Taiwan’s two “fathers of democracy,” Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) and former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), passed away during the past two years. When Lee and Peng bade farewell to the nation, there was no sign of authoritarianism in Taiwan, as remembered at sites such as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei or the Touliao Mausoleum in Taoyuan’s Dasi District (大溪), which commemorate former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) respectively.
That is as it should be, because Lee and Peng’s great achievements have long been integrated into daily life.
Since 1996, during the successive presidencies of Lee, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the handovers of power from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), then back to the KMT and back to the DPP again, have revolved around one central axis — the gradual consolidation of popular sovereignty.
The replacement of statues of the two Chiangs by a new kind of master — the nation’s citizens — marks the extent to which Taiwan’s democracy has become a normal aspect of everyday life. Ideals have come to take a back seat, while elections take priority, with few exceptions among governing and opposition parties alike.
As to whether this is progress or regression, people naturally have differing perspectives on the matter.
Since 1988, when Chiang Ching-kuo died, the two Chiangs had stepped down from their pedestal, and no one took their place. Democracy ended deification, and the political elite are no longer revered as they were during the authoritarian era.
In today’s Taiwan, almost anyone can be a critic. When it comes to electoral contests, those who are in tune with the public’s wishes prevail, while those who are out of tune perish. Great ideals must all face the test of reality.
From the dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) opposition to the Formosa Magazine generation and the team of lawyers who represented the dissidents arrested after the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979, the change of scene to popular sovereignty has caused the aura that used to surround them to gradually dim. Some of them have even found it hard to get used to democracy.
Those who remain in the political arena are subject to the strict scrutiny of public opinion, and their past contributions do not give them immunity. A wave of populism led to the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) being elected as Kaohsiung mayor in 2018, but what happened later proved that the real driving force behind his election was public discontent.
Chen, who had been one of the lawyers who defended those charged in the Kaohsiung Incident, was elected mayor of Taipei in 1994, but was not re-elected four years later. Paraphrasing former British prime minister Winston Churchill, Chen said that “ingratitude toward the progressive team is the mark of a great city.”
Chen’s remark had a broader meaning beyond his own emotions. It meant that in Taiwan, if you believe in democracy, you must accept the public’s choice, including their choices for Taiwan’s future.
The political elite cannot regard themselves as tutors to the public. No matter how well or badly politicians perform, people have a right to like them or not. Ma, as president of Taiwan, headed a restoration of authoritarianism.
When Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan on Aug. 8, 2009, causing disastrous floods, Ma criticized “them” — the victims of the typhoon — because “they” had not evacuated before the storm.
Ma put all the blame for the disaster on residents of the affected areas, but saying that it was “their” fault caused his popularity to nosedive. This was a typical conflict between the political elite and the public’s right to be in charge.
In January 2015, soon after taking office, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) said he agreed with former Kaohsiung mayor Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) assessment that voters had chosen him to change society, not to adapt to it.
Ko went on to say: “People vote for you because of the way you are. If you changed into a [Premier] Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) or a Tsai Ing-wen, would you still be Ko Wen-je?”
The self-identity revealed in Ko’s words had an air of nostalgia. In this democratic era, when people choose someone to speak for them, it is because that person reflects the collective will of the public, and as masters of society, the public expects that person to play the role of a public servant rather than a great leader.
If elected representatives grant themselves the sacred mission of condescending to educate the public, they estrange themselves from those who originally supported them.
Many political figures think themselves superior to others. The “1992 consensus” and the idea that “the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one big family” are not what the public wants. If elected officials insist on force-feeding such notions to their masters — the public — they soon suffer the consequences.
In Taiwan’s democratic journey, each set of pioneers has taken up the baton from their predecessors. It is thanks to their efforts that the public is in charge today. Their pioneering ideas and actions were indeed enlightening in the context of the time, and guided Taiwanese forward.
However, with the deepening of democracy — as natural as sunlight, air and water — what seemed revolutionary in those years has gradually come to be seen as commonplace.
Lee and Peng competed and cooperated inside and outside the establishment. The dangwai, the Formosa Magazine generation, the human rights lawyers, and all those who worked for Taiwan gradually receded into the background as the story of democracy unfolded, but their spirit is forged into Taiwan’s soul, and they are still writing the story of democracy through the hands of ordinary people.
This is the inevitable banalization of democracy, which those forerunners who truly believed in democracy were surely well aware of.
Tsai was an outsider in relation to authoritarian rule and the opposition movement, but now that she is president, Taiwan is attracting international attention as a bellwether of democracy in the Indo-Pacific region.
Lee emerged from an authoritarian regime and went on to promote democracy, while Peng was a pioneer of ideas who spent many years in exile. In 1996, they witnessed the public’s choice when they were rival candidates in Taiwan’s first popular presidential election.
In 2008, they witnessed a different people’s choice when KMT presidential candidate Ma defeated his DPP rival Hsieh, who had been Peng’s running mate in 2008.
In 2016, Taiwanese followed the spirit of Lee and Peng, as voters elected Tsai, standing for the DPP over her KMT rival Eric Chu (朱立倫).
In 2018, Taiwan’s democracy was jolted by a wave of populism in the local government elections. In 2019, paths diverged when Peng coauthored an open letter urging Tsai not to run for re-election.
However, by the 2020 presidential election, in which Tsai was re-elected, the differing camps became more closely aligned and agreed on a destination.
Democracy has become ordinary. Nowadays, Taiwan’s 23.6 million inhabitants enjoy democracy in their daily lives, and many of them were born into it. They are the “children of democracy.” With sovereignty in their hands, they also bear the responsibilities of citizens.
In 2004, the 228 Hand-in-Hand rally against China’s military threats marked a milestone on the road to Taiwan’s civil awakening. In the authoritarian era of the past, ordinary people placed their hopes in the opposition elite, who were willing to take risks for the sake of the public. Later on, the 1990 Wild Lily student movement and the 2014 Sunflower movement were spontaneous actions that had no need of heroes.
Opposition elites have completed their historic transfer of power to the public, a power that had once been monopolized by the few.
As for their legacy, it is the honor of the “fathers of democracy” to have put Taiwan on the international stage, where it no longer needs to be worried about being betrayed.
In this perilous age in which democracy retreats worldwide and a new cold war is emerging, Taiwan is about to turn the page to the next chapter, in which it can contribute to the civilized world, and that is the vision of the “children of democracy.”
Translated by Julian Clegg
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