Taiwan: the First Chinese Republic

Rep. Nancy Pelosi has received criticism from Republicans, Democrats and others for visiting Taiwan. Some have mentioned the insult to China. More thougtful critics have suggested her trip would cause more trouble for Taiwan, by waving a “red flag” at China.(Irony unintentional)

I want to commend the Speaker for including Taiwan in her Asia trip. She visited a number of countries in Asia; Taiwan is a trading partner with the USA, a source of immigrants, and a vacation spot for Americans, so a visit by a member of the US Congress is appropriate for maintaining friendly relations with a true friend of America.

It is true that the US no longer maintains formal diplomatic relations with the government that rules Taiwan. But everyone recognizes that Taiwan exists. Even the People’s Republic of China, which benefits from billions of dollars in direct investment by Taiwan companies, and which actively trades with Taiwan, recognizes that Taiwan exists.

Taiwan has survived many jolts in the past 51 years. It has survived President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing, and his friendliness with Mao Zedong. Taiwan has survived the diplomatic recognition of the PRC by the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

Taiwan has survived the overtures toward an alliance with the PRC by President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Taiwan has survived the elevation by President George H W Bush of the People’s Republic to an equal member of the New World Order.

Taiwan has survived the rush by American and European countries to invest in mainland China. This rush was motivated by the low wage level in People’s China after decades of Communist rule. And Taiwan has survived as the People’s Republic has annexed and come to dominate Hong Kong and Macao.

The Taiwan Miracle

In normal terms, “Taiwan Miracle” refers to the Taiwan Economic Miracle, a period of rapid economic growth at the beginning of the 1960s. Taiwan grew rapidly alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, the 4 countries referred to as the “Asian Tigers.”

Taiwan has other miracles. Its economic strength provided the basis for the miracle of Taiwan’s survival, referred to above. And the other Taiwan miracle is the implementation of competitive democratic elections in the 1980s and 1990s, ending the one-party rule of the mainland refugees in the Kuomintang.

They Called Themselves Republics

China has proclaimed itself a republic twice. In 1911, when Kuomintang (KMT) – the National People’s Party, took power, it proclaimed the Republic of China and adopted a Constitution providing for a President and a National Congress to be indirectly elected. Democratic as the Constitution appeared, the reality was that from 1911 to 1949, China was under the one party rule of the KMT, with opposition groups harassed and oppressed.

From 1921 to 1927, the Communist Party collaborated with the Kuomintang, with Communists welcomed into the membership ranks of the KMT. The KMT was a full affiliate of the Communist International; Chiang Kai-Shek represented the KMT on the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

After the suppression of Communists and labor unionists in Shanghai in 1927, the Communist Party went into opposition, eventually engaging in violent revolutionary insurrection against the KMT regime. After a brief United Front of the two parties in opposition to the Japanese invasion, the civil war resumed in 1946, with the Communist Party taking power in 1949.

The Communist Party shot its way into power, as the KMT attempted to defend its power with its own guns. The People’s Republic of China, allied with the USSR, was established by violence, not democratic elections. Since taking power in 1949, The Communist Party of China has never allowed legal opposition, and illegal dissent has been ruthlessly suppressed. So neither Chinese Republic really qualifies as such under the American understanding.

Republic of Singapore

There is another Chinese polity that claims to be a Republic. Since 1965, the island based city-state Singapore has been independent as the Republic of Singapore. Even before independence, Singapore had a ruling party. The People’s Action Party has ruled continuously since the establishment of home rule for the Singapore colony in 1959. Since Independence the PAP has dominated the legislature with overwhelming majorities, and the President has always been a member of the PAP.

The policies of the PAP which have promoted economic growth through a regulated market economy are popular with many people. The PAP control of the government has given it control of Singapore’s media, either through direct government ownership (in violation of the market economy) or very active censorship of the media.

Opposition parties have been subject to (non-violent) harassment by supporters of the PAP. In several cases, opposition candidates who have won elections have been subject to post-election harassment, even arrest. There has never been rotation in office in Singapore, peaceful or otherwise.

