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30 years after martial law, a Taiwan transformed

Island's dedication to democracy contrasts with Beijing's strong-armed approach

People pay their respects to the victims of the "White Terror" at a memorial in Taipei on July 15.

TAIPEI Two recent events have thrown the differences between Taiwan and China into especially sharp relief: the 30th anniversary of the end of martial law on the island, and the death of Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, China's most prominent human rights and democracy advocate.

The Nationalists, or the Kuomintang, introduced martial law in Taiwan in 1949 after being forced to flee the mainland by the Communists. During the 38 years of iron-fisted rule that followed, which included severe restrictions on freedom of expression, it is estimated that over 200,000 people were killed, imprisoned or otherwise victimized by the regime.

Late last year, President Tsai Ing-wen, who heads the Democratic Progressive Party, pledged to draw up a report within three years detailing the "White Terror" created by the Kuomintang.

Not surprisingly, the Kuomintang is trying to shift the conversation. On July 14, the day before the 30th anniversary celebrations, the party issued a statement saying Taiwan's flourishing democracy would not have been possible without late President Chiang Ching-kuo's "brave decision" to lift martial law.

LET FREEDOM RING Debate over history aside, the fact is that Taiwan has transformed itself into a full-fledged democracy over the past three decades. Since the island's first direct presidential election in 1996, power has changed hands three times, most recently last year, which saw the ascent of Taiwan's first female president.

Taiwan has also stepped up its efforts to help and protect minority groups. In May, a court ruling paved the way for Taiwan to become the first government 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," said Lin, who specializes in Taiwan and Hong Kong affairs.

Hsueh Hua-yuan, a professor at National Chengchi University's Graduate Institute of Taiwan History, said nearly four decades of martial law strongly shaped Taiwan's democracy. "The long repression allowed momentum toward democratization to take hold," Hsueh said.

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

A strong wish to safeguard Taipei's position on the international stage in the face of Beijing's rise is believed to have driven Chiang's decision to end martial law. Tsai appears to think much the same way, saying Taiwan can play a vital role in the international community by creating a society that values diversity.

"Democracy and freedom are Taiwan's remarkable strength," Tsai wrote on Facebook on July 15.

In that post, she called on her fellow citizens to retain democracy and freedom for good and to spread the creed throughout the world. Tsai characterized the lifting of martial law as a victory won by Taiwanese citizens who endured oppression, and stressed the need for social unity.

Her comments come at a time when Beijing appears to be working hard to undermine Taipei's position in the world. Panama ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan last month and established ties with China, reducing to just 20 the number of countries that recognize the island as an independent nation.

China may be trying to chip away at Taiwan's resilience, but the spirit of democracy appears to have been passed on to the younger generation.

Daniel Wu, a 23-year-old university student in Taipei said he attended a July 14 gathering to remember Liu because he feels threatened by what he sees as the "pursuit" of Taiwan by a Beijing that suppresses human rights and democratic values.

"The young people of Taiwan, who have grown up knowing only freedom, should work to protect the democracy that their elders gave them by toppling martial law," Wu said.

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

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