On a superficial level, after the January 2016 elections, the Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), seems like a highly pragmatic political party of the past contesting for power in a forward-looking democratic Taiwan. However, when one takes a deeper look at the KMT’s historical roots, one soon realizes the complex irony of their situation.
Taiwan’s shift from an authoritarian dictatorship to a democracy appeared to be a counterintuitive direction for the ruling KMT, who had been attempting to maintain absolute control over the island for the previous 40 years. However, this was no benevolent change of heart; instead, it was a calculated move made by the Kuomintang to preserve their party in the face of a changing environment in which maintaining the status quo was not a viable option. It is this willingness to morph their political values and actions that has allowed the KMT to survive in an ever-changing socio-political climate.
The Path to Authoritarianism
From the genesis of its rule, the KMT has been willing to bend its core ideological beliefs in order to fit the environment that it is ruling in. This malleability is all the more perceptible because, although authoritarianism defined the KMT’s rule over Taiwan from 1947 to 1987, the original roots of the party were based in democracy. Sun Yat-Sen, founding father of the Republic of China and co-founder of the KMT, believed in the necessity for a democratically-run China. In his book The Principle of Democracy (1924), Dr. Sun described that “great power [the power over the government] will be placed entirely in the hands of the people, who will have a full degree of sovereignty and will be able to control directly the affairs of state — this political power is popular sovereignty.”
His understanding of the immense responsibility it would be to govern such a large nation laid the ideological groundwork for the constitution of the Republic of China. His successors attempted to harness Sun’s political ideals. On December 25th 1946, the National Assembly of the Republic of China, made up of over 500 elected officials, ratified a new Constitution for the Republic of China. Although the constitution was meant to govern over all of China, by 1949 the Chinese Communist Party had overtaken the Chinese mainland, leaving only Taiwan under the control of the ROC. The first article of the entire constitution states that: “The Republic of China, founded on the Three Principles of the People, shall be a democratic republic of the people, to be governed by the people and for the people.” The KMT was built up on the fibers of democracy; however the post war political atmosphere and rise of charismatic despot Chiang Kai-Shek called for the KMT to put a pause on the creation of a democratic Taiwan.
After the end of World War II, the grip of the Japanese receded from much of East Asia, providing the Republic of China a golden opportunity to bolster their claim of total dominion over the entirety of China. As the Japanese colonial administration was expelled from Taiwan, the ROC’s troops moved in. With a civil war going on in the mainland, and a strong Japanese influence still leftover on Taiwanese culture, the KMT believed that only a centralized strict rule would allow them to be instated as the governing power in Taiwan. They felt that this abandonment of democratic ideology was necessary to fit the needs of their new land.
Their initial rule was felt with growing dissent by the Taiwanese citizens as thousands of ROC soldiers poured in, a new autocratic government took control, and new governmental programs were put in place, such as the Taiwan Provincial Monopoly Bureau, which monopolized the sale of tobacco and other goods. This rising contempt soon bubbled over on February 28th 1947, when a woman selling illegal cigarettes was beaten by a state official. The resulting protests against the KMT left between an estimated 10,000 and 20,000 Taiwanese dead, and resulted in the enactment of martial law. Primarily there was the instatement of a curfew, but then in 1949, after suffering a major military defeat in China by the Communist Party, the Republic of China relocated their party from Nanjing to Taipei and embarked on a campaign called the White Terror. With a prerogative to maintain popular submissiveness, the KMT’s then leader Chiang Kai-Shek used martial law to set in place laws that would deny the Taiwanese citizens their ROC constitutional freedoms of speech, of press, of assembly, and of the freedom to create opposing political parties. This resulted in the imprisonment of roughly 140,000 political prisoners up until 1987.
In order to consolidate and maintain control of Taiwan, the KMT felt that they were obligated to extinguish all criticism with a strong fist. While the majority of Taiwanese (benshengren) felt too intimidated to act out, the few who did felt the wrath of the KMT’s absolute power. In the 1950s, a popular newspaper by the name of Free China (created by a progressive leaning Mainlander named Lei Chen in 1949) continuously critiqued the ruling of the KMT. A few examples included calling out Chiang Kai-Shek on his altering of the constitution to extend the President’s two-term limit, as well as the publishing of an article called “Why We Urgently Need a Strong Opposition Party”. The article summoned supporters of democracy to form a new party before the next upcoming election, and within two days a “Forum for the Review and Discussion of Local Elections” was held. It gathered the Chinese Youth Party, Chinese Democratic Socialist Party as well as Taiwanese democrats who, through debate, decided that the only way to end the corrupt reign of the KMT was through the creation of the Chinese Democratic Party. This conversation soon turned into plans for the creation of said party, and Lei Chen was chosen to be its main leader.
