Bian’s presidential victory represented the realization of democracy in Taiwan and the first political transition of power, it was actually was only last year that, for the first time, a non-KMT political party constituted the majority party of the Legislative Yuan.
So it must remembered in asking the question of whether Taiwan hold onto its hard-earned democratic freedoms, Taiwan faces threats from within, and Taiwanese democracy is still a far more precarious phenomenon than many realize. Although the KMT does not seem set to make a comeback any time soon, even under new party chair Wu Den-Yih, political trends in former authoritarian East Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan indicate that former authoritarian actors can sometimes back a political comeback by organizing under a new banner, as seen in Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s descent from a political dynasty with a checkered legacy dating back to the Japanese empire or recently ousted South Korean president Park Geun-Hye literally being the daughter of the former military dictator of South Korea.
Lastly, this is not even to speak of the most pressing challenge for Taiwanese democracy of all, that China continues to claim Taiwan and the international community largely ignores this or even acquiesces to China’s actions because of how China dwarfs Taiwan. This proves the most fundamental threat of all for Taiwan, seeing as that while the people of Taiwan are able to stand up to the KMT and internal threats from Taiwan from within through voting or taking to the streets, China’s military and economic threat is harder to escape. Taiwan will need the support of the international community to force China to accept that the people of Taiwan do not wish a part of China.
And, again, while Taiwan faces threats from within from the KMT, which hopes to cling to political power in Taiwan and to realize the political unification of Taiwan and China, Taiwan’s own system of government binds Taiwan to China because of the Republic of China framework. This is something which will not allow Taiwan to break free of China so long as international governments acknowledge a One China Policy and Taiwan continues to be bound to claims that it is part of China through the juridical framework of the Republic of China.
No clear solutions have yet emerged for how Taiwan is to realize a more permanent form of independence either, seeing as Taiwan remains unacknowledged by the majority of the international community and international powers such as the United States use Taiwan as a geopolitical pawn against China when necessary but have proved highly unwilling to step up support of Taiwan. Perhaps Taiwan will need to find ways of securing its status in the world apart from simply depending on American imperial power, then.
In this way, the thirty year anniversary of the end of martial law should be a time for reflection, celebration, but also a sober reminder of what remains to be done in order to more fully realize or make more permanent democracy in Taiwan. Much work remains to be done.