Aiming to oust Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, opposition Nationalist Party leader Ma Ying-jeou, center, led protesters carrying portraits of Chen and signs reading, "End Corruption" during a march last Sunday in Taipei, Taiwan.
With America's help, a fledgling democracy took wing in Taiwan
TOBACCO-leaf-shaped Taiwan is often overlooked and underappreciated due to the extensive coverage of China's economic development and growing presence on the international stage. However, Taiwan has achieved a higher level of overall development than China. Thus it has valuable lessons to share with developing nations throughout the world in economic development, democratization and public health.
Upon the Allied victory in World War II, Taiwan was liberated from Japanese colonial control and returned to the control of the Nationalist Chinese government-dominated Republic of China. At the time of reversion, Taiwan was mainly a large rice paddy that benefited from some good basic infrastructure in the form of railways and harbors that the Japanese had built during their 50 years of colonial control.
It became obvious that the Nationalist Chinese were unable to gain traction in the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949. With the victory of the Chinese communists imminent, the nationalist government and 2 million supporters retreated to Taiwan where they re-established the ROC.
With U.S. prodding, the Nationalists began to realize their shortcomings on the mainland, which hastened their downfall. Pearl Buck's 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Great Earth," vividly portrays the importance of owning land in the Chinese psyche and that land ownership was a key to acquiring wealth. Unfortunately, the lion's share of Chinese mainland landownership was concentrated in the hands of a small landowning class. Those who worked the land entered into usurious sharecropper arrangements with landlords to eke out an existence. To make matters worse, the landlords were a key pillar of nationalist political support.
The Nationalist government owed no similar allegiance to Taiwan landlords. Moreover, the success of the U.S. and South Korean authorities in carrying out land reform in South Korea from 1945-1950 and U.S. occupation authorities' successful land reform in Japan from 1946-1950 were impressive and gave hope that such success could be repeated in Taiwan. With U.S. advice and assistance, between 1949 and 1953, land rents were first reduced and ultimately large landholders were compelled to sell their land at a fair price. The land was then sold to former sharecroppers at reasonable rates which could be financed over a 10-year period.
By 1953, 80 percent of all arable land in Taiwan was owned by those who tilled it. Working their own land, agricultural production exploded and created a surplus that was exported to gain hard currency. Farming families' material lives began to steadily improve. Former landlords took their compensation and invested in Taiwan's nascent industrial base. With a vibrant agricultural sector and sizzling industrial growth, Taiwan created a firm economic base to which its economic success soon spoke for itself.
I first went to Taiwan in 1973 to study Chinese at Taiwan Normal University's Mandarin Training Center. In those days, Taiwan clearly was a dictatorship under firm martial law. Local elections were tightly controlled, and no party other than the ruling Nationalist Party could legally campaign, although individuals could throw their hats into the ring. The National Assembly, whose members had mainly been in office since being elected in the mainland, ostensibly elected the president and vice president. Since the ROC's authority was then limited to Taiwan, NA members had a safe job until the ROC returned to the mainland where new elections to the body would be held, so the rationale went.
Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang Kai-shek) became president of the ROC in 1978. In 1987, he lifted martial law, which ushered in direct popular elections for president and vice president. Moreover, he allowed the formation of opposition parties that would be able to campaign on an equal basis with the Nationalist Party. Before these reforms were implemented, those who vigorously protested or demonstrated against the government were often arrested and prosecuted in a military court on sedition charges. Upon sentencing, they were sent off to Green Island, a small island off of the southeast corner of Taiwan, to serve their time in a special prison for political prisoners. Today, the prison is a museum to remind people of the past.
COURTESY BILL SHARP
Ushers posed for a snapshot along the parade route Oct. 10 at the National Day Celebration in Taipei, Taiwan. CLICK FOR LARGE
There was no real legislative body where policy options could be debated. Owing to the growth of political parties in Taiwan, political life is very active, typified by the highly energetic lifayuan
(legislature), which is often a stage of spirited debate that sometimes spills over into open brawls. People in Taiwan feel embarrassed about such antics. However, when the Japanese Diet first began to convene after World War II, in contemporarily democratized South Korea, and in the early days of the United States, fist-fighting was a common practice in legislative bodies. It's just part of democratic maturation.
The large-scale demonstrations carried out by former Democratic Progressive Party leader and founder Shih Mingde's "red shirts" demanding President Chen Shui-bian's ouster in the lead-up to the Oct. 10 (Double Ten) National Day celebrations are further evidence of Taiwan's democratization. Claiming that the controversial Chen government was corrupt because of his son-in-law's arrest for insider trading and his wife, Wu Shu-chen's, acceptance of $100,000 in vouchers for political favors from upscale Sogo department store (for which she was later cleared), the streets of Taipei and other cities swelled with red-shirt-clad demonstrators demanding Chen xiatai (step down). Not to be outdone, Chen's supporters, the "pan-green" (green is the color of Chen's party, the DPP) would counter-demonstrate. The number of demonstrators varied depending on who was demonstrating and when, but ran as high as 200,000.
As a government-invited member of an international group of journalists, I observed the Oct. 10 National Day celebrations in front of the president's office in central Taipei. A number of parliament members in attendance doffed their outer wear to expose their red shirts, disrupting the events and demanding the president go packing. Many Taiwanese government officials and political personalities were concerned that such demonstration would be embarrassing for Taiwan, especially in the eyes of the international community. Compared to the Taiwan of 1973 that I witnessed, I was impressed by the degree of democratic sophistication that Taiwan has gained. The security officials and police handled the situation with obvious sensitivity. Such would not have been the case in 1973 during Chiang Kai-shek's day, and it certainly would not be the case in today's mainland China where police are universally reviled and who would have quickly resorted to violence in the form of punching and kicking to control demonstrators.
On Nov. 3, another shoe dropped. Mrs. Chen and three aides were indicted by the Taiwan High Prosecutor's Office for embezzlement, forgery and perjury, falsifying $450,000 in receipts, which she presented to the President's Office for reimbursement from a presidential discretionary fund for secret diplomacy.
President Chen directed his aides to make payment. However, Chen was not indicted, although he was clearly implicated, owing to presidential immunity until his term expires in May 2008. On Nov. 5 (Taiwan time), President Chen publicly stated that if his wife is found guilty that he would resign. It's unthinkable that any prosecutor would ever have even hinted that the elder Chiang or wife Song Meiling might have crossed an unacceptable legal threshold. Public criticism of a key leader in mainland China spells incarceration.
Leader in health, research
As a leading global trading power, Taiwan's membership in the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is of obvious benefit to member countries. Owing to mainland China's policy that seeks to isolate Taiwan within Asia and the world at large, Taiwan's membership in the World Health Organization has been blocked. Nevertheless, according to Ming-liang Lee, former ROC health minister, Taiwan's high level of medical care, medical professionalism, medical technology, research work on Hepatitis B and readiness to confront avian flu would make it a valuable member with much to share with all WHO members.
Moreover, Taiwan has dispatched hundreds of health workers to developing countries and established curricula in Taiwan to train international public health workers. Taiwan's membership in the WHO would remove an obvious hole in the world wide health network resulting in more timely transmission and exchange of crucial health data.
In economics, politics and public health, Taiwan has much to be proud of and much to share with the world. As its most steadfast supporter, the United States should also feel pride in Taiwan's successes.
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian International Relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary about events in Asia for the Star-Bulletin.