To paraphrase a well-known saying by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, there are things that are true on one side of the Taiwan Strait that are false on the other. With the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 16, it appears that increasing numbers of Taiwanese are coming to realize how much their nation’s democracy sets them apart from China and adds to the reality of their identity.
Take, for example, the concept of representative government. In 1956, then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) said: “Let 100 flowers bloom and 100 schools of thought contend.” With this, Mao allegedly invited not only the intellectual community of China, but also all others in the nation, to come forth with suggestions and criticisms on how the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) one-party state government could improve its performance. It was a short-lived request. By mid-1957, after a deluge of criticism, a name list of negative respondents was drawn up and used to imprison and “re-educate” dissidents.
It was a lesson that the people have never forgotten; and a lesson that still holds true. China’s one-party state government continues to only take compliments. Mao used the ploy to root out dissenters, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has shown that his CCP government is to follow that practice as he clamps down on and incarcerates dissenters.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, for decades, people suffered under the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). However, that finally changed when, with a multiparty system, people began electing their legislators in 1992, and their president in 1996. Since that time, 100 flowers have begun to bloom and many schools of thought have begun contending to determine the direction the nation should take. Now, with elections approaching, Taiwanese know that they are the ones who both can, and do, shape their nation’s direction and identity.
While there might not yet be 100 flowers blooming, Taiwanese are to choose their next president from three contending parties: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT and the People First Party (PFP), and their legislators from an even wider range.
The legislature already has several schools of contending thought. In addition to representatives from the DPP, KMT and PFP, there are legislators from the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union and the Republican Party, while still more parties are hoping to bloom in the elections. If their representatives do not win in the districts, then they would hope to gain 5 percent of the party vote to get legislator-at-large seats.
In China, the nepotism of oligarchs reigns supreme and the one-party state government still has a dynastic atmosphere. The passing down of power from father to son in the ruling group is normal. However, in Taiwan, there is no such guarantee. Candidates must continually get voters’ approval in each election. In 2014, former KMT Taipei mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) tried to follow in the governmental footsteps of his father, former vice president Lien Chan (連戰), but voters in Taipei elected independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).
Thus, in the free election atmosphere that exists in Taiwan, many flowers can bloom and many schools of thought can contend. However, that does not guarantee a long life; flowers can fade as well as bloom. The New Party seemed to be a promising formidable force in the mid-1990s, but it soon wilted and has been hard pressed to get any decent representation. Last month, the New Party offered the No. 1 seat of its at-large candidate to former KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) if she switched to run on its ticket. She declined.
The PFP is also on the verge of fading. PFP Chairman and presidential candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜) has been either reluctant to pass the leadership of the party on or has found it difficult to find a successor. Competence is definitely difficult to pass on and it appears the PFP is soon to pass into oblivion as the New Party has. The TSU, which won more than 9 percent of the party vote in 2012, is also now struggling to reach the 5 percent level for at-large seats.
Other ironies exist as well. Former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) is trying to continue his career in politics by running for the legislature under the KMT banner in Keelung. To the surprise of many, his father, former premier Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村), was quoted as saying that the near-defunct New Party, which has always strongly supported unification with China, is the only real KMT that is left.
Among new contenders, one of the most colorful and active parties to appear is the New Power Party. The party developed after the 2014 Sunflower movement. Among its candidates is independence activist Freddy Lim (林昶佐), who is also a heavy-metal musician. Lim has marshaled a number of young followers to help him win a district seat in the legislature.
Alliances are also forming in the race for representation in the legislature. The Green Party and the new Social Democratic Party have joined forces in the hopes that together they might reach the 5 percent level needed to gain at-large party seats. Their candidates have pledged to mutually support the goals of both parties. Due to this pledge, Victoria Hsu (許秀雯), who is an advocate for LGBT rights, has actively campaigned even though she is No. 6 on the joint at-large list. In that position, she knows that the alliance would not get enough votes for her to get a seat, but she campaigns because of the mutual support pledge. That is guarantee enough for her.
If all those parties do not represent enough contending thought, Taiwanese need only listen to the many TV talk shows where political positions are constantly dissected.
Mao might have coined the phrase “let 100 schools of thought contend,” but it took the democratic nation of Taiwan to show what the statement really means.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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