Sunday, November 22, 2009

Green Shoots of Democracy

Some readers may remember that when I first arrived in Taiwan, it was under martial law. The government was quite wary about foreigners who disappeared in mainland China for a week, and at one point my friends from church had to pull strings and get high-ranking government officials, who were also church members, to vouch for me when I got back from my Bible smuggling forays. In 1987, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and the president of Taiwan at that time declared an end to martial law. Ordinary people could visit relatives in mainland China by way of a third country, and political parties could form. Local elections began to be freer. Members of non-Kuomintang political parties could run as “non-party” candidates in municipal and county elections.

Just before the twins were born, Chiang Chin-kuo passed away from a heart attack. His successor was a native-born Taiwanese (with Fukienese Hakka roots) named Lee Teng-hui. President Lee continued his predecessor’s policies of loosening the KMT’s political control on the island, and that spring, about the time the kids were born, the first semi-free elections were held.

During my early years, when I was still going to school, I had been shocked at the lack of political freedoms in the supposedly “free, democratic” Republic of China. Friends in the States had warned me not to talk politics with people in Taiwan, as it could be dangerous. After a few strange arguments with roommates during my first year, I had taken their advice. Once, Teacher had explained to us that the KMT lost the mainland, in part, because peasants were not ready for democratic rule. When they arrived in Taiwan, they decided to do things differently. First, they built up the economy and the standard of living so that the populace would have time to thoughtfully consider political questions. Next, they focused on education. The KMT believed that the high rates of illiteracy in the mainland had contributed to their downfall. They did not open up elections until even the remotest mountain villages had electricity, running water, daily mail deliveries, and television broadcasts. They also brought the literacy rate among the younger generation up to almost 90% and waited for these people to attain their majority before opening up the elections. Of course, prior to the competitive elections, there had been elections with choices between KMT candidates. This enabled the entire population to grow accustomed to the idea of choosing the best person for the job.

I soon discovered the wisdom behind these measures.

Not long after I married into the Liu family, it was electioneering time. The government limited the time for campaigning, and I truly believe this was wise. Since a large number of elderly people in Taiwan were illiterate, each candidate was given a number. The parties were color-coded with KMT candidates having blue and red banners, and other candidates having white with a colored border. The candidates would affix loudspeakers on the cabs of little pickup trucks to which they attached large banners in the back with the pictures of the candidates and their colored numbers. These trucks would roam the cities blaring music and political messages. Hordes of political helpers would go door to door canvassing for the candidates. Each house would be given towels, soaps, or other small gifts wrapped in the appropriate colors with the numbers on top. Frequently an envelope of money was enclosed inside the gift. The candidates held rallies in vacant lots with loudspeakers, singers, lion dancers, and other entertainment to attract the crowds to listen to the candidate speak. Most of the speeches that I heard in the first election were pretty much the same: “Please, please vote for me. I am a good person. Thank you all for your support.” The streets were in constant chaos, and when the candidates had popular singers performing for them, all traffic had to find another route.

My father-in-law was very serious about voting in this first election with real choices. He accepted all gifts and then figured out how many votes the family had. One candidate who was running for a seat on the county council had the last name of Liu. Pa decided that all the family’s votes would go to him even though he had not given much in the way of money. For the other positions, he apportioned out the votes based on the value of gifts. Some got two votes, some three, some only got one.

His schemes lasted exactly as long as it took for his educated children to tell him that they were not going to have any part of them. Then the whole family sat down and talked about democracy and policy and what to look for in elected officials. Since my family in America had a long history in politics and I had even worked as an intern and assistant in a US Senator’s office, I was called in to give the American perspective on things. The kids drilled into their parents that they needed to follow the news and to be wary of corruption. The Liu children felt that no one should vote for any candidate who had given money. This concept was hard for the parents to accept at first. I do not know who each of the family members voted for in those first elections. I know that Pa and Ma did vote for the candidate with the last name of Liu. All the children voted for the people they felt were best qualified for the job.

I do know that since those elections, and even today, Pa has followed political news very closely. He works on campaigns for the candidates he feels are best and has become a very active citizen. He is very happy to have the right to influence his government. At first, some of the family members were ashamed of the way members of the Taiwanese parliament fought with each other in the chambers. They thought that I must be laughing at their country, since we were beyond that in America. I did tell them that things like that had happened in American history, that American politicians had even dueled to the death over political issues about which they were passionate. I told them that as long as the people were passionate and involved in politics, it would be harder for politicians to get away with graft and corruption. I believe that history in Taiwan has proved the validity of my views. The elections in Taiwan have gotten cleaner and cleaner, and the past president of Taiwan is now sitting in jail for corruption that occurred during his administration. Taiwanese politics really have come a long way in just a short period of time.


murat11 said...

Pragmatism reigns again, it seems: raising the standard of living and literacy first, then opening up the democratic process: now, that's nation-building. Of course, it depends upon nation-builders truly committed to the larger vision, and not just biding their time to line their pockets and/or corral their own power.

Teresa said...

Chiang Chin-kuo gets very high marks from both major political groups in Taiwan for refusing to allow a Chiang dynasty to continue and for giving the presidency to Lee Teng-hui. When Lee stepped down, he actually threw his support behind the opposition candidate so that the next president was NOT KMT. He is quite vilified by a number of people in the KMT, but I think that he was wise to do that. Now they really do have a two coalition program. There is a coalition of KMT and other parties that want to reunite with China, and then there is a coalition of the DDP (party of jailed corrupt ex-president) and other parties that want to make Taiwan an independent country. Obviously, it is not perfect, yet, but there is a fair amount of participation and interest in what the government is doing. That is so important for a democracy to function properly.

Cloudia said...

Wow, you were a part of history. I hope someday you will write your autobiography (Bible smuggling?!).

Your post are a wonderful start, Teresa.

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

I guess the Bible smuggling posts were before you started reading the blog. I've put the links here in case you want to read an exciting adventure that I had in my early twenties.


murat11 said...

Imagine one of our own throwing support behind the opposition candidate, in order to foster and preserve diversity and inclusion, rather than monopolized power.

Teresa said...

I think that can only come when one has a broader view of the common good and a free, fair competitive electoral system that gives the people a real choice.
It's distressing to me to see how far we have fallen from caring for the good of the nation as a whole to just thinking of the interests of our own little fragment of the population. We don't seem to worry about using "scorched-earth" tactics in our politics as long as our side gets ahead. In the end, everyone loses.

Again, I keep thinking of the Chinese citizens with their cell phone pictures. It's becoming a widespread phenomenon that ordinary people will take pictures of government malfeasance, disseminate it via the internet at great personal risk in the hopes that next time, the entire society will benefit. They are gaining a sense of social responsibility that we seem to be losing.