Written by John Keane.

For democrats, made in Taiwan is a seductive brand with definite global appeal. ‘Through the promotion of its democratic ideals’, says a stylishly confident pamphlet published recently by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Taiwan has managed to build a significant amount of soft power around the world.’ The truth buried in these words is about to be put to the test. In just over a week, a great choosing day is happening within a remarkable polity whose citizens, twenty years ago, against all odds, defeated a military dictatorship and have since become rather good at supporting free and fair elections, and making the results stick.

Taiwanese citizens seem to have a passion for politics. Some of them are disgruntled. The Sunflower activists who occupied the national parliament earlier this year are not the only citizens disaffected with the way things are heading. More than a few Taiwanese are convinced their politicians are too soft on China, and that, if nothing is done, Taiwan will one day soon find itself trapped in the arms of a giant panda despatched from the Beijing Zoo. Their anxiety helps explain why Taiwanese citizens take elections seriously, and why they’re such clangorous affairs. Although razzamatazz could easily have been a political word made in Taiwan, public support for the highly professional Central Election Commission runs high, as does citizens’ support for a multi-party system, which seems to quicken their senses. Little wonder: in the tiny archipelago that is not a sovereign country, voters over 20 years of age enjoy real choices among pan-blue (KMT) and pan-green (DPP) candidates with quite different views about many issues, including the most serious matter of all: the smouldering tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

The ‘nine-in-one’ mega-elections are to be held on November 29th. The campaigns are in full swing. Although the presidential and parliamentary elections aren’t happening until 2016, and while these November elections are confined to local government (they are called ‘nine-in-one’ because they affect its nine tiers, from township and county chiefs and councillors through to municipal councillors and mayors), they have a much wider significance, for several reasons.

Most obviously, the great choosing day will mark the twentieth anniversary of the surprise victory of Chen Shui-bian, the first directly elected mayor of Taipei whose triumph in 1994 upset the balance of forces in Taiwanese politics and helped break the back of a nasty military dictatorship. The November 29th elections will also provide an indirect verdict on the performance of the KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, who has tried lately to rescue his damaged reputation with cleverly crafted statements in support of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, laced with hints about the need for China to embrace free elections and to abandon the current ‘one country, two systems’ principle. “Democracy, which people in Hong Kong are pursuing,‘ he told the New York Times recently, ‘already exists in Taiwan’.

The bold rhetoric may turn out to be too little too late, for many Taiwanese citizens have come to suspect that his whole foreign policy approach has been much too soft on Beijing. The nine-in-one elections are in this sense a plebiscite on President Ma’s performance, as well as a test of the level of public support for his KMT party’s candidate for the mayor of Taipei, Sean Lien. Up against an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je, who is supported by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Sean is at the moment trailing badly. Hence his use of every trick in the political book: throwing thick muck at his opponent; wheeling out his smiling wife at every photo opportunity; and sidling up to President Ma Ying-jeou, who doubles as chairman of the KMT. Sean is also playing up his personal battle with cancer and his recovery from a mistaken assassination attempt in 2010; and saying repeatedly that the coming election is nothing but a choice for the KMT in the 2016 presidential election.

The coming mega-elections are significant for yet another reason: they will decide who runs the bustling capital city of Taipei. In Taiwanese politics, the political importance of the struggle to win the Taipei mayorship is hard to overestimate. Since the beginning of the transition to democracy two decades ago, every candidate who became elected mayor of Taipei went on to become president. The fascinating thing is that this time things may turn out differently. Taipei has traditionally been a KMT stronghold, but not much is currently going right for the KMT’s Sean Lien. Not only is he trailing badly in the polls to an independent, Ko Wen-je, who is being backed in turn by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Waiting in the wings, cleverly biding her time, is Tsai Ing-wen, the chair of the opposition DPP, her eyes fixed firmly on becoming the first-ever directly elected woman president of Taiwan.

Then there is the vexed question of the cross-straits relationship. The nine-in-one elections give a brand new meaning to Walt Whitman’s poetic description of the ‘swordless conflict’ of voting, the ‘choosing day’ when a ‘ballot-shower from East to West’ flings citizens temporarily into the subjunctive tense, confronting them with hard choices about how, from that moment on, they are to live their daily lives. A ballot shower from the East is indeed heading towards mainland China. It could even be said that these nine-in-one elections are a re-enactment or repeat performance of the umbrella uprising that has gripped Hong Kong during the past few months. With a bit of luck, barring unforeseen violence, corruption or fiddled results, these elections will arrow a simple but powerful message in the direction of Beijing: ‘Comrades, citizens, friends, please take note! Look how we practise free and fair elections in our region of the world. Join us. Grant free and fair elections not just to the citizens of Hong Kong. Extend votes for the highest political levels throughout the whole territory of the People’s Republic of China.’

