Taiwan’s unique place in fight for democracy

By Joseph Tse-hei Lee 李榭熙  / 

Thu, Mar 09, 2017 - Page 8

US President Donald Trump recently accused his predecessor, former US president Barack Obama, of illegally wiretapping his communications during last year’s bitterly intense presidential election campaign.

After taking office, he blamed federal government staff for deliberately leaking national secrets to the press in a bid to discredit him in public and undermine his administrative agenda.

These allegations are as yet unproven, but it is becoming increasingly worrying that Trump dwells on an obsessive fear of a conspiracy of the deep state that strives to destroy his presidency from within.

Political scientists and journalists have drawn on the discourse of a “deep state” to investigate the role that the military and a shadowy network of governing elites play in places such as Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements cooperate with each other to obstruct democratically elected civilian governments.

Taiwan was a one-party state ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The national army was primarily a KMT-controlled military force, with mandatory ideological indoctrination for all commanders and soldiers to ensure their absolute loyalty to former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).

The transition to democracy, full of excitement and pitfalls, was a long and tortuous process for many Taiwanese. Since the democratization of the 1990s, the national army and police force have embraced the principle of political neutrality for civil servants, even though many senior commanders remain lifelong members or sympathizers of the KMT. This ended the persistence of a deep state with entrenched military, political and economic interests that would clandestinely conspire to disrupt government policy and attack democratic leaders.

When former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) first came to office in 2000, he was determined to reinvent the nation as a pluralistic, liberal and cosmopolitan country with a vision of promoting peace and justice worldwide.

Chen’s administration generously supported democracy and human rights advocates in neighboring regions through the Taiwan Democracy Foundation, the Democratic Pacific Union and numerous grants. These initiatives symbolized a major paradigm shift in Taiwan’s self-understanding from a state-centric polity into a human-centered democratic system.

Last year, the Democratic Progressive Party won a landslide victory in the presidential and legislative elections. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has become the chief executive of the government rather than a ceremonial figurehead. Tsai has envisioned a new direction for Taiwan and proposed a series of incremental reforms to strengthen democratic governance and human rights, to improve people’s wellbeing, to pursue official and unofficial diplomatic ties and to achieve transitional justice.

Following in the footsteps of Chen, Tsai is equally keen to make Taiwan a democratic safe haven that is free from fear and the threat of suppression, and which protects the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Taiwan’s remarkable journey toward democracy and self-determination is part of a global democratization project. Its embrace of universal values and norms, religious and cultural diversity and democratic governance are essential for fostering an inclusive environment for people with vastly different opinions, ranging from liberal to conservative.

Despite the long history of Chinese migration and the strong southern Chinese influence, Taiwan has constructed and upheld a unique democratic identity that should be recognized globally.

Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York.