April 11, 2000
In the 2000 presidential election in Taiwan the Democratic Progressive Party peacefully took over power from the Guomingdang (KMT) which ruled for fifty years. What the US press referred to as Free China was a military dictatorship for the first thirty-five years.
by Elliott Lauderdale
I have always loved history, but one does not often see it. The Taiwanese election lead CNN news for more than one day. The election made the front page of the Mobile Register. The Time cover story on Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shuibian's election uses the hook - "Take that Beijing." My wife and daughter are in Taipei, so I would hesitate to use such provocation. A long article from the AP noted how Beijing closed an obscure journal for publishing information about plans which might entail the use of a neutron bomb on Taiwan, that model modern weapon which would kill all the people but leave the buildings intact. A Chinese foreign affairs professor told me that more than fifty percent of people in the Peoples' Republic recommend using any means necessary to reunify Taiwan. I wonder if the "foot-dragging" on the question of the reunification of China and Taiwan that the People's Republic announced it found intolerable would involve living with the fascinatingly absurd "One China Policy," which the U.S. and both Taiwan and China accept, for a time longer than it might take for the radiation to clear out.
When I reveal that have I lived and studied in China, I often find myself engaged in a discussion of the mysteries of the East. While not quite numerology, numbers resonate in the very concrete history of democracy in China. The mere mention Wu Si, Five Four, or 5/4, caused my exquisitely polite Beijing Chinese teacher to throw her whole less-then-five-foot-tall body into a shaking fist as she shouted, "Down with Imperialism." She had been on the streets in Beijing on May 4th, 1919 when the students revolted after their country accepted Versailles' concessions of the Chinese province Shandong to Japan. Each year the brave spirit returns. June 4 6/4 is a date associated with Tienanmen in 1989 in Beijing.
The Japanese Imperialists were evicted from Taiwan after the Second World War before the Guomingdang (Nationalist party or KMT) arrived in the late 40's under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek. They fled from China with our assistance after Liberation when Mao proclaimed that "the Chinese people have stood up." Ten One - 10/1/49. Incited by a demonstration of pushcart vendors objecting to taxes on February 28, the Guomingdang army went up and down the island silencing dissent. Er er bao, two two eight, or 2/28 were numbers which people were physically afraid to utter when I taught English in Taiwan in the mid seventies. One did not discuss politics out of fear of oppression. Since around the time the first Taiwanese native president, Li Denghui, was elected eight years ago as a member of the Guomingdang, February 28th 228 commemorates the martyrs. By Taiwanese I refer to people who lived in Taiwan before the arrival of the Guomingdang and who speak a dialect of the same name. The national language and Taiwanese, like most dialects in China are as different as German and English.
President Li Denghui chose to retire after two four-year terms and suggested another Taiwanese candidate Lien Chan as the KMT candidate. Inner party differences within the Guomingdang (KMT) led to the independent candidacy of James Soong, a mainlander whose family speaks the national language at home.
I arrived for a spring break visit with my family in March to find flags for candidates placed very car length along every road. In a country, which recently had a government controlled press, there are fifty seven channels with nearly everything on: constant coverage of rallies and speeches all over the island, investigations of "black and gold" or corruption and graft, suggestions that fifty dollars was the going price for a vote, and questions about how much James Soong had in overseas bank accounts. Instead of absurd propaganda about the mainland or what others call the Peoples' Republic of China, one can watch news from Beijing. The western media was fascinated by Saturday Night Live-like parodies of the candidates. Now Taiwan has a free press, and the possibility of free elections. Past elections I have witnessed were charades. For example in the mid-eighties other parties were permitted to hold campaigns, but no one imagined that they might be elected to national office.
Trucks with loudspeakers were everywhere. This appeared to be a truly cacophonous democratic election process. While cynical voices pointed to feasts for voters paid for by seemingly unlimited Guomingdang coffers and suggested that there were all manner of plots and ways to prevent a fair election, one sensed a powerful undercurrent of hope. I visited Taichung, my wife's home city, and was literally dragged through crowds in the rain by my wife and her sister to a huge temporarily paved field surrounded by hastily construction vendor booths. We joined the thousands of people waving flags and blowing airhorns as we listened to the warm up endorsement speakers. Chen Shuibian would not arrive for several hours. I have spent three years as an isolated "tall nose" among the Chinese masses on both sides of the Taiwan straits. I attended celebrations of the twenty fifth anniversary of liberation in Nanjing. I know the Chinese as an historically proud people. Still I feel an obligation to report numerous glances that conveyed a new assurance standing in the Taichung rain. My daughter's teacher repeatedly wondered aloud how it is that the Progressives could sell all those party hats and campaign items. Traditionally such items are gifts to encourage voting.
The polls reported a dead even race. The Peoples' Republic repeatedly threatened to attack the island if an advocate of Taiwan independence were elected. Chen Shuibian and the Progressive Party had advocated Taiwan independence in the past. During the election, however, Chen did not advocate independence. This fact was repeatedly neglected in western reports of the election. In keeping with a tradition of scholar officials and academic leadership of political change, the President of the Chinese (Taiwan) Academy of Science and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Lee Yuan-tseh endorsed Chen Shuibian. He resigned his office in Academy in the face of accusations that he violated his role as a scientific leader. Days prior to the election the stock market fell precipitously.
On my last day in Taiwan we visited the famous Buddhist Long Shan Temple in Taipei. The huge compound containing at least nine large Buddhas was packed with people. All the courtyards were full of gesticulating citizens sharing their political views publically. Was this the same county where twenty-five years prior my ESL students had prohibited their teacher from teaching them words like politics and strike?
I flew home and anxiously awaited news. My first news came via e-mail from my wife, Tsai Ling. "DPP WON!!!!! 4.8 million vs. 4.1 million (Soong) vs 2.8 M (Lien). I am going out to the balcony to shout! YES YES TIME FOR KMT (Guomingdang) to step down. She wrote something about the Peoples' Republic. Eighty-three percent of the Taiwanese people voted. Despite threats from China, the Guomingdang was voted out of office for the first time since it took over Taiwan in 1949. With Chen Shuibien, the Taiwanese people elected Annette Lu as vice president of Taiwan. She will be the highest-ranking female government official in its history. They elected a woman who was jailed in 1979 for five years for her advocacy of democracy.
This is tax time in Taiwan so Tsai Ling visited the tax bureau with some dread. The bureaucrats helped her. They even showed her how to decrease her taxes. Somewhat in shock, she returned to the always-crowded street and hailed a cab. Turning to what a National Public Radio commentator's claims is his best source, she asked the cabby what happened to the tax office? The cabby said, "When Chen Shuibian was mayor of Taipei, he insisted that governmental officials be polite." Tsai Ling is proud of her people.
Instead of an attack, leaders of the People's Republic said that they would wait and see what Chen does and says. When asked about his first act as a newly elected President, Chen Shuibien told Time, " The one person I must see is Lee Deng-hui, since I am succeeding him as President. He contributed a lot to Taiwan's democracy and progress, and I will seek his advice on many matters of domestic and international affairs. I think we should form a government that crosses ethnic and party lines, and we should build links to all the other parties. Now that the election is over, passions must subside, especially in cross-Strait relations. We would propose active conciliation to reduce tensions.."
The Time magazine cover with the provocative statement about the election has been posted in different places in Taipei to make a point about an independent citizenry. Democracy begins with a loud free voice.