Political Developments

In the 1950s and early 1060s, liberal KMT members, Taiwanese intellectuals, and the small group of non-KMT politicians persistently called upon the authorities to hold a general election open to competing political parties, and to abandon claims to rule all of China. These moderate appeals repeatedly led to harassment, surveillance, and imprisonment.

Gradually, economic and social changes and a new international environment led to political change in Taiwan. The old mainlander parliamentarians began dying off at an accelerating pace, and an urbanized, educated middle class began to demand a greater say in policy decisions. Growing tension between the Soviet Union and China led United States leaders to reassess their policy of all-out support for the KMT against "Red China." Chian Ching-kuo became increasingly influential in the 1970s -- he became Premier in 1972, KMT Chairman upon his father’s death in 1975, and president in 1978. He began to show an inclination toward populism and political reform despite his past role in suppressing dissent. Yet the KMT tightly controlled political liberalization from above, and repeatedly followed periods of openness with new waves of repression.

Feeling the pressures created by democratization, Chiang sought to promote more and more talented Taiwanese into political and administrative positions. Taiwanese KMT members won local elective offices and rose within the party hierarchy. Some members of the mainlander political elite viewed the new arrivals --Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s current President, was among the native technocrats whom Chiang promoted in the 1970s -- as insufficiently committed to "reunifying China under the Three Principles." Many of these Taiwanese recruits proved capable administrators and competent at keeping the economy booming, however, thereby assuring political stability.

In the mid-1970s, opposition politicians and journalists took advantage of the more liberal climate to press for greater democracy, increased Taiwanese political power, and KMT acknowledgment that it ruled Taiwan, not China. In 1971, the KMT lost "China’s" seat in the United Nations and an increasing number of countries had withdrawn diplomatic recognition from Taipei in favor of Beijing. Opposition politicians, who were beginning to behave like a party even though they legally could not form one, also called attention to negative social consequences resulting from the KMT’s economic successes (see below). In 1977, the opposition scored significant victories in local elections, and charges of KMT electoral fraud in the city of Chung Li led to the most significant street protests since 1947. The following year, inspired by the 1977 electoral victories, the opposition for the first time formed a campaign coalition across the island. In political terms, this was a watershed. The authorities found that repressive measures were increasingly ineffective for stifling dissent. The opposition seemed certain to win a significant number of the parliamentary seats to be contested in 1978.

Chiang Ching-kuo used the U.S. announcement that it would open diplomatic relations with the PRC and de-recognize the KMT as a pretext to cancel these elections on December 16, 1978. However, the KMT’s true motive was to avoid confronting the campaign coalition at the polls for fear of losing. When KMT opponents staged demonstrations, the authorities jailed the protest leaders. However, repression failed to suppress popular demands for democracy and human rights.


The Kaohsiung Incident and its Aftermath

By 1979, the opposition coalesced around three critical journals. One of these was the outspoken and widely read Formosa Magazine. Many of the opposition activists, writers, and politicians who had come to prominence over the previous decade joined the staff of this publication or contributed to it. From the beginning, Formosa was the focal point of a determined drive to create a mass movement for political and social change.

In December of 1979, Formosa organized a human rights rally in Kaohsiung which attracted tens of thousands of participants. Police surrounded and tear-gassed the crowd, forcing demonstrators to fight their way past policies lines. Provocateurs, secretly sent by the KMT insisted that the opposition had organized this "riot" as part of a violent conspiracy to overthrow the government, a claim given little credence by international human rights groups. Nevertheless, the charge served as an excuse to jail fifty prominent opposition figures -- virtually all of the active opposition leaders -- who had spoken out in favor of greater democracy and Taiwan independence. Family members of one jailed dissident were murdered under mysterious circumstances after he complained that they had undergone torture. The authorities also closed 15 magazine associated with the opposition. It was the most significant crackdown on dissent since the "2-28 Incident."

The Kaohsiung Incident of 1979 had a far different outcome, though. Whereas in 1947 the KMT succeeded in intimidating a generation of Taiwanese, repression only seemed to make the opposition more determined in the 1980s. Relatives and lawyers of the jailed dissidents won political office in their place, and young opposition activists became new leaders in a movement to gain respect for human rights, democracy, and the right of Taiwan’s people to decide their fate for themselves, free from the KMT’s police state tactics and the PRC’s attempts to coerce "reunification." Political prisoners staged hunger strikes, new dissident publications became ever more bold in their criticisms, and by the mid-1980, people began staging demonstrations over a wide variety of issues, including demands for genuine self-government, environmental protection, women’s rights, Aborigine civil rights, academic freedom, an end to censorship, and an end to marital law. Workers went on strike, defying legal prohibitions. Aging veterans, tired of hearing empty promises about returning to the mainland, also protested. By 1987, a few bold voices even dared to call for Taiwan independence, a demand once punished with death penalty.

