ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter

30 years after martial law, Taiwan strikes democratic path

Respect for civil liberties, diversity present sharp contrast with mainland

The Taipei city government held a celebration June 25 at Taipei Main Station to mark the end of Ramadan.

TAIPEI -- In the 30 years since the end of its nearly four decades of martial law, Taiwan has taken a very different road from mainland China, creating a society built on democracy and diversity. Yet as Beijing turns up the pressure on the island to return to the fold, it remains to be seen how long Taipei can maintain its individuality.

A sea of people, many donning brightly colored hijabs, gathered June 25 at Taipei Main Station for an event held by the city government to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a holy month in Islam marked by fasting and prayer. More than 40,000 Indonesian migrant workers and others attended the festivities, one of 15 such events held by governments across the island.

"Taiwan is my second home," Yuhalini Triafno, a 25-year-old from East Java, said with a smile. "More than anything, I'm grateful that I can feel like I'm being welcomed."

"I'm lucky compared with my friends in places like Hong Kong, who're facing discrimination because of terrorism by [Islamic] extremists," added Triafno, who has worked as a live-in nurse in the northern city of Taoyuan for five years.

From repression to freedom

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the 38 years Taiwan spent under martial law imposed by the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang -- among the longest such periods in modern history. During this era, known as the "White Terror," freedom of speech and expression were curtailed and pro-democracy activism suppressed.

The end of martial law in 1987 "was won through the many sacrifices and struggles of earlier generations," said Hung Yao-fu, secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. Power has changed hands three times since then, most recently last year, which saw the ascent of Taiwan's first female president in Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai is far from the first female leader in Asia, but unlike others, she won widespread support -- to the tune of 6.89 million votes -- without being related by blood or marriage to a prominent man. Her election demonstrates both her own talents and the maturation of Taiwan's democracy.

Since transitioning to democracy, Taiwan has taken further steps to introduce a series of measures to help minorities, such as indigenous people and foreign workers, and protect their rights. A constitutional court ruling in May paved the way for Taiwan to become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

"Over the last 30 years, Taiwan has become an increasingly mature democracy -- the first in the Chinese-speaking world -- with a robust civil society that is actively engaged on a wide range of social, economic and global issues," Syaru Shirley Lin, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Taiwan "has become a pioneer not only among Asian countries, but in many respects, in the world," Lin, who specializes in Taiwan and Hong Kong affairs, said. "It has also consolidated a distinctive Taiwanese identity, based not on ethnicity but on a solid commitment to such core values as freedom, justice, equity and a clean environment.

"These are developments of which all Taiwanese can justifiably be proud," she added.

Seeds of democracy

"The long repression allowed momentum toward democratization to take hold," Hsueh Hua-yuan, a professor at National Chengchi University's Graduate Institute of Taiwan History, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Measures that protect human rights and minorities poll well in Taiwan. Political parties -- including the Kuomintang, now in the opposition -- all compete on democratic policies. Tsai's Kuomintang predecessor Ma Ying-jeou actively supported Taipei's annual LGBT pride parade, one of Asia's largest, while he was the capital's mayor.

Taiwan's celebration of democracy contrasts with a retreat from it elsewhere in Asia, as indicated by the election of strongman President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the growing animosity toward ethnic Chinese in Malaysia.

That Taiwan stands apart owes much to its relationship with mainland China, Hsueh argued. As he sees it, people's desire to push back against growing pressure from the mainland for a cross-strait unification has fueled a drive to show the world that Taiwan, unlike China, is a democratic society.

A desire to safeguard Taipei's position on the international stage in the face of Beijing's rise is believed to have driven then-President Chiang Ching-kuo's decision to end martial law. Tsai seems to think much the same way, highlighting the vital role Taiwan can play in the international community by creating a society that values diversity. "The longest distance across the strait is democracy and freedom," she once said on Twitter.

This approach could further widen the rift between China and Taiwan.

Contrasting values

The death of democratic activist Liu Xiaobo has cast a spotlight on the sharp ideological differences between Beijing and Taipei. One of the "four gentlemen" who played a leading role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square that were brutally suppressed by the Chinese military, Liu participated in a hunger strike there.

He was accused of inciting subversion of state power for his involvement in drafting Charter 08 -- a manifesto released in 2008 that stresses freedom and human rights and calling for an independent judiciary and an end to one-party rule. This landed him an 11-year prison term.

He later developed liver cancer, but the Chinese authorities allowed him to be transferred to a hospital, still under heavy guard, only after the disease reached the terminal stage. Beijing refused to allow Liu to seek medical treatment abroad, and he died Thursday at age 61.

"The Chinese government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death," Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in a statement Thursday. 

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, echoed this sentiment. "Even as Liu Xiaobo's illness worsened, the Chinese government continued to isolate him and his family, and denied him freely choosing his medical treatment," she said. "The Chinese government's arrogance, cruelty and callousness are shocking."

Tsai also expressed her sorrow on Facebook. "We hope that the Chinese authorities can show confidence in engaging in political reform so that the Chinese people can enjoy the God-given rights of freedom and democracy," she wrote. "This will be a turning point in cross-strait relations."

Yet Beijing is working harder than ever to undermine Taipei's diplomatic position. Panama cut off relations with Taiwan last month and established ties with China, bringing the list of countries that recognize the island as an independent nation down to just 20.

Beijing has been expanding its influence through such channels as President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative. And inward-looking policies gaining currency in the international community, including in the U.S. and Europe, leave it unclear whether Taiwan's human-rights-oriented diplomacy will pay off. Taipei seems to be backed into a corner.

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

 Taiwan's road to democracy


Kuomintang rule of Taiwan effectively begins


Crackdown by Kuomintang troops kills thousands of Taiwanese in what becomes known as "228 Incident"


Martial law imposed; government represses pro-democracy activism in name of rooting out spies during "White Terror"


U.S.-China begin rapprochement; United Nations admits mainland China, expels Taiwan


U.S. President Richard Nixon visits mainland China; Japan normalizes relations with mainland, severs ties with Taiwan


Democratic Progressive Party forms as Taiwan's first opposition party


Martial law ends after 38 years


President Lee Teng-hui takes office, accelerates democratization


Taiwan begins accepting foreign workers


First direct presidential election held


DPP forms government in first transfer of power from Kuomintang


Basic law enacted to improve status and protect rights of indigenous people


President Tsai Ing-wen issues first official apology to indigenous people by Taiwanese leader


Top court rules in favor of same-sex marriage 

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends April 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media