On the day of his inauguration, Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui faced a crisis.
It was March 21, 1990. Less than a kilometer away from the Presidential Building, more than 20,000 people had assembled at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square to peacefully protest the undemocratic political situation in Taiwan; and by extension, Lee’s presidency. Many of the organizers were university students, and their activism sparked what is now known as the Wild Lily student movement.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War, the former ruling party of the mainland, the Kuomintang (KMT), was forced to escape the persecution of the Communist Party. It temporarily exiled itself to nearby Taiwan, which they renamed the Republic of China, and planned to eventually regain control of the mainland. When it became clear that this would not be possible, this momentary relocation became permanent.
With the arrival of the Kuomintang in 1949, Taiwan saw the beginning of decades’ worth of routine corruption, abuses of power, and human rights violations. By the time of Lee’s inauguration, Taiwan had morphed into an authoritarian one-party state, and had recently come out of an oppressive martial law period that lasted almost 40 years. Elections at all levels were especially fraudulent, and presidential ones featured only one candidate who was, of course, affiliated with the Kuomintang. The candidate was also not directly-elected. Instead, they were chosen by the National Assembly, the highly-biased and unprincipled legislative body of the country. This was how Lee had obtained Taiwan’s highest office.
The frustration of the Taiwanese people reached a boiling point on Lee’s inauguration day. However, to the surprise of the general populace, the new president reacted in an unexpected manner to the mass protests and sit-ins.
He invited some of the students over to the Presidential Building for a chat.
President Lee actually expressed his agreement with the protesters, and promised to usher in a new era of freedom and democracy for Taiwan. His decision to pursue dialogue and collaboration with civil society to promote progress—instead of violence and oppression as many of his predecessors had in the past—was a watershed moment in the island’s history. With subsequent political reforms, Taiwan went from being a harsh dictatorial state to one of the strongest democracies in Asia and the world. Lee would also later become Taiwan’s first directly-elected president when he successfully won a second term.
President Lee’s decisions, as well as those of his successors, demonstrated to the world how Taiwan would set a unique political precedent. A year earlier in China, a similar event had happened in Tiananmen Square. Though on a larger scale than their Taiwanese equivalent, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were performed in essentially the same manner as the ones in Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square—today renamed Liberty Square—and consisted mainly of peaceful protests and sit-ins with the objective of promoting more freedoms in the country. Yet China’s infamous response was much different than Taiwan’s, resulting in a government-led massacre where thousands lost their lives.
Taiwan today is mourning Lee’s passing on Thursday, July 30. Although this is a sad loss, this event also provides a powerful opportunity to reflect on how far Taiwanese democracy has come.
Current president Tsai Ing-wen expressed her condolences through many virtual and physical platforms. In a tweet, she commented that “[President Lee] laid the foundation for a democracy built on pride and our own identity, and his legacy will guide generations of Taiwanese to face the challenges ahead with courage.”
Today, Taiwan is a beacon of democracy and freedom—as well as a prominent defender of human rights—yet it still faces many domestic and foreign threats to its autonomy and social-political well-being. From global diplomatic alienation to hostile conflicts between many of the country’s political parties, Taiwanese democracy is currently under attack. However, the island has persevered through these challenges due to the continued efforts of the government and civilian society.
Domestically, the most significant challenge Taiwanese democracy faces is its sharp political divisions, especially between the island’s two main factions: the Pan-Blue Coalition and the Pan-Green Coalition. The former is led by the Kuomintang Party, who have been historically dominant but have begun to lose their popularity. The latter is led by the island’s current ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was founded in 1986 in retaliation to the oppressive nature of Taiwan’s then one party state.
Ideologically, the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party are polar opposites.
Although the Kuomintang has abandoned its initial desire to regain control of the mainland, it has remained firm—obsessively so—in asserting its allegiance to China. They are strong supporters of the One-China Policy, and vehemently believe that Taiwan is not an independent nation, but a part of China that has erroneously strayed away. A major basis for their argument is the well-known 1992 Consensus, which refers to a semi-official agreement made by KMT officials and the People’s Republic of China government during a meeting in 1992 which supposedly confirmed Taiwan’s connection to the mainland. However, the validity of this Consensus remains a highly-contentious topic, and there are many who dispute the KMT’s claims—including then-President Lee. He stated that the meeting was not conducted with his authorization, and that it held no significance.
“Why chant something that does not exist? Apparently it is in order to sing the same tune as China. Taiwan is Taiwan; China is China; the idea of ‘one China’ is an ancient concept,” said Lee during a speech at the 2015 Convention on the Action Plan for Constitutional Reform.
In contrast, the Democratic Progressive Party is a passionate proponent of the island’s independence and of “Taiwanization”—the consolidation of, and pride in, Taiwan’s unique cultural identity. This has allowed the DPP to become increasingly popular. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 66 percent of citizens identified themselves as only Taiwanese—as opposed to Chinese or a mix of both—which aligns with the DPP’s ideology. As a fairly liberal party, they have also greatly advocated for human rights and progressive causes. For instance, Taiwan is currently the most LGBTQ+ friendly country in Asia—and was the first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage. The DPP currently controls the presidency and holds the majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature.
Partisan conflicts between these two factions are too numerous to list, and often too extreme or preposterous to describe. Many of these conflicts are instigated by the KMT, who have been hostile, uncompromising, and increasingly resentful of the DPP’s rising dominance in recent years. For example, on June 29, 2020, several major Kuomintang officials snuck into the Legislative Yuan at night and occupied it as a form of protest against several reforms proposed by President Tsai. Most notably, they were displeased about the possible appointment of a top DPP aide to head a new human rights commission, an action they regarded as tyrannical. The KMT not only barricaded the Legislative Yuan, but later proceeded to destroy government property and engaged in brawls with members of the DPP and other parties.
