Chieh-Ting Yeh

25 Years After Taiwan Embraced Democracy, Netizens Wonder When It Will Be the Mainland's Turn

Announcements of End of Martial Law in Taiwan on July 14, 1987

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chiang Ching-kuo today decreed the end of martial law imposed by his Nationalist Party 38 years ago when it fled to this island after the communists took over mainland China. (LA Times, July 14, 1987)

25 years ago, the Republic of China government on Taiwan formally announced that it was ending martial law. As @谢宏钰 commented on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: On that day, “this island embarked on a different path.” {{1}}[[1]]25年前的今天,这个岛屿解严,走上了另外一条道路,直到现在[[1]]

A brief history

The current government on Taiwan island, the Republic of China, was originally founded in 1912 on the Chinese mainland and was later consolidated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or the KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek. After a bloody four-year civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949. The same year, martial law was declared in Taiwan.

Protest against martial law held on May 19, 1986 in Taipei

Rights to free speech and free assembly vanished; newspapers were censored. Political protesting and organization were banned. A secret police organization called the Taiwan Garrison Command began tracking and arresting those suspected of sedition. The ensuing 38 years of martial law became known as the “White Terror” in Taiwan; Communist sympathizers, Taiwan independence supporters, leftist reformers, disloyal military officers — and anyone who was suspected of being any of the above — were arrested and often incarcerated or executed without due process of law.

Life after military rule

Everything changed, including the details. @郢爰楚貝 from Taiwan recalls, “In elementary school I could read the newspaper in the mornings, but one day the paperboy couldn’t slip the paper through the door anymore—it was too thick, about twice the volume. That was about a year after martial law ended, when newspapers were no longer censored.” {{2}}[[2]]剛入小學不久,每早等著國語日報,幾張小版紙,標注音,又有圖畫,看不了多久。除非起晚了,或是送報生遲來,才等放學回家再看。但是某天,送報生清早竟按了門鈴--那天報紙張數大增一倍有餘,父母看的聯合與中時更厚成一大疊,門縫塞不進。那是24年前,解嚴隔年開報禁,於是我再也沒能於早晨讀報。[[2]] For the vast majority of the people living through that period, everyday life may have seemed normal, but even little details like newspapers becoming uncensored serve as persistent reminders that, yes, we were deceived.

March for farmers' rights in 1988, after the end of martial law in Taiwan

Yang Zhao (@作家楊照), a long-time columnist and contributor to The Journalist magazine in Taiwan, wrote an op-ed called “Since The End of Martial Law” describing what he believes has changed in Taiwan:

Before they allowed for opposition political parties, many predicted that once the people could form parties, chaos would erupt in Taiwan. So many different opinions; how can anyone ever be in peace? 25 years later, even the ‘Taiwan Communist Party’ can legally exist, and society is more stable due to a maturing two-party system. Before they allowed free publication of newspapers, many also predicted that unregulated speech would demoralize the populace…but now after we have heard all sorts of incendiary and sensational speech, most people take them for nothing more than entertainment.

Lifting martial law, to Yang, “was the beginning of a monumental shift.”

Et tu, China?

President Chiang Ching-kuo met with Katherine Graham of Washington Post in October 1986 and informed her that martial law would be lifted. Ma Ying-jeou served as the interpreter.

Will a monumental shift take place in the People’s Republic of China some day? To even begin thinking about this question is a monumental exercise, but reactions on Weibo provide some clues. For the most part, those who mentioned the 25th anniversary let the date speak for itself: “July 15, 25th anniversary of lifting martial law.” Some of them looked to Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan’s president in 1987, as a model and inspiration. As @江边酿淳 comments, “Chiang Ching-kuo opened a new era of democracy in China.” @章立凡 relays the story of senior KMT cadres questioning Chiang, saying “we will lose power if you lift martial law.” Chiang replied simply, “no party can be in power forever.” {{3}}[[3]]国策顾问沈昌焕说:“这样可能会使我们的党将来失去政权!”,蒋经国却淡淡地回答:“世上没有永远的执政党”[[3]]