The First Chinese Republic

In the 1980s, after decades of rule by the Kuomintang, run by mainland exiles, several leaders of Taiwan undertook a transition to democracy.

After the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, his son Chiang Ching-kuo became Chair of the Kuomintang in Taiwan. He began reforms in the 1980s to allow more civil liberties and the beginning of democratic participation in the government by the Taiwanese people.

While the KMT remained dominant during the Presidency of Chiang Ching-kuo, the Democratic Progressive Party continued to grow, with less harassment by authorities. The DPP, composed of Taiwan natives, advocated a clear statement of Taiwan independence, while the KMT continued to claim to be part of China; it continued to claim, in a pro-forma way, that it was the legitimate authority in the mainland.

Chiang Ching-kuo picked Lee Teng-hui as his Vice-President and successor in 1984, and Lee was elected by the Congress to the post. Lee Teng-hui was born in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, and was fluent in Japanese, as well as the Hokkien dialect spoken by 70% of the population of Taiwan. He became the first native born Taiwanese to be elected Vice-President.

On December 25, 1985, Chiang Ching-kuo spoke on Constitution Day about the Presidential succession: The first question is the succession to the presidency. This sort of question only exists in despotic and totalitarian countries. It does not exist in the Republic of China, based on the Constitution. So the next President will be elected in accordance with constitutional procedure by the National Assembly on behalf of the people.

After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988, the Congress of the Republic of China elected Lee Teng-hui President of the ROC. The first Taiwan-born President, he prepared the way for a multi-party system. He was the last President of the ROC chosen by Congress, and in May 1991. President Lee headed a drive to eliminate the emergency laws adopted by the KMT to deal with the Communist Menace – laws which had been abused to maintain a KMT monopoly of power.

In 1996 Taiwan held direct elections for the first time. Seeing that this would strengthen Taiwan by increasing the loyalty of the population toward the ROC, military forces of the PRC conducted missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan, and other military exercizes off the coast of Fujian province. In 1996, Lee Teng-hui became the first President directly elected by the people of Taiwan.

Rotation in Office

President Lee supported the Taiwanese Localization Movement, which emphasized Taiwanese identity, in contrast to the China-centric doctrines promoted in Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek. This, and further political liberalization, prepared the way for the elections of 2000, which were unprecedented in any Chinese polity.

The Democratic Progressive Party had been formed in 1986, a year before the end of martial law. President Chiang Ching-kuo did not suppress it, and it grew based on its appeals to the Taiwanese people. After legalization, it affiliated with the Liberal International, and developed a platform defending civil liberties and the independence of Taiwan.

In 2000,Chen Shui-bien, candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected President, with a plurality vote in a three way race. Then the miracle: the incumbent President affiliated with the KMT, left office and let the newly elected Chen Shui-bien take office as President. This was the first time in Chinese history that a Chinese polity experienced peaceful rotation in office. Since 2000, every election in Taiwan has been accompanied by a peaceful rotation in office, as incumbents surrender their power to those elected to succeed them.

An American Principle

Rotation in office is a fundamental principle of the American republic, enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. It is true that until the accession of Caesar to leadership of the Roman Republic, Rome had elections for Consul, and when new Consuls were elected, they peacefully took office. After the end of the Roman Republic, it would be nearly two millenia before any European country had a peaceful rotation in office.

In America, the first President, George Washington was ready to retire after one term, but gave in to demands that he accept a second term in office. At the end of his second term, in 1797, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, and devoted his time to his plantation, his distillery, and other business interests. In retiring from office, George Washington proved the strength of the new Republic and its Constitution, and set the precedent for peaceful rotation in office, a precedent unbroken until the events of January 6, 2021.

As America faces a threat to its Constitution and its Republic from the forces loyal to former President Donald J Trump, those of us who defend the Republic need allies and friends. What better friend to our Republic than the first Chinese polity to move beyond the Chinese history of one-party rule, the first Chinese polity to institutionalize rotation in office?

Long Live Free Taiwan! And, we can hope, Long Live Freedom and a Free America!

(by Gene Berkman, Editor, California Libertarian Report)

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