Suffolk University

Taiwan’s Road to Freedom by Anna Meomutli

Republic of China, another name of Taiwan, is a quasi-independent state in the East Asian region that is showing the world that one can and will make it to freedom if people are connected by the strong belief in a better future. By pursuing by-the-book-democracy, Taiwan has been following the road of the US, a poster-child for a democratic rule created by immigrants who wanted a better life and more freedom. Similar sentiments, yet two very different journeys; Taiwan has been on their road to freedom since the 1990’s and it is worth looking at their journey with admiration.

Taiwan is a peculiar case of a man-made democracy that is still in the stage of infancy. In fact, while only 19 states who recognize their sovereignty, nonetheless, Taiwan has been slowly but surely making steps towards revolutionize democratic rule. Democracy before independency is the perfect definition of the state’s situation – declaring democracy in 1992 and having first elections in 1996 – Taiwan has been fighting fires on all fronts: demands of the population hungry for freedom from China, maintaining diplomatic relations internationally, and remain relevant in terms of international trade to sustain the nation. Careful maneuvering around mention of the words ‘Taiwan’ and ‘independence’ in Beijing is already a huge risk, yet politicians are willing to take it. While Taiwan’s higher-caste politicians are fighting fires in Beijing, Democratic Progressive Party workers are doing their best to ensure freedom and democracy in the society

Taiwan’s path to an internal democracy has been difficult just like gaining international recognition – KMT, Kuomingtang, a nationalist party which fled mainland from communist uprising, has been in power since 2008 until 2016. While in power, KMT has ignored the stance of citizens and ruled under the notion that civilians were not educated enough to take part in discussions on the future of the company; going against separatist movement as a momentum in Taiwan and neglect of civic virtues has not played out well for the nationalists and resulted in the party continuously losing seats in the upcoming elections. After defeat of KMT presidential candidate, Eric Chu, in 2016, Democratic Progressive Party has nestled in the ruling position and rolled out a lot of action to improve direct democracy.

Enormous neglect from international organizations on Taiwan’s struggle has made it harder for the state to become fully independent from PRC’s rule, yet it only sparked more civic action within the society. As mentioned earlier, after DPP candidate, Tsai Ingwen, stepped into power, it has become apparent that the democratic focus will be shifted internally, on people, rather than sparking conflict internationally. A plethora of proposals regarding direct democracyand balloting overall have been voted on in 2018, which satisfied citizens and only further angered Beijing. Nowadays it only takes 1,900 signatures to propose a nation-wide ballot and to make a measure to be on the ballot minimum of signatures is 282,000. As a result of internal democratic reforms, the voters’ age has been lowered to 18 and the turnout increased to 4.9 million people. Overall, people’s passion for creating a better future and specifically a democratic future is the sure sign of a strong basis for democratic empowerment. Ellen Lust and David Waldner have described the signs of democratic backsliding in their research, instead of focusing on how Taiwan lacks in many aspects, it would be more beneficial to take a positive look on their situation and acknowledge the most prominent factor that attributes to the democratic empowerment of Taiwan – impeccable, participatory, and undying civic action. Citizens of Taiwan might be lacking in the aspect of civic education, yet their willingness to participate and learn more compensates for the fact of previously absent knowledge of how Taiwan is pursuing their independence and freedom in the international arena. With such dedicated citizen unification the government feels the support and reflects the mood of the nation overall. However, it is unknown for how much longer Taiwanese can withstand this passion and pursue the battle for democracy while being pressured. Civic action might just be not enough. 

Such difficult tasks and burdens as creating democracy internally while protecting the country from the external negative factors are being put on the shoulders of population nation raises the question of where is the UN, international organization that is notorious for defending young democracies and suppressed peoples. For rather secretive yet apparent reasons, the UN denies Taiwan’s representatives on General Assemblybut allows them to be present during the meetings. Taiwan’s willingness to be participant in the international deals whether it is in regards security, trade or even compliance with Sustainable Development Goals is admirable and should be the noted. However,ties between the UN and People’s Republic of Chinawill be under an intense strain if Taiwan will be recognized as an independent state. With South China sea conflict still at bay, UN cannot afford such a drastic change of pace without resolving other conflicts. Resulting neglectfrom international organizations on Taiwan’s struggle has made it harder for the state to become fully independent from PRC’s rule, yet it only sparked more civic action within the society. 

America’s assistance in Taiwan’s battle for democracy has been rather counterproductive. With establishment of rather mysterious, one might even say that of unrequited love, de facto relationship between the two countries, the US during Bush administration refrains from calling Taiwan a sovereign state. An extensive reportby the China and Taiwan expert Richard C Bush explores all the factors why America is so involved in Taiwan’s defense but stays away when it comes to political recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. For similar reasons as UN, US is trying to build a better relationship with PRC, especially after a fall-out from the recent trade war, yet supporting Taiwan in the open might create a huge conflict that might go nuclear. 

