Thirty years ago, Huang Huang-hsiung (黃煌雄) founded the Taiwan Research Foundation. In 1988, the year then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) died, Taiwanese and the rest of the world were left with a feeling of uncertainty, wondering what the future of Taiwan would hold as the strongman era ended.
Today, 30 years later, Taiwan, on the margins of the East Asian mainland, is the freest and happiest country in Asia.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is growing stronger and joining the global free trade order. Its growing economic strength is accompanied by dreams of becoming a great power and it sees Taiwan as the final obstacle to the revival of the Chinese people. The shadow of the Gate of Heavenly Peace is looming large over Taiwan.
In the past, the Taiwan Research Foundation held the name “Taiwan” high as it adopted the social enlightenment, activism and spirit of Taiwanese democracy pioneer Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水). The foundation called on intellectuals to engage in local research, and together consider and study the significance and value of Taiwan’s existence, and how to bring about fair and just constitutional democracy in Taiwan.
Two books published by the fund in 1989, National Defense White Paper and Monopoly and Exploitation: A Political Economic Analysis of Authoritarianism, opened up two academic and policy fields unfamiliar to academics and members of the opposition movement.
The academic field involved systemic issues, such as national defense strategy and the institutionalization of the military, while the policy field focused on how the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) used its political power and economic interests to develop a patron-client relationship with the Taiwan-centered political elite. Little by little, it also uncovered the process through which the KMT used its ill-gotten party assets and commercial monopolies to become a political and economic beast.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s entire policy for settling the KMT party asset issue is based on the groundbreaking studies by the foundation 30 years ago.
The foundation’s pioneering spirit and inclusive platform attracted a group of academics and students that cared for Taiwan’s development, and in 1990, the Wild Lily Student Movement forced the KMT government to end the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion (動員戡亂時期). This marked the start of Taiwan’s development toward constitutional reform and democratization.
The foundation was valuable because it provided academics with dissenting opinion as well as young academics and students with a platform, and allowed the spark of their surging intellects to light the flames of reform and help Taiwan move forward.
However, it did not pay enough attention to the rise of the PRC and the different speeds with which the strengths of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would develop, or to the indulgence of opportunistic extreme nationalist dogmatists. Perhaps this is an issue the generation that directed its attention to the addressing and rationalizing Taiwan’s domestic order has left for the next generation.
The DPP has finally assumed the reins of government and this raises several questions: After 30 years of democratic transformation and several transitions of power, has the DPP realized the vision it had for Taiwan 30 years ago? If not, which aspects need to be reviewed and further discussed? In which direction should the DPP lead Taiwan as we are facing a new Cold War between the US and China and global interdependence? These are the big questions for the next 30 years.
Many of the student campaigners from that time, who later passed through the foundation, make up the backbone of Taiwan’s academic and political circles or will be the tomorrow’s brightest stars. Those in charge today are of a new generation no longer weighed down by the political resentments of the past. If a democratic government was the most urgent issue for the past 30 years, then sustainable development and the coming changes in the cross-strait relationship will be the biggest future challenges.
The question that we must face today is whether we have the same opportunity to bring together top Taiwanese academics and experts with a fundamental concern for and willingness to protect democracy, freedom and Taiwanese identity that we had 30 years ago, and if they would be able to look beyond the unification-independence issue and party factionalism to discuss and build a new consensus for a national development strategy.
Tseng Chien-yuan is an associate professor of public administration at Chung Hua University and an adviser to the Taiwan Brain Trust.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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