As the optimism for the creation of the party was reaching its peak, on September 7th, 1960, Lei Chen with some of his employees from Free China were arrested. Lei was convicted of “Failure to Report Communist Bandits” and “Spreading Communist Propaganda” and sentenced to ten years in prison. With one fell swoop, the KMT removed an influential opposition leader and crushed the progress of the pro-democracy movement of the 1960s without worrying about the negative impact that it would have on popular opinion. Nevertheless, the Taiwanese saw through Lei’s conviction and they did not forget about his being silenced; however, their voices would not be heard until over a decade later when the sociopolitical environment had drastically changed the way that the KMT could react to criticism.
Chiang Ching-Kuo and Taiwan’s Middle Class
Chiang Ching-Kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son, became President in 1978 after rising through the political ranks of the government. Ching-Kuo, unlike his father Kai-Shek, understood that his legacy was dependent on a combination of Taiwan’s international and domestic images, although he was not yet willing to compromise the KMT’s monopoly on power. Instead, he looked towards boosting the economy through a series of government-sponsored projects as a way to boost his overall approval, and cement Taiwan as a ‘developed’ power internationally.
In 1976 he put forward Ten Major Construction Projects as well as Twelve New Development Projects, which created an abundance of jobs and boosted the economy and income in Taiwan. This increase in prosperity created what some would call ‘The Taiwan Miracle’, marking the beginning of Taiwan’s recognition as an economic power. However, what Chiang Ching-Kuo may not have anticipated was that nationwide economic growth and greater job opportunity for the masses came hand in hand with the rise of a strong middle class, many of whom were benshengren.
Now that the Taiwanese – who were still the majority, compared to the Mainlanders (waishengren) of the KMT – were becoming more affluent due to the ‘Taiwan Miracle’, their influence began to increase, drastically altering the KMT’s ability to maintain an absolute control. Taiwanese people were joining the social elite, and increasing their enrollment in higher education. This posed a problem for the KMT, who for the past 35 years had been strongly oppressing any kind of separate identity for the Taiwanese. Laws prohibiting the learning or speaking of the local languages left many Taiwanese feeling extremely repressed. Signs in the streets saying “Be Proper and Upstanding Chinese People–Speak Mandarin!” reinforced the belittling of their identity. There was also a lack of shared experience between the Taiwanese and the Mainland-born Chinese, and Chiang Kai-Shek reinforced this sentiment by fostering an “us-versus-them” mentality. This, compounded with the silencing of their varying political beliefs, caused a lot of anger amongst this new Taiwanese middle class.
Therefore, in order to maintain control, the KMT felt like they needed to pander to the Taiwanese by loosening up some of their restrictions on Taiwanese identity. This included the recruitment of island-born Taiwanese into political positions in the KMT. However, this half-hearted attempt to create a more “inclusive” authoritarianism was not enough to dissuade these highly-educated Taiwanese from mobilizing into active opposition to the regime.
Rise of the Taiwanese Opposition
This discontent manifested itself in the rise of the “Tangwai” movement in the mid-1970s. The Tangwai, or “outside the party,” was a term given by the government to describe politicians outside of the KMT; that is, they campaigned as independents since formal opposition parties were still prohibited. The Tangwai gained considerable momentum by harnessing the power of Taiwanese identity held by much of the populace. The methods to recruit people into the movement improved as well. Rather than wait for people to be attracted to the movement, Kuo Yü-hsin, an active leader of the Tangwai, brought the movement to university campuses where he was able to recruit large groups of students. As they began to canvass in the late 1970s, figures in the Tangwai gathered crowds over 10,000 strong and gave speeches reminding the benshengren of their distinct, yet suppressed history. One leader in the party, K’ang Ning-hsiang, gave his speeches solely in the Taiwanese tongue. This caused intense feelings of nostalgia among his audiences, who were reminded of the uniqueness of their culture compared to the waishengren of the KMT.
Similar to the impact of Lei Chen’s Free China of the 50s and 60s, Formosa, a political journal founded in 1979, mustered a large audience of Tangwai. Due to the Formosa’s revolutionary nature, it transformed into a de facto political movement, which incurred the hostility of the KMT authorities. When Formosa hosted a protest to commemorate Human Rights Day in Kaohsiung on December 10th, 1979 – which attracted 30,000 sympathizers – the military appeared and violently suppressed the protesters. This caused casualties on both sides, and resulted in the majority of the leadership of the Tangwai being arrested and charged with insurrection.
However, unlike Lei Chen’s movement in the 1960s, the Tangwai did not crumble into irrelevance due to their relatively larger numbers and mainstream appeal. In contrast, the Kaohsiung Incident provoked a split in the KMT. Extremely conservative officers argued that Chiang Ching-Kuo should not have allowed the gathering in the first place, whereas Ching-Kuo himself began to understand that the days of the KMT’s authoritarian rule may be numbered. In a speech given right after the incident, Chiang said “from now on, we shall address ourselves more actively to developing the basics of democracy, including further fulfillment of the functions of public opinion, strengthening of the rule of law and enhancing the concept of responsible politics”. As Chiang realized the necessity to shift his ideological beliefs in order to garner domestic tranquility, a crack in the KMT’s regime emerged that eventually grew into a large rift.