Among the surprise political developments of the final decades of last century was the birth of a lively young democracy on a thickly forested, densely populated archipelago in the East China Sea. It came to be known as Taiwan. The archipelago was once called Asia’s orphan (Wú Zhoúliú), and for a good reason. Born of a heavily militarised region hostile to constitutional government, Taiwan managed to survive, using many different names: China, Formosa, Free China, Nationalist China, Chinese Taipei and the Republic of China. As this week’s local elections will confirm, Taiwan managed something else: it demonstrated that democracy with ‘Asian’ characteristics was possible, even that democracy had distinctively indigenous ‘Asian’ roots.

The Taiwanese experiment was, and remains, a major challenge to textbook treatments of democracy. It defied the rule that secularism is a functional pre-requisite of democracy. It contradicted the old belief that democracy cannot live happily with multi-cultural ways of life. Democracy made in Taiwan also challenged Orientalist prejudices. It showed that ‘Asians’ were not by nature deferential to superiors, or condemned by poverty to superstition; and it discredited the bigoted view, today propagated from Beijing and elsewhere in the region, that fair and free elections promote political disorder, or that the word ‘democracy’ (mín zhŭ) is a synonym for Western bumbling and conceit, gambling and prostitution, family breakdown and other forms of social decadence.

Taiwan had another, larger significance. It turned out to be remarkable above all in its defiance of the modern textbook rule that democracy could only survive in a ‘country’ defined by a strong sense of homogeneous national unity and sovereign territorial borders. The Taiwanese population, a diverse people living on islands without an internationally recognised state, defied the gravity of so-called realist politics. The Taiwanese experiment confirmed that the issue of official statehood did not first have to be resolved in order for democracy to be possible. Representative democracy and sovereign territorial statehood, it showed, were conjoined twins that could be separated. Taiwan resembled a laboratory whose people embarked on a lonely search for a new solution to a problem that first appeared among the scores of self-governing city states in the early years of Greek assembly democracy: the problem of whether a democracy could in practice create and maintain a wider peaceful environment, that is, a ‘security community’ in which the scavengers of violence, fear and war are not welcome.

The Taiwanese experiment with democracy was something of a miracle. It was born of war, military conquest and colonial rule. The whole process started during the period of Japanese colonisation that lasted from 1895 (when the Qing Dynasty handed over the archipelago as a spoil of war) until 1945. Colonisation brought violence and bossing and the enforced assimilation of subjects usually associated with imperial rule. But, from the point of view of democracy, Japanese rule also produced some ironic effects, with long-lasting implications. It had the unintended consequence of ‘nationalising’ local identities. A certain feeling among the local educated elites of being ‘Taiwanese’ (dái wán láng) was strengthened, along with some aspirations for self-rule. There was some talk of the nation (min zoku) and popular sovereignty (min-pon shugi) and self-rule (the Japanese term jichi was used for this) and the right of people to participate in politics (sansei ken). In 1920, a Movement for the Establishment of the Taiwan Parliament was born. It dared even to petition the Imperial Diet in Tokyo, which had the effect of stimulating the strong growth of local associations and factions (some of which had antecedents in traditional Chinese associations, known locally as hùi guăn). Compliments of the Japanese, local elections arrived; the first was held in 1935.

While the bulk of the aboriginal and settler population had not been drawn fully into the resistance to Japanese imperial rule, it was plain that the seeds of non-violent, constitutional government were planted locally, by the efforts of the people of Formosa, as they were still called at the time. The sentiments stood them in good stead for the painful history that awaited their archipelago. With the crushing surrender of Japan after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Formosans were handed over by the Allies to the Kuomintang government of Generalissimo Chiăng Kài-shék. The change was at first welcomed locally, but his rule quickly proved unpopular. On February 28, 1947 it sparked an island-wide uprising that was eventually crushed through a murderous campaign (the so-called ‘Countryside Sweep’) waged by Chiăng Kài-shék’s KMT troops. The wanton cruelty and violence, in which at least twenty to thirty thousand people died, prefigured something much worse: the arrival of between one and two million refugees (the local population was around six million) and Chiăng Kài-shék’s army of 600,000 troops after their defeat by the communist forces of Mao Zedong in 1949, the year of the ox.

So began nearly four decades of White Terror – the twentieth century’s longest unbroken period of martial law. The Chinese nationalist government of Chiăng Kài-shék resembled an over-sized Leviathan. It was a garrison state apparatus bent on rooting out and destroying all local resistance, in preparation for the day when it would return to the Chinese mainland, to replace the communists and govern an empire that would include 600 million Chinese people, plus Tibetans and Mongolians.

These were of course times of Cold War. Dictators using ruthless – communist and fascist – methods of rule were welcome in the world of democratic freedom, so long as they did not call themselves communists or fascists. There was naturally a ticket required to enter the gates of freedom. Dictators had to be seen to be on the side of liberty. This meant signing up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and choosing a good name for the state – Formosa was blessed with the democratic-sounding Republic of China – as well as allowing a good measure of private property and market freedom, crowned by the staging of periodic – rigged – elections.