The Kuomintang has also often resorted to directing many ad hominem attacks towards members of the DPP. For instance, President Tsai has been the target of multiple disparaging comments. In 2019, she suffered defamatory attacks from multiple KMT-affiliated scholars, who alleged that Tsai forged her doctorate certificate—a claim that has been disproved by both Tsai and her alma mater, the London School of Economics. However, many KMT party members continue to dispute Tsai’s high academic credentials in an attempt to diminish her credibility. In another instance, former Kuomintang party chairman Wu Den-yih mocked Chen Chu—a former political prisoner during the KMT’s dictatorship over Taiwan and the senior DPP figure President Tsai wanted to appoint as the head of the new human rights commission—and made derogatory comments about her capabilities and physical appearance, calling her terms such as “fatty” and “a big sow.”
Most prominently, partisan tensions have been seen in the elections. The recent 2020 presidential election saw the incumbent Tsai successfully re-elected to a second term in office. Tsai’s victory was against Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu, a charismatic and polarizing populist leader.
Han had previously been seen by his party as a rising star, having been elected mayor of Kaohsiung, a major Taiwanese city that has traditionally been fervent in its support of the DPP. He rose from relative obscurity very quickly, and built a devoted fanbase in the process: the ‘Han fans,’ known for their extreme support of Han, which has often manifested in vicious cyberharassment of his rivals. Yet only months into his new position, Han surprised the nation with his ambitious plans to run for president, and became increasingly negligent with his municipal duties. After his presidential defeat, frustrated Kaohsiung citizens voted to recall Han. The final results showed that 97.4 percent of voters were in favor of this, and in June, Han was forced to step down.
Tsai’s re-election was an important victory for Taiwan, and proof of the strength of the island’s democracy. Han has close ties to China and is a supporter of the 1992 Consensus. During his election campaign, he received more than 600,000 dollars in donations from Chinese Communist Party affiliates, and he previously met with CCP officials. Had Han been elected president, Taiwan’s sovereignty would have been undermined, and control over the island would have easily been granted to China. Tsai’s victory is a sign of bold national pride and defiance against the mainland from the Taiwanese people.
Internationally, Taiwan faces many challenges, including its lack of global diplomatic support and hostility from China, which has increased in recent years. In fact, under current President Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China has adopted an increasingly more confrontational foreign policy stance. One of the country’s main focuses is the full re-subjugation of Taiwan. China has become more militaristic and belligerent in its claims over the island, raising concerns over a potential forced annexation.
More than ever, it is necessary for the international community to be more assertive in its support of Taiwan. The island’s political status is currently ambiguous, but the reality is that Taiwan is already independent in every way possible. It is only the lack of definitive recognition from foreign countries—coupled with the major political-military threat that is China—that restricts Taiwan’s contributions to the world.
It is unlikely that Taiwan will achieve full recognition as an independent country any time soon due to the great complexity of the current international political situation. As the world’s second largest economy, China is also an important trade partner—one that many countries are unwilling to anger and lose over what they might regard as a ‘little island.’ Taiwan currently only has formal relations with 14 countries, most of which are small and lack major global influence.
China poses a major threat to Taiwan’s existence, and by extension, to democracy in Asia. If the People’s Republic of China were to successfully “re-unify” Taiwan with the mainland, the People’s Republic would not only be able to cement their control over the region and the South China Sea, but also spread their principles and increasingly dictatorial style of government to the island. Just like during the Kuomintang White Terror period, the rule of the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan would be an oppressive one. It would be characterized by a disregard for rights and liberties, as well as an intolerance for dissent—all which are already seen in the mainland. There are those who say that Taiwan could one day even be the next Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, it is evident that Taiwan is determined to remain strong in the face of adversity. For example, the island has been denied participation in most intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations for decades. It has even been defamed this year by World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for alleged racist remarks against his person, which have proven to be false and non-existent. Yet Taiwan has been helping the rest of the world amidst the coronavirus pandemic, establishing a positive relationship with the international community and extending humanitarian assistance to several regions. Taiwan has also not been idle in the face of China’s hostile behavior. The island has begun preparing for a potential future invasion, building up the nation’s defenses and engaging in military drills.
“I want to reiterate the words ‘peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue.’ We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo. [Taiwan stands] fast by this principle,” said President Tsai in a speech during her re-election swearing-in ceremony, affirming that Taiwan will always defend its sovereignty and its values wholeheartedly—no matter what it takes.
When Portuguese sailors passed by Taiwan in the mid-16th century, they were awe-struck by the magnificence of the territory’s natural landscape. In their earliest maps and documents, they recorded their finding, and named this new and mysteriously alluring land Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.”
Yet when looking at the progression of Taiwan, it is easy to see that the island’s beauty transcends that which is tangible. Beyond its physical characteristics and picturesque sights, the island’s long history of tenacity in the face of obstacles is inspiring. Despite alienation from the international community, as well as hostile domestic forces which threaten political unity within the country, Taiwan has remained strong in its commitment to its fundamental values, especially democracy. The greatest source of Taiwan’s beauty is its spirit, which is seen in its culture and its people, who constantly strive to defend and promote the island’s best interests.
Today, Taiwan is certainly still a beautiful island. And it always will be.