Although Chiang Ching-Kuo’s rhetoric implied an end to authoritarianism, the ramifications of the Kaohsiung Incident did not convince Chiang Ching-Kuo and the KMT to immediately open up the political system. Indeed, the regime still resorted to violent and repressive measures. One of the Tangwai men arrested for his part in the Kaohsiung incident, Lin I-hsiung, was tortured prior to his military trial. He was told not to tell anyone about his mistreatment, otherwise his family would face the consequences. However, when his mother visited him in jail, she learned of his wounds and tried to contact Amnesty International. On February 28th 1980, Lin’s mother and his two twin daughters were stabbed to death in their home. The Taiwanese government denied connection to the murders, yet Lin’s house was under 24-hour surveillance by the military police.
As photos of Lin’s deceased family circulated throughout Taiwan, outrage towards the authoritarian regime swelled. Many Taiwanese felt inspired to join the democratic movement, which spurred groundswell of supporters by the mid-1980s. These supporters then went on to form the Tangwai Research Association for Public Policy (TRAFPP). This illegal party’s large membership, as well as its insistent demand for legitimization through protests and rallies, caught the attention of Chiang Ching-Kuo. Chiang understood that this popular pressure was the tipping point for the end of the authoritarian regime, for, without a political reform the future of the KMT seemed bleak.
In March of 1986, Chiang began to take the preliminary steps to understand how a democratization would implement itself in Taiwan. He appointed a twelve-person committee to “formulate a plan for lifting martial law, legalizing new political parties, and implementing other important political reforms.” Then in May 1986, for the first time since 1947, negotiations were organized between the KMT and an opposition party. Although the TRAFPP party was still technically illegal, the recognition of their existence in a political sense was the first major step towards democratization. The leaders of the TRAFPP went on to form the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by September 28th, 1986.
Pressure from Abroad
While consistent and growing domestic pressures influenced the softening of the KMT’s rule, concurrent international pressures bolstered such transformative currents. The beginning of the latter process began on October 25th, 1971, in the United Nations. Although both Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) and Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed dominion over all of China, diplomatically there could only be one official government. Even though the KMT had been the official UN representative of China since 1945, many countries began to feel that the KMT, who only directly controlled the small island of Taiwan, was taking up the rightful United Nations spot of the PRC, who controlled all of Chinese mainland. Initially the UN, under the pressure of the US, had refused to legitimize the PRC due to its Communist ideology. However, many member states grew tired of the farce of the KMT-led ROC representing “Free” China, and they were also increasingly fed up with the US’s anti-communist crusade. This lack of political support led the title of “Free China” to be revoked from the KMT regime. In 1971, the United Nation’s General Assembly decreed that it would
Restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-Shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”
Although previous domestic uprisings could potentially suppressed by force and without any need for political reform, the same could not be said for this new external pressure and it forced the party to question its own rule and reconsider its governing strategy.
While the loss of their place in the UN was an important setback, the KMT also felt another form of international pressure due to the evolving politics of other authoritarian regimes in the 1980s. For the first time since the inception of Soviet Russia, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev saw the necessity for governmental reconstruction, or perestroika. In a speech given at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986, Gorbachev said, “Democracy is the wholesome and pure air without which a socialist public organization cannot live a full-blooded life.”
Even Chairman Deng Xiaoping, now leader of the PRC, broke with his predecessor Mao’s policies and ended the sociopolitical quarantine that was the Cultural Revolution. A reformist shift that saw the gradual opening up of China to Western relations and trade. Though KMT rule was in Taiwan was somewhat gentler than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s, the representatives of “Free” China could not allow themselves to be seen as being less progressive than their “unfree” communist contemporaries. This would be upsetting for Chiang Ching-Kuo who implemented economic change during the 1970s in order to boost international perception of the KMT in the wake of the ROC’s loss of its seat in the UN.
The Path to Democratization
Due to the culmination of all the domestic and international pressures stemming from Taiwan’s authoritarianism, Chiang controversially decided that Lee Teng-Hui, a native-born Taiwanese, would be his successor instead of another member of the Chiang family. Chiang Ching-Kuo stated that members of the Chiang family “could not, and would not” run for political office, and that his successor would not continue the military rule of the previous decades. Chiang was worried that the instatement of one of his relatives would lead to the perception of the KMT as a Chiang Dynasty, and would hinder the KMT’s ability to end their authoritarian regime.