The KMT responded with more arrests and more censorship. More political murders took place: a Taiwanese-American professor, Chen Wen-Cheng, who had been critical of the KMT, was killed during interrogation under the Garrison command during a visit to Taiwan. Gangsters hired by the head of the KMT government’s military intelligence agency traveled to Daly City, California in the United States to assassinate a Chinese-American critic of the KMT, Henry Liu. None of this deterred the demands for change, however.


Birth of a Party

In 1986, thousands of people demonstrated and rallied against martial law in Taipei, despite police interference and political arrests. There were signs of conflict within the KMT between advocates of repression and supporters of reform, and this led to rapid shifts in policy. In September that year, opposition politicians defied martial law and established the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Its platform called for a general parliamentary election and "self-determination" for the future of Taiwan. In response, Chiang Ching-kuo ignored KMT conservatives’ demands for arrests and promised to lift martial law in the near future.

Though the KMT captured 68% of the vote in the elections for Taiwan’s parliamentary representatives held late that year, the DPP claimed a moral victory. The KMT’s showing fell well short of its moral 75%, allowing the new party to claim legitimacy if not legal status.


National Security Law

Following this watershed election, KMT policy has continued to zig-zag between reforms and repression. The DPP and grass-roots groups have responded with new protests, which have largely remained non-violent, and demands for more fundamental political and social changes.

In July 1987, Chiang Chin-Luo lifted martial law as promised, but he replaced it with a new National Security Law which preserves many of the KMT’s martial law powers. In particular, the law allows the authorities to ban speeches, writing, organizations, and gatherings if the government considers them to favor communism or Taiwan independence. Since the enactment of the law, the KMT has repeatedly jailed non-violent advocates of independence merely for expressing their opinions. For example, in December 1990, the authorities sentenced Huang Hua, a 51-year old activist and advocate of non-violence to 10 years in prison for "planning to commit sedition" through public speeches in favor of independence. This was Huang’s fourth conviction on political charges; he had already served more than 21 years in prison.

The authorities have also continued to censor critical publications and jail outspoken dissident journalists. They have filed legal charges against the leaders of protest marches when participants have become disorderly (often following provocations by government agents or supporters), even though the leader had attempted to maintain order.

The end of martial law means that the KMT no longer subjects civilians to military trials. Following world-wide criticism of unfair court proceedings against eight of the Kaohsiung Incident defendants in 1980, the authorities had already begun referring political cases to civilian tribunals. Unfortunately, people accused of political offenses still undergo unfair trials in these courts. Almost all judges and prosecutors are KMT members, and the courts have repeatedly ignored evidence in political cases that ought to lead to acquittals. For example, in criminal "libel" suits which government officials and KMT politicians have brought against opposition journalists, the courts have not accepted the truth of challenged articles as a defense. In the case of Huang Hua and other independence advocates, the courts have also accepted government arguments that mere rhetorical support of independence constitutes "sedition," without evidence of any overt action to overthrow the government.

There have been positive development. The KMT ended its ban on new political parties, and the DPP and dozens of smaller opposition groups now have legal status. The authorities have lifted limits on the number of newspaper licenses, leading to a rapid increase in the number of daily papers. Publications are still subject to government review, but the censors have relaxed controls considerably. Broadcastings remains firmly under the control of the KMT, however. The authorities also lifted a long-standing ban on travel to mainland China in 1987; since then, thousands of Taiwan residents have made visits, and the KMT has even allowed a few visitors to Taiwan from China on a very conditional and selective basis. Although the KMT has not stopped the practice of imprisoning non-violent dissenters, many long-term political prisoners have gained their freedom since 1986. University campuses, once subject to tight controls on political activity, are now the sites of lively debates over social and political reform.


The Post-Chiang Era: Challenges to the KMT in the Streets and at the Polls

In 1988, Chiang Chin-kuo died. His Vice President, Lee Teng-hui, succeed him as President and KMT Chairman, becoming the first native Taiwanese to hold either post. He promised to continue political reforms and pursue "reunification" with China, although he himself has never been to the mainland.

In spite of all the political change in Taiwan during the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, a fundamental issue remains: the people of the island still lack the right to change their government through elections. Opposition parliamentarians have been able to exert some influence over legislation, and KMT legislators elected on Taiwan have joined in calls for political reforms. Yet the KMT leadership, which does not have to face the voters, retains the ultimate say in deciding national policies. In the absence of democratic, representative government, the people of the island have no means, other than protest, to get the government to change its policies and resolve pressing issues like pollution, Taiwan’s growing diplomatic isolation, and problems underlying the booming economy (e.g., insecure access to energy).

