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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

Richard Vogel/AP
Taiwan's 1996 presidential ballot marked the first direct elections in Chinese history.

TAIPEI: A Democratic Alternative, 1996
A Determined Island Goes Its Own Way

An orchestra and chorus filled the vast indoor stadium with the exultant strains of "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Then Lee Teng-hui, having taken the oath of office as President of the Republic of China, gave an inaugural address congratulating the people of Taiwan on their achievement: installing the first democratically elected president in the history of China. "We have proved eloquently," he declared, "that the Chinese are capable of practicing democracy."

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Quest for Dignity
The success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness

That memorable scene in May 1996 made the gap between Taiwan and China, cavernous since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communist Party, wider than ever before. From a sanctuary for a geriatric, time-warped government-in-exile (for more than four decades Taiwan's rulers claimed sovereignty over all of China), Taiwan became modern, realistic, forward-looking--an island of freedom in the vast sea known as "Greater China." Today, Taiwan's social and political freedoms compare with the most liberal lands in Asia; its booming, computer-driven economy is more robust than most, one of the flexible few to sail mostly unscathed through the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. But most of the world, accepting Beijing's notion that Taiwan is a renegade province, does not treat the island as a country. Diplomatically, it is recognized by fewer than 30 countries and is barred from nearly all international organizations. "Our system still has its imperfections," says Hu Fu, professor of political science at National Taiwan University. "But everyone agrees that the clock now can never be turned back. Democracy is here to stay."

In the delicate balance of China-Taiwan relations, there's a needle in comments such as that. For if unification is the ultimate goal, as China insists and Taiwan rhetorically agrees (with the caveat that unification can take place only if the mainland switches to a democratic system), nothing is absolutely certain for Taiwan's future, certainly not democratic liberties. Taipei can only rely on an indefinite maintenance of the strange status quo, or hope that China itself will change radically--possibly inspired by Taiwan's transformation. "News and information about Taiwan is constantly flowing into China through Hong Kong," observes Kang Ning-hsiang, a member of the government watchdog body known as the Control Yuan. "If we could bring democracy to Taiwan despite the tight-handed rule of Chiang Kai-shek, why can't it be done in China?"

Taiwan's pre-1996 politics in many ways resembled Beijing's. The president was chosen each six years by the National Assembly, most of whose members were elected in 1947 to represent provinces on the mainland. The Legislative Yuan, which passes laws, was similarly decrepit: a judicial ruling in the 1950s stipulated that the solons would hold their seats without facing elections until the mainland was recovered. The Emergency Decree of 1949 placed the island under perpetual martial law. Freedom of speech, the press, and assembly were suspended. A secretive military agency, the Taiwan Garrison Command, snooped on citizens, and through the decades thousands were arrested for being "pro-communist" or for favoring Taiwan's independence. Trials were perfunctory, jail sentences stiff and the gulag justifiably feared, in particular a notorious penal facility on Green Island off Taiwan's rough southeastern coast.

From those prisons an opposition group arose, at first called Dangwai, meaning "outside the party" (referring to the ruling Kuomintang). In 1986, that evolved into an actual party, the Democratic Progressive Party, and the government acquiesced in its formation. The following year, martial law was lifted, and in the succeeding few years, the shackles of oppression dropped off one by one: new newspapers were allowed to open, public demonstrations were made legal, the codgers in the legislature were retired. Full parliamentary elections were held in 1992, and the dreaded Taiwan Garrison Command was disbanded. In 1994, the Constitution was amended to allow direct election of the president and vice president. A full electoral democracy was in place.

How did Taiwan do it? Growing affluence and knowledge of the outside world were a big part of the equation. "Widespread illiteracy was replaced by universal education," says Kang of the Control Yuan, "and isolation gave way to frequent interchange with the rest of the world." Businessmen traveled for trade, and Taiwan sent tens of thousands of its brightest students to universities in the U.S., many of whom returned with a desire for Western-style freedoms. "As a small territory and an island with a maritime culture, Taiwan has always been more open to outside influences than the rest of China," says Antonio Chiang, editor and publisher of the Taipei Times. "The Japanese and then Western influences on this society have been enormous. Also this is an immigrant society without much longstanding tradition of its own. That makes it easier to adapt to new ideas."

Equally important was Taiwan's peculiar mix of ethnicity and politics. The mainlanders who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek never constituted more than 15% of Taiwan's total population, yet they held all the levers of power. Chiang Kai-shek's son and eventual successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, brought more Taiwanese-born pols into the KMT, including Lee Teng-hui. Lee went on to use elections to radically rejigger the ethnic equation. Native-born Taiwanese now run the island, and Hu says that Taiwanese nationalism, rather than an abstract longing for political freedom, was "the driving force behind the push for democracy."

That part of Taiwan's political evolution is unique. But other aspects of its conversion to democracy must be glaringly obvious to Beijing. China too has sent thousands of students abroad, and its affluence level is rising. "The internal pressure for change," says Kang, who has visited China as part of a Taiwanese cross-Strait relations team, "is getting stronger and stronger." Many of China's dissidents are now demanding what Taiwan's activists achieved: direct elections of the top leadership, liberalization of the media, freedom to organize political parties. Today, some of the island's most popular politicians, including Chen Shui-bian, former mayor of Taipei and DPP candidate in the presidential election scheduled for March, are former dissidents. As Lee said in his 1996 inaugural address, Taiwan has shown that the Chinese are capable of embracing democracy--not only successfully, but virtually overnight.

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