Others remind us that Chiang Ching-kuo isn’t the only one who deserves credit for the transformation. @shino3456 writes, “Taiwan’s democracy was won by the Taiwanese people. How many intellectuals and ordinary people, living under one party rule, the White Terror and the 228 Incident (a revolt and massacre on Taiwan in 1947), hoped for something new?” {{4}}[[4]]台灣民主是全台灣人民爭取而來,在解嚴之前是多少知識分子和人民在一黨獨大之下,白色恐布,二二八事件等等,民眾也希望政府有所為而有所不為[[4]] @EnjoyZack says, “Behind Taiwan’s democratization there was a rise of civil society, organization of opposition parties, private property ownership, local self-rule, and international pressures as well as Chiang Ching-kuo’s courage and determination.” {{5}}[[5]]台湾解严,民主转型,这背后,公民社会的兴盛,反对党的崛起,土地私有、地方自治的根基,国际环境的压力,蒋经国的胸怀与担当等,几乎每一项都不可或缺。[[5]]

Protesters against martial law confronted police in Taipei

Taiwan in 1987 is certainly very different from China in 2012. Taiwan lost its UN seat in the 1970s, and the United States ending its recognition of Taiwan in 1979 dealt a fatal blow to Taiwan’s international status. Domestically, opposition forces from all directions such as environmental activists, labor rights activists, women’s rights activists, independence supporters and social democrats were converging into a formidable power. The KMT had arrested  publishers of a prominent anti-KMT magazine in Kaohsiung. They were then swiftly tried in military court, drawing pressure from the United States to democratize and institute civilian rule of law.

China in 2012 has much more international weight than did Taiwan when it stood on democracy’s threshold. China has taken a defiant stance against American calls for human rights and political reforms. Social opposition may not have matured and converged into a critical mass (and the Communist government actively makes sure this does not happen). Civil society has only begun to take shape, and the future of various social institutions is uncertain. Government and Communist Party practices are becoming more entrenched and systematic. It’s quite possible that China’s form of government is not going anywhere soon.

Protest against martial law held on May 19, 1986 in Kaohsiung

But as @tanzhenfeng points out, in Taiwan “a dictator ended a dictatorship.” @带路dang二世 wonders, “In another 15 years, can we also lift our martial law?” {{6}}[[6]]再等15年,我们能不能解严?[[6]] @chongmingxie chimed in, “25 years of reforms for a democratic Taiwan; even if China starts today I’ll be old in 25 years.” {{7}}[[7]]解严25年,换一个民主的台湾,就算从今天算大陆开始改革,25年后我也已经老了[[7]] For many alive today, democracy in China still seems a distant dream.

For some, hope springs eternal. @弱者的躯壳 reposted sections of a poem entitled “Taiwan’s Democracy”:

The people don’t want to stay in the night
Because the land is dark
Only visible
Are the moon and the stars
The moon says she will bring light to the people
The stars say they will lead the way
But why can’t the people decide for themselves
Why can’t there be daybreak
The people don’t need the moon nor the stars
The people just want daybreak

(July 15, 2012) {{8}}[[8]]诗歌《台湾的民主》(节选)佚名:人民不想再呆在夜里/因为大地漆黑一片/能看到的/只有高高在上的星星月亮/月亮说自己带给人民光芒/星星说他能引导人民方向/但为什么人民不能自己作主/为什么就不能天亮/人民不需要月亮的光芒/人民不需要星星的引导/人民只要天亮。(今天,7.15日为台湾解严纪念日)[[8]]

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Chieh-Ting Yeh

Chieh-Ting Yeh was born in Taiwan but grew up in New York and Boston. He was active in Taiwanese American student circles and was part of the Harvard Asia Law Society. When he is not thinking about the relationship between Taiwan and China, he cooks and watches epic Japanese dramas. He is currently based in Silicon Valley.
  • Toxoplasma

    One gets the sense that there is a growing desire for profound change in China. When will it reach a critical mass is the question.

  • Toxoplasma

    One gets the sense that there is a growing desire for profound change in China. When will it reach a critical mass is the question.