How Taiwan could serve as a roadmap for democracy in China

With authoritarianism on the rise globally, Toronto activists and artists explain how the island nation is a model for future democracies


Y-s Columbus Leo likes to describe himself as an “activist” for Taiwan. The Torontonian earned this label after spending decades promoting democracy and freedom of speech in the East Asian island nation where he was born.

Back in the early 1980s, Taiwan was still in the throes of 38 years of martial law. Leo had just obtained his master’s degree and became active in the Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto. He was well aware that Taiwan was under the dictatorship of the Kuomintang (KMT) party rulers, who came from mainland China after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s forces. Friends in Leo’s church were warning him not to hang out with Taiwan’s local independence leaders in Toronto.

“At the time, I was a bit angry with people wanting to stay away from me for fear of getting blacklisted,” Leo told NOW. “But I don’t blame them nowadays because we have to go back to the original problem – the KMT’s suppression and blacklisting, which causes fear.”

His Toronto group is part of an umbrella organization, the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, which was very active at that time in promoting democracy and free speech in Taiwan. Despite martial law, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party was formed in 1986. According to Leo, the federation bravely decided to hold its international convention in Taiwan in 1988, one year after martial law had been lifted. In its place, the government headed by Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, had replaced it with a national security law similar to what now exists in Hong Kong.

“Many other people said ‘You are nuts. There’s a blacklist. Many of you can’t go back,’” Leo recalled.

But they did go back, though some weren’t allowed into the country, including the federation’s president. And Leo spoke in front of a rally of 40,000 people after the conference ended as the acting leader.

Getty Images / su_pe

The following year, the federation returned to Taiwan again. That was the same year as the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, fuelling Taiwanese desires for greater political freedom in their country. Things didn’t go quite as well this time for Leo and an American friend from Houston, Bob Tsai, when they were surrounded by about 400 police officers.

“Dr. Bob Tsai and I were tear-gassed, beaten up and deported,” Leo said.

Later that year, Leo returned to Taiwan, where he was again arrested, beaten and imprisoned. He was charged under the national security law and sedition for advocating Taiwan’s independence.

Taiwan’s transformation

The story of Taiwan’s transformation from martial law into a vibrant democracy is one of many topics that will be addressed at this year’s Toronto TAIWANfest, which begins on Friday (August 28). (See story, page 7.) Under this “Taiwan Model,” authoritarian rule has been replaced by democratic local and national elections, free media, vibrant arts and culture, a thriving indie music community, a world-class health-care system, an energized student movement and greater respect for Indigenous people and the environment. Taiwan has managed to grow its economy in recent years while curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and its technological prowess helped prevent any major outbreaks of COVID-19.

It’s timely to examine Taiwan’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in light of the rise of authoritarian rule in many other countries. Even in so-called democracies – such as Turkey, India, Hungary, Brazil and Russia – voters have elected strongman leaders who are clamping down on fundamental freedoms. But perhaps nowhere is the repression greater than in the People’s Republic of China, where more than a million Uyghurs are reportedly confined in camps, Hong Kong faces a clampdown and Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are still imprisoned. It’s not out of the question that one day, Taiwan could provide a roadmap for those seeking the eventual democratization of China.

Leo and other Taiwanese nationalists emphasize that a great deal of credit for the island nation’s success in the 21st century should be traced back to former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, who ruled with the KMT from 1988 to 2000. Lee, who died on July 30, ushered in the first democratic presidential election in 1996. The current president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, was reelected earlier this year to her second term.

Top: Taiwanese Canadian dissident Y-s Columbus Leo speaks at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in 1988. Middle: Leo speaks at the opening of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations in the same year. Bottom: Leo was arrested and charged with sedition in 1990.

There’s a Canadian connection to Lee’s rise. One of the first Canadians to live in Taiwan was a Presbyterian missionary, George Leslie Mackay, who was born in Oxford County and took theological training at Knox College in Toronto. He married a Taiwanese woman, learned how to speak Taiwanese fluently, and established health-care facilities and schools. Mackay’s son founded Tamkang Middle School