Lee had worked closely with Chiang Ching-Kuo since 1981, and at times acted as an advisor for Chiang. This meant that Chiang knew the ideological beliefs of Lee very well, and understood that Lee would be the perfect poster boy in the new democratic Taiwan. Not only was Lee committed to the pursuit of a just democracy, he also shared a nationalistic outlook on Taiwan and the Taiwanese identity that many benshengren could connect to. Chiang believed that Lee could transform the government’s respectability internationally and domestically.
Despite Chiang’s new strategy for democratization, the process was gradual and involved a push-and-pull dynamic between the government and the Taiwanese people. With the KMT primed for the end of their absolute reign, Chiang Ching-Kuo announced the lifting of martial law on July 15th 1987. This reinstated the ROC’s 1949 Constitution, and removed many of Chiang Kai-Shek’s revisions that had expanded his presidential power. The ending of martial law also allowed the DPP to consolidate its support, due to the legalization of oppositional parties.
However, some Taiwanese argued that this reform was solely a shallow attempt to settle domestic pressures and improve the KMT’s domestic and international image. This was because seats in the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan were not open for reelection. The last time that those seats were up for election was in the 1940s, back when the ROC government was still in Nanjing. This meant that the parliament – which controlled the majority of the government’s actions – was filled only with elderly waishengren. So, on May 19th, 1987, 3,000 protesters argued for the complete reelection of the Taiwanese parliament. This domestic unrest did not cease until Lee Teng-Hui assumed the presidency following Chiang Ching-Kuo’s death in 1988.
Lee Teng-Hui proved to be the perfect KMT political image-mender that Chiang had hoped for. His strong willingness to settle domestic grievances and improve international perception brought him wide appeal. However, his public image got off to a rough start. After Lee finished out the rest of Chiang’s term, there was a new Presidential selection in 1990. Although the KMT’s one-party regime had ended, the National Assembly, which was tasked with choosing the president, was full of KMT Mainlanders. This caused a protest of 30,000 students, in what became known as the “Wild Lily Movement,” demanding elections by popular vote.
In a move to appease domestic pressure, Lee invited 50 students into the Presidential palace, and promised them that this would be taken into consideration during his next raft of reforms. By 1991, responding to the aforementioned protests of 1987 and 1990, Lee relieved the entirety of the parliament and held new parliamentary elections. This pleased the opposition parties who would now have a real forum to influence the government. For the first time in Taiwanese history there would be a true democratic election voted by the people, for the people.
Lee’s strategy worked: he won the popular vote in the 1996 election, cementing him as the first ever democratically-elected leader in Taiwan. Lee, deviating from his predecessors’ long reigns, and in accordance with the constitution, stepped down in 2000 after his two terms were over. Just as Chiang had imagined, Lee’s democratic successes began to obscure the KMT’s negative historical reputation and generate a certain respectability.
Revising the Past for the Future
Lee Teng-Hui’s success in the democratization of Taiwan, and his subsequent high approval ratings, created the misconceived assumption that the KMT decided to democratize due to a change in the party’s ideological morality. This misconception stems from an oversimplification of Taiwan’s democratic transition. It shouldn’t be forgotten that ‘Mr. Democracy’ Lee Teng-Hui himself was kicked out of the KMT after publicly stating that he felt as though the KMT’s pro-Beijing policies were going against all that he had fought for during his time as president.
However, later KMT leaders such as former president Ma Ying-Jeou play off such misconceptions, and use them as a tool to improve the KMT’s image through a repackaging of the events that led up to the democratization. In a recent interview, Ma – after being asked about Chiang Ching-Kuo’s feelings towards democracy – responded that Ching-Kuo had a “very strong tendency to become as democratic as possible”. Although this is not technically a lie, it is a disingenuous portrayal of the past as it lacks the context of the significant socio-political pressures that informed this “tendency”. It would be easy to assume that Ma is insinuating that Ching-Kuo was acting on the latter’s own deeply-held personal convictions, and – even more broadly – that such tendencies were fully supported by the KMT.
The reason for this revision of the past is simple: fundamental shifts in Taiwanese politics – and residual negative attitudes towards the party due to its past – have left the KMT with little public support. Many feel that the KMT is creating too many ties to Beijing at the expense of Taiwanese citizens’ democratic and economic freedoms. After Tsai Ing-Wen’s 2016 presidential victory, the waning support for the KMT was starkly visible: it attracted only 31% of the popular vote.
The pragmatic efforts of the KMT to repackage themselves to try and remain relevant in Taiwanese society can never erase the deep roots that Chinese nationalism has within their core ideology – an ideology which apparently trumps their commitment to democracy. As modern-day free thinkers it is our duty to hold the KMT accountable for its oppressive past through an accurate portrayal of Taiwan’s history.
The author would like to thank Dr. Gerald Blaney for his advice and assistance in editing this paper.
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