The Poison Pill of Taiwan’s Democracy

I was transfixed by the elections in Taiwan last weekend as KMT incumbent Ma Ying-jeou won by a 6 point margin over DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen. It was gratifying to see how stable and mature  Taiwan’s democracy has become. Taiwan now has a genuine two-party system with campaigns that seriously debate ideas and compare ideologies in a sometimes raucous carnival atmosphere that allows everybody to let off steam. The island’s voters were split 52-46, as compared to about 58-42 the last time around. This is a huge advance from the beginnings of the Taiwan democracy that I observed as as a reporter based in Taipei in the late 1980s.

In those days, a very corrupt and arrogant KMT ruling party had control of the media, unlimited campaign funds and an increasingly unconvincing argument that since the KMT had brought prosperity, without the KMT prosperity would disappear and the island would dissolve into chaos. They faced a very clever band of former exiles and political prisoners who formed the Democratic Progressive  Party and employed satire and political theatre to expose KMT hypocrisy and begin cracking away at the ruling party edifice.

I have dredged up a column I wrote after the 1989 elections in which the DPP gained a toe-hold in the legislature and scored significant wins for county magistrate posts. Here we are 22 years later, the DPP has come and gone from power, elections forced the KMT to clean up its act, and Taiwan has the first functioning democracy in the history of the Chinese people. I feel privileged to have watched the beginnings of this process, and the Chinese people should be proud of what the people in Taiwan have accomplished.

Democracy Is Taiwan’s Best Defense Against China

By James McGregor

6 December 1989

The Wall Street Journal

(Copyright (c) 1989, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)

TAIPEI — Where does Taiwan go from here?

The ruling Nationalist Party is still in shock over Saturday’s elections in which the opposition Democratic Progressive Party overcame a stacked deck and scored impressive victories. The DPP, a fractious group led by former political prisoners and fueled by public discontent, seems confused whether to celebrate its victory or scream about alleged election fraud in several races it lost.

Both sides now face the awesome task of putting aside decades of hate and fear to figure out a way to work together. And this must be done quickly: The elections have created a volatile brew. Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, the country’s lawmaking body, is primed for an ugly explosion over whether Taiwan should declare itself independent of ties to China or seek a formula for peaceful coexistence.

When the next session opens in January, the 163 life-term Nationalist lawmakers who have been frozen in office since 1947 elections on the mainland will be joined by 130 lawmakers chosen by voting and appointments last weekend. Within this group of 130 are eight DPP lawmakers elected on a platform of Taiwan’s declaring independence, and 18 Nationalist lawmakers who are the sons and daughters of Chinese who fled to Taiwan from the mainland with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. This group of second-generation mainlanders is determined to develop a way to reunify Taiwan and China.

In local government, the DPP has won six of Taiwan’s 16 county magistrate positions. So DPP politicians in these powerful posts now will have a big say in the lives of seven million of Taiwan’s 20 million citizens. The DPP says it plans to use these magistrate positions to harass the national government. Thus, Taiwan is set to have a legislature paralyzed with fighting about reunification or independence, and administrative branches of government more concerned with infighting than solving the island’s practical problems.

As is usual in Taiwan, the average citizens are way ahead of their government. Voters interviewed during the campaign and since the voting say they were seeking to establish a two-party system. Their foremost concerns are stability and furthering the island’s economic development while solving the problems of horrible pollution, a soaring crime rate, rampant financial speculation and an antiquated infrastructure that provides a quality of life that is far from commensurate with the citizenry’s $7,200 per-capita income.

Voters here seem to realize something else that has yet to dawn on this island’s politicians: A functioning democracy can provideTaiwan with an effective poison-pill defense against China. If Taiwan can develop full democracy in the next few years, China has good reason to keep the island at arm’s length. The last thing China’s rulers want is to absorb an island where people are accustomed to speaking their minds and electing their government representatives.

Democracy in Taiwan will give China’s leaders good reason to work out an accord that allows China to benefit from Taiwan’s technology, business acumen and abundant capital while providing Taiwan autonomy so its democratic ideals don’t infect China’s masses.

Businessmen, scholars, average citizens and the more-thoughtful government officials in Taiwan are optimistic that this can be accomplished. One reason is that in 10 years or so, the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait who really hate each other will be dead. The Old Guard in Taiwan’s Parliament and China’s Old Guard that ordered the slaughter in Beijing in June are cut from the same cloth. These people grew up together but ended up on different sides of the Chinese civil war. To them, the division of Taiwan and China is a matter of face, and both believe that democracy is a chaotic form of government that goes against the Confucian ideal of citizens displaying blind fealty to enlightened rulers.

But when these people are gone, the next generation will have the opportunity to devise some sort of a commonwealth in which two separate Chinese nations can cooperate under an ethnic banner. To do so, however, Taiwan’s leaders have to determine how to avoid prematurely forcing a showdown. This won’t be easy.