In his address on the issues that Taiwan is going through, Bush lists four conditions upon which the US will be willing to help Taiwanin their pursuit – it [Taiwan] needs to be able to protect themselves against China’s Liberation Army in case of military conflict, be sure that US is largely present in the East Asian region and not ignore the power of the presence, make sure that US and Taiwan will work closely on shutting the book on the questions of unification with PRC, and promote better communication channels that will not leave any open-ended questions that might be up to interpretations. With this statement, America takes on a role of an older sibling who is protective, yet does not want to be directly involved in the conflict. By backing up Taiwan without direct involvement, the US has its foot in both camps which is beneficial to both sides, yet still opens an opportunity of danger.

Taiwan’s future road to democracy seems promising – with devoted civic action and leaders who are willing to create a better future for the country it seems that democracy is well in transition, yet the question of independence is still in the works. Neglect from the international organizations and the US’ silence on the issue it will be a hard battle, yet not impossible. 


Photo taken from Reuters “Street protests, mostly nonviolent, have been a vibrant feature of Taiwanese democracy. © Reuters”

3 Comments

  1. Zitian

    May 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

    Greeting, Anna Meomutli:

    The argument about international-domestic linkages on topic of democracy is hardly surprising. I agree with most of analysis on international pressures that have potentially shaped and constructed a part of Taiwan democratic discourse. But Taiwan internal instabilities have a deeper root due to a mutual delegitimization by the two contesting parties.

    Regardless KMT or DPP wining in the upcoming election in 2020, the unification discussion is a permanent barrier for all Taiwan incumbents from local councils to the general legislative. These elected officials have tended to choose an ambiguity tactic by avoiding the question on unification/independence. Tsai Ing-wen is a classic example of this political ambiguity by not having any definitive answer to that question until 2019.

    This particular ambiguity appears as a response to PRC’s pressures against Taiwan foreign relations, but it also reflects a longstanding tradition of delegitimization perpetuated by both parties, where pro-mainland officials have been accused of traitors, and pro-independence officials have been accused of stupidity.

    This is a detrimental failure of democratic norms.

    Since the Taiwan democratization in the 1990s, two parties have been struggling to justify their political platform in regard to their historical legacies. KMT and its prior authoritarian ruling have been frequently attacked by DPP. KMT has retaliated by claiming DPP’s independent agenda as a disastrous initiative after the failed referendum in 2008. At the same time, as Taiwan economy has become more and more intertwined with PRC, the political debate over this issue more and more important, but more and more hollow simultaneously due to a constant, ideological polarization.

    The possible regression of Taiwan democracy may be caused by international pressures, but when two major parties have accused each other on an ideological ground with purpose of delegitimization, there are no way to call it as a health democracy.

  2. Leon Chin

    May 7, 2019 at 6:20 pm

    The argument presented in the blog post regarding Taiwan’s independence is particularly interesting. I completely agree as to why the Republic of China has been unable to achieve independence. Unfortunately, from the beginning of Taiwan, China has continued to enforce its tight grip on the nation. As China has continued to rise throughout the last few decades with its economic abilities, other states are forced to follow China’s lack of recognition of Taiwan as a separate entity. Any entity, both countries and multinational corporations, is forced to de-legitimize Taiwan as a nation and any formal recognition will most definitely anger China. As such, the likelihood for Taiwanese independence is very slim given that international recognition and legitimacy is a key issue. China has continued to tighten its control over its “special administrative regions” such as Hong Kong and Macau, which gives no reason as to why they would allow for freedom for Taiwan. Taiwan is also incredibly important for China’s regional strategy given its desire to remain as the leader in the Asian sphere of influence. If China is able to integrate Taiwan into its nation, it will most definitely use Taiwan as military zone to exert soft power and dominance over the Southeast Asia. Because of how powerful China has become in the last few decades, the future unfortunately looks very bleak for Taiwanese independence.

  3. Rex Lee

    May 8, 2019 at 1:15 am

    While Taiwan is truly a young democracy regarding how much time has passed since its democratic inception, I argue that Taiwan’s democracy and its lack of true “independence” – at least from the perspective of outsiders – has allowed its democracy to flourish in a unique way. To explain, Taiwan’s democracy is always under threat: at any time, the 50-Cent-Army is striking or CCTV is threatening President Tsai in some way. Whatever the case, Taiwan has seen it. This has been occurring ever since Taiwan became a de facto nation, not just since it began its democracy. I argue that Taiwan’s democracy is now stronger than other democracies because of these attacks. The Taiwanese are always in fear of a Chinese invasion; the fact that Taiwan is politically isolated by the international community heightens these fears. Thus, the Taiwanese are aware that their democracy is always under threat, unable to be taken for granted. It is an institution that must see constant vigilance from its citizens to ensure its continued success and existence. There is no public fear that American democracy will disappear tomorrow. It’s not like Canada will invade tomorrow. That fear is real in Taiwan. What’s more, I believe that because Taiwan, in a never-ending quest to differentiate itself from the Mainland, uses the concept of democracy as a tool. Today, democracy has become a pillar of the Taiwanese ethos! In other words, while the Chinese threat is real, it has provided Taiwanese democracy a baptism by fire. The result is a stronger, more vibrant democracy.

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