Protests over slow progress toward democracy and the KMT’s refusal to allow open discussion of Taiwan’s international relations became noisier in 1988 and 1989. During this period, several outspoken opposition leaders found themselves subject to police harassment and legal charges. An opposition journalists, Cheng nan-jung, who had printed a draft of a Taiwan Constitution proposed by a Taiwanese professor teaching in Japan and articles favoring Taiwan independence and exposing military corruption, burned himself to death as police tried to arrest him on "sedition" charges. At first the DPP avoided open support for independence (though many key party figures voiced their support), while staunchly upholding the right of Taiwan’s people to call for independence and otherwise discuss Taiwan’s future.

On October 13, 1991, the DPP stunned the island and the KMT by officially incorporating the goal of Taiwan independence in its charter.

The KMT suffered a major electoral set back in Taiwan’s December 1989 elections. DPP candidates were elected chief executives in six of the 16 counties, which are home to 50% of the population. These officials have since asserted the prerogatives of autonomous local governments. The DPP also gained additional seats in the Taipei and Kaohsiung City councils, the Taiwan Provincial Assembly, and the Legislative Yuan. Twenty of 32 DPP candidates associates with the openly pro-independence New Nation Alliance won office. The KMT’s share of the vote declined below the 1986 level.

This contest pointed toward the emergence of a two-party system in Taiwan. There are over 60 political parties today, including two women’s parties, and smaller opposition parties, along with independents, have won a few seats at all levels. (In an effort to diffuse the effectiveness of the opposition, the KMT has made it very easy to create new political parties). But only the DPP showed a level of organization and cohesiveness that allowed it to pose an island-wide challenge to the entrenched ruling party.

The election also marked the emergence of a non-partisan citizens’ movement for free elections, the Clean Election Coalition, led by Lu Hsiu-lien, a former political prisoner and pioneer of Taiwan’s feminist movement. It sought to play the critical watchdog role of similar groups in the Philippines and South Korea. The organization later became the Coalition for Democracy and continues to play an important role in reform and in democratization.

The DPP argued that it might have done even better under a completely free and fair electoral system. In addition to KMT control of the airwaves, the campaign is of extremely short duration. Voters cast ballots for single candidate in national and legislative elections, but each electoral district has several seats. The KMT’s superior organization and large treasury allow it to mobilize its supporters to spread their votes among several candidates. The KMT also uses active-duty military personnel to support its candidates. KMT domination of the Central Election Commission means that this body does not administer the elections impartially, e.g., it seldom investigates charges of KMT electoral fraud or corruption.


The National Affairs Conference

A few months later, in March, in March 1990, the National Assembly elected Lee Teng-hui to a full six year term. An effort by KMT conservatives to replace Lee failed, and the KMT barred the 11 DPP members of the assembly from attending the session after they insisted on swearing loyalty, speaking Taiwanese, to the people of "Taiwan" rather than those of "the Republic of China." Like the December elections, this exercise served to emphasize that KMT rule remained highly undemocratic, despite genuine liberalization.

In what has become known as the "Taipei Tiananmen" demonstration, students from the island’s normally politically quiet universities converged on the capital from March 16 to 22. They were joined by thousands of citizens and protested at the national memorial to Chiang Kai-shek. These citizens were outraged by the exposure of a political scandal in which Chiang Wei-kuo, the younger brother of Chiang Ching-kuo, had conspired with the CCP to run for the office of President with the intention of blocking the Taiwan-born Lee from attaining it. Their outrage was soon exacerbated with further revelations of large scale bribery of lifetime members of the National Assembly in exchange for their promise to support Lee. The bribes took the form of attractive retirement benefits for the aging legislators.

The protesters denounced the National Assembly as "700 old thieves," and called for its dissolution. They also demanded an end to lingering restrictions on civil and political rights based on the "Mobilization Period for the Suppression of the Communist Rebellion," a state of siege which remained in effect after the lifting of martial law; the convening of a national conference to discuss political reforms; and a timetable for the implementation of political and economic changes. A separate DPP-sponsored demonstration calling for democratic politics attracted 20,000 people on March 18.

Rather than following the example of the Chinese Communists and cracking down on the demonstrators, President Lee agreed to convene a national affairs conference and to implement further reforms, including a general election, over the next two years. He claimed he lacked the authority to dissolve the Assembly, however. Lee’s support for reform seemed to place him in the camp of younger, moderate KMT members, most of whom are Taiwan-born and many of whom have won elective office on promises of "good government."