The colonised population of the archipelago proved to be no pushover. Elections, even though they were held only at the local level, kept alive memories of past struggles against the Japanese. They had the added effect of extending a hand of hope by encouraging people to imagine the day when the nationalist KMT dictatorship got its comeuppance. The military regime did its best to ensure that its day of reckoning was a long time coming. Protected from Mao’s China by the US Seventh Fleet, the KMT constitution was used as if it were a book of instructions issued by the Generalissimo and his faithful officials. There was lifelong tenure for Him and for some two thousand KMT parliamentarians, who claimed (following elections on the Chinese mainland in 1948) to represent the will of their constituents in support of the only ‘legitimate government of China’. The death penalty was brought in for the designated crimes of rebellion and trouble making. Local religious bodies, such as Yī Kuàn Tào and the popular Buddhist Nichiren sect, were treated like worms in the guts of the body politic. A blanket ban on visits abroad, especially to visit relatives on mainland China, was enforced. Everyone aged fourteen or older was required to carry an ID card at all times, or otherwise run the risk of being carted away as a ‘communist agent’. Billboards were splattered with messages like ‘Caution! A spy is by your side!’

Nets of suspicion were cast widely, so that imprisonment was sanctioned for ‘knowing but not reporting bandits’. That commitment to eradicating enemies meant that virtually all friends and every household and workplace were placed under suspicion. Fear spread through the body politic. Those who grassed on their fellow citizens, or who made false accusations, were rewarded with thirty per cent of the assets of the convicted dissident (thirty-five per cent was awarded to personnel actually handling the case, so increasing the chances that sycophants and other law-abiding subjects would strike it rich by proving that crime paid after all). Anyone suspected or accused of favouring local ‘independence’ from mainland China was treated harshly. Plainclothes police, telephone tapping, mail inspection, the fabrication of facts, and trumped-up accusations were their lot. Whole families and villages were rounded up. There were disappearances. More than a few citizens were tortured. Plenty were murdered. Some were buried secretly in unmarked graves. Not even lovers were safe, as the tragic fate of Sū Sū-hsiá showed. Su was a talented young entertainer whose dalliance with an advocate of independence for Taiwan, the musician Tsēng Kuó-yīng, attracted the sexual jealousy of a secret agent who had been shadowing the couple. He promptly arranged for the arrest and imprisonment of Sū Sū-hsiá’s lover. Trapped in a cat’s cradle of fear and violence, she bravely secured the release of Tsēng by marrying the secret agent. He quickly grew nasty at her blanket bedtime refusals, so leaving her with no free choice except that of committing suicide.

Christian missionaries were meanwhile banned from carrying on their work in local vernacular languages, such as Hoklo, Hakka and several aboriginal tongues. Communication media were heavily controlled. In general, the regime did everything it could to turn journalists into hierophants, guardians and enforcers of the mysteries of state. In the name of conserving paper, newspaper production runs were strictly controlled. Magazines and publishers suspected of disloyalty were closed down; in one year alone (1969), 4.23 million copies of ‘bad publications’ were burned, buried or shredded. Private radio stations were banned; official radio stations were controlled with heavy hands; and all listeners were required to register for a user’s licence and to pay a monthly fee.

School textbooks and materials were vetted. Bans were slapped on so-called effeminate songs, local folk music and any tunes that were inclined to social realism. The KMT regime did everything it could to define and exterminate what it called ‘red poison, yellow harm, and black crime’ (communist, pornographic, and gangster influences). It even waged a war against bodily resistance to power. It tried to get under people’s skin, beginning with young people at school. Men’s hair could not be longer than one centimetre. Girl’s hair that crept over their ears was not permitted. The regime was otherwise even-handed in matters of appearance: hirsute young men in bell-bottomed trousers and mini-skirted young women with funky hair were equally subject to arrest and imprisonment, or worse.

There was a local saying that those who create enemies pay high prices. So it was with the Kuomintang regime. Its unexpected moment of reckoning came with its enforced withdrawal (in 1971) from a seat on the United Nations Security Council and, the following year, the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing for the purpose of negotiating an end to two decades of frosty relations between the United States and China. Opening the UN door to Communist China signalled the end of an era.

From that moment, the regime of Chiăng Kài-shék suddenly lost its raison d’être. It became the orphan of Asia. Its relations with Mao’s China grew tense. Once more, the settlers of Taiwan found themselves playthings of big powers. The effect was to embolden many Taiwanese citizens, to make them see they were now on their own, and that taking things into their own hands, for instance demanding free and fair elections, was not just desirable, but a life-and-death imperative.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. This article was originally published in two parts on The Conversation. Read the original article here and here.

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