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Lessons from Taiwan's democratic struggle

The island's political record can show Asian neighbors a way out of authoritarian rule

| Taiwan
Street protests, mostly nonviolent, have been a vibrant feature of Taiwanese democracy.   © Reuters

The most recent biannual survey released by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) revealed that nearly 70% of Taiwanese would be willing to defend their democratic way of life if their authoritarian neighbor, the People's Republic of China, attempted to annex Taiwan by force.

The same survey, conducted by the National Chengchi University's Election Study Center, showed that 76% of Taiwanese, whilst admitting democracy is not without flaws, would choose to live under a democratic system.

Looking at the strength of support for democracy in Taiwan, it is hard to imagine democratization began only three decades ago. That is more than a historical fact. It is a crucial point in the current political development of Asia, where the struggle for democracy goes on almost every day.

Taiwan's example shows that once the right political forces are moving decisively toward democracy, progress can be swift and the achievements solid. It is a heartening precedent for democracy's supporters everywhere but especially in countries where they are in conflict with authoritarian leaders, for example today in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Taiwan's history shows the importance of four key elements. First, the battle for democracy in the face of authoritarian rule was relatively nonviolent. Next, young people, especially students, played a crucial role in repeatedly staging public protests.

Also, there was a strong, coherent and long-lasting opposition to authoritarian rule, which started as a popular movement and later became a parliamentary opposition party before eventually taking power as the Democratic Progressive Party which is in government now.

Finally, there was consistent external support for democracy from countries such as the U.S., Taiwan's most important foreign partner, and from overseas dissidents' groups. This more than outweighed the negative influence coming from China's authoritarian government. Beijing has repeatedly tried to subvert Taiwan's democracy by military intimidation, propaganda criticizing Taiwan's democratic model and disinformation about Taiwanese political life.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen said in a recent speech: "Taiwan is on the front-lines of a battle that is taking place in Australia, the United States, Europe and in like-minded countries all over the world ... we have faced increasing pressure from China as they threaten our democratic way of life ... it is only if like-minded countries work together -- and stand together -- can we fight against unwanted economic, political, or military coercion, and defend the values we hold dear."

Taiwan knows a lot about nondemocratic government, having suffered one of the world's longest periods of martial law (1949-1986) when it was ruled by the Nationalist Chinese Party (Kuomintang) in an authoritarian regime established by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled from the mainland after his defeat by the Chinese Communists.

Social movements, rallies and demonstrations were a constant feature of Taiwan's democratization. University students often mobilized to push for political reform. One example was the Wild Lily Movement in 1990, where more than 6,000 students demonstrated to demand direct elections for the presidency and fresh elections to the National Assembly.

In 2008, the Wild Strawberry Movement drawn waves of students to protest an oppressive Parade and Assembly Law. Most recently, in 2014, young protesters occupied Taiwan's legislative chamber for almost a month and brought an estimated half a million supporters to the streets to protest against the government signing a service trade agreement with the People's Republic of China which, critics feared, could affect job opportunities in Taiwan and political rights such as the freedom of press freedom.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was Taiwan's largest opposition party from 1986 to 2016, emerged out of an opposition movement called the "Dangwai," which means "Outside of the (Nationalist Chinese) Party." The Dangwai Movement not only advocated for social and political rights of citizens, but also self-determination for Taiwan. The movement took many forms, from mass rallies to sit-ins and participation in local and national elections.

All this developed from a very oppressive political past. Atrocities committed by the Nationalist authoritarian regime under martial law were horrendous. Political dissidents and even ordinary citizens who disagreed with the Kuomintang regime were targets of harassment, arrest, incarceration and even execution.

Taiwan experienced its first direct presidential election in 1996, with the induction of a government resulting from a free popular vote. Taiwan has since then experienced three peaceful transition of presidential power with the president representing Taiwan's two major political parties, the Nationalist Chinese Party and the Democratic Progressive Party.

Now Taiwan is consistently ranked as one of the freest and most democratic countries in the world by international organizations such as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders.

Even though democratic Taiwan has also seen numerous large-scale protests with tens of thousands of citizens taking to the streets, political institutions have remained resilient and strong.

Moreover, the protests have matured politically. Social movements in recent years have been closely connected to common liberal democratic causes such as judicial reform, freedom of assembly, property rights and rights to residence, LGBTIQ rights, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

When one examines East Asia, there are not so many functioning, consolidated democracies, other than Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The region does have new and fragile democracies in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. Thailand, ruled by the military, and Myanmar, where the army remains very powerful, can hardly be labeled as democratic.

Democracies in the region are now experiencing pressure both externally and from the inside. Externally, Asian democracies face aggressive attempts by China and its agencies to promote the virtues of nondemocratic government. They say democratic systems are inefficient, chaotic and sluggish, and that the authoritarian model is productive, effective and efficient.

Internally, disgruntled segments of the population are growing increasingly impatient over increasing socioeconomic inequality. Extremists are then able to extend their tentacles in society. All these are worrying signs of democratic backsliding in the region.

Taiwan's experience -- and its resistance to the constant pressure from China on its democratic institutions -- can serve as an example for other countries in the Asia. Fragile democracies in Asia should look to Taiwan for strategic partnership and consistent support.

Ketty W. Chen is vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

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