Lee took a major step backward six weeks later when he named General Hau Pei-tsun as Premier. Hau, a former armed forces chief of staff, had served briefly as Lee’s Defense Minister. He has repeatedly made public statements against political pluralism and against open expression of dissent. Lee appears to have appointed him in exchange for the political support of the military and party conservatives’ agreement to drop their challenges to his election as president. Widespread protests greeted the announcement of the general’s elevation.

The National Affairs Conference, held June 28 July 4, 1990, examined a number of critical issues, including a general parliamentary election; direct elections for the President, Taiwan provincial governor, and mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiun; and a new legal framework for economic ties with China. Delegates agreed that these were the key areas in which Taiwan desperately needed reforms, but there was no consensus on the scope or timing of changes.

Just before the Conference convened, Taiwan’s constitutional court, the Council of Grand Justices, declared that all of the parliamentarians representing the mainland had to retire by December 31, 1991. This was obviously designed to offer the KMT and the "old thieves" (as the life members have come to be known) a way to save face on the increasingly embarrassing issue of the composition of the parliament. Yet the KMT continued to vacillate on how to implement change.

President Lee stacked a party committee on political reforms with conservatives, and Premier Hau threatened to jail grass-roots activists as "social hooligans." The KMT resisted direct presidential elections, insisting on maintaining the National Assembly, with continued representation for China. It also insisted on preserving presidential emergency powers even after President Lee lifted the "Mobilization Period" in April 1991. Although the government abolished the "Statute for the Punishment of Sedition," one of the KMT’s main devices for stifling dissent since it gained control of Taiwan, it retained separate sedition provisions in the criminal code. As a token gesture toward reefer, the KMT did agree to abolish two notorious secret police agencies.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the KMT insisted on letting the sitting National Assembly, dominated by the "old thieves," make amendments to the constitution. In April, Lee called a special session of the National Assembly to incorporate 10 amendments to the constitution. Outraged, the DPP boycotted the session and took to the streets on April 17 in the largest protest ever witnessed on Taiwan. The new Assembly, elected in Dec. 1991, can only make further amendments if a 75% majority agrees. While the DPP’s share of the vote dipped slightly in the 1991 election -- it won 24% of the vote compared to 28% in 1989 -- intensification of KMT vote buying practices must be considered.

The old Assembly decreed that Taiwan’s voters would fill 225 of 325 National Assembly seats in that contest. The remaining seats, supposedly representing "mainland China" and "overseas Chinese," were to be assigned to the political parties according to their share of the popular vote. A similar process at the end of 1992 will allow the voters directly to fill 125 of 161 Legislative Yuan seats. While this permits the people to choose almost 80% of the representatives, protesters have denounced this plan as undemocratic, and have repeated their call s for direct elections of all parliamentarians from constituencies located in the "Taiwan area."


Demands for Change

In response to the KMT’s continued unwillingness to step up the pace of reform, the DPP defiantly adopted a new "Constitution for an Independent Republic of Taiwan" on August 28, 1991. The document served as the party’s platform in the National Assembly election, and was originally adopted at a DPP organized conference of scholars and social organization representatives.

The new constitution establishes a democratic republic consisting of Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the KMT-controlled islands off the coast of Fukien. It guaranties basic human rights, including the rights of minority groups, and insists that economic development cannot occur at the expense of the environment. The new republic’s president is to be elected directly by the people for a four year term, and can serve no more than two terms. He or she is responsible to a single chamber parliament. The constitution also establishes an independent judiciary.

The DPP initially sought to avoid using the name "Republic of Taiwan," recognizing the sensitivity of the independence issue. Ultimately, though, the party issued a statement accompanying the constitution: "[R]reunification whit China is not the wish of the people of Taiwan, because the political and economic systems between the two countries are poles apart. Since Taiwan is emerging as a new and independent country, just like a new-born child, it needs a new name..." The government retaliated by initiating a "sedition" case against the opposition party.

On the following October 13, the DPP went further still in its open support for independence. A party conference passed a resolution calling for "the establishment of the Republic of Taiwan with independent sovereignty...through a plebiscite of all the inhabitants according to their decision and choice."

The KMT’s initial reaction has included selective repression, such as the arrest of a dozen independence advocates. As of November 1991, however, the government has not dared to implement broader measures such as detaining the DPP leadership or dissolving the party. Either of these would only serve to trigger confrontation.

As Taiwan prepares for the new elections in 1991 and 1992, its people face a choice between two very different visions of the future; the KMT’s vision of a gradually liberalizing authoritarianism, tightly controlled from above and keeping the island’s fate bound to China; and the vision of the DPP, the student movement, scholars, and political independents. These reformer’s vision is one of a genuinely democratic nation, in which the people decide their identity and their relations with other countries for themselves.