At its core, the Taiwan independence movement is a call for fully representative government.

In March, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese who succeeded the Chiang dynasty in January 1988 upon the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, faces re-election. ButTaiwan’s citizens won’t have a say in the matter, even though his considerable popularity would make him a shoo-in. Instead, the National Assembly will vote on Mr. Lee’s fate. The National Assembly now has 797 members, of which 701 are life-term members from China.

This is the major reason there now is a strong movement for rewriting Taiwan’s Constitution. The current document was written in 1947 in China. It defines Parliament as a 4,725-seat, three-body institution elected by citizens living within national borders that include all of China, Tibet and Mongolia. Many scholars in Taiwan are calling on the government to rewrite the document with “creative ambiguity” to trim it down to Taiwan-size while leaving enough China connections to prevent provoking China’s communist rulers, who have threatened to invade Taiwan if the island declares independence. But only the National Assembly can change the constitution, and by doing so the Old-Guard assembly members would be writing themselves out of a job.

The more practical solution is for the DPP and the Nationalists to work together to sideline the issue of Taiwan’s international status. Many believe this can be done only by speeding up the retirement of the Nationalist Old Guard and replacing it through elections inTaiwan. The Nationalists already have a plan to do this over the next 10 years. But the DPP is unwilling to wait that long.

Unless the two parties can come to an agreement, Taiwan society is in real danger of splitting apart along ethnic lines. Second-generation mainlanders are very frightened about the new political power of ethnic Taiwanese politicians, both the DPP’s elected officials and President Lee. Ethnic Taiwanese are very angry about the continuing dominance in Parliament of the Old-Guard Chinese.

On Saturday, Taiwan’s voters sent a message to the Nationalists. They rejected the party’s plan to create a one-party democracy by slowly opening up seats to election and using state television and other ham-handed tactics to crush opponents.

The DPP on Saturday proved that it can compete and win, even in an election system designed to perpetuate the ruling party’s dominance. Now the opposition’s elected officials have to prove they can govern the counties they won and present fresh policy initiatives in the legislature.

But, most important, the DPP and the Nationalists have to prove they can cooperate.

If they need motivation to do so, politicians of both parties can simply look across the Taiwan Strait and realize that Taiwan’s best defense against China is a genuine functioning democracy at home.


About James McGregor
James McGregor is an American author, journalist and businessman who has lived in China for more than 25 years. Currently, he is chairman of APCO Worldwide, Greater China. A professional speaker and commentator who specializes in China’s business, politics and society, he regularly appears in the media to discuss China-related topics. McGregor is the author of the books "No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism" (2012) and "One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China" (2005). He also wrote the 2010 report "China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’ – A Web of Industrial Policies." From 1987 to 1990 McGregor served as The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Taiwan, and from 1990 to 1994 as the paper’s bureau chief in Mainland China. From 1994 to 2000, he was chief executive of Dow Jones & Company in China. After leaving Dow Jones, he was China managing partner for GIV Venture Partners, a $140 million venture capital fund specializing in the Chinese Internet and technology outsourcing. In 1996, McGregor was elected as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He also served for a decade as a governor of that organization. He is a member of the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, National Committee on US-China Relations and International Council of the Asia Society. He serves on a variety of China-related advisory boards.

5 Responses to The Poison Pill of Taiwan’s Democracy

  1. Pingback: 30 Questions for Democracy Opponents - China Digital Times (CDT)

  2. Michael McNabb says:

    Good post. Fun to reminisce about Taiwan in the 80’s. They have really achieved a lot without loosing their sense of identity. In fact, it has strengthened.

  3. Mohamud Ali says:

    Good post. It is something important to see how far Taiwan has come in terms free and fair election. China has always wanted Taiwanese democracy to fail so that they can blame democracy itself as an ideal that cannot survive. The people of Taiwan have now achieved full scale of their freedom to have a say in their government, and that is the essence of democracy.

  4. Scott says:

    Good post. Things certainly have improved since the 1980s. Do you have an opinion of the allegations of voter fraud in the recent election? I’ve heard 3 specific charges: 1. An editorial in the Taipei Times claims vote buying is getting worse 2. Rumors from the DPP side says that people in South Taiwan were paid not to vote rather than to vote for someone 3. Some supposed pictures of real time vote counting are just starting to appear which have snapshots of the vote count at 3 min intervals where the totals for the DPP dropped by 600 votes but the KMT increased. The allegation is that this sort of adjustment shouldn’t occur with all electronic voting. Are these false rumors, the kinds of marginal fraud that occurs in most countries even the US, or is it possible they are valid and did make a difference? Since Taiwan refused monitoring from the Carter Center is there any way to know that their election was fair? And is there any way to for westerners to encourage monitoring by outside countries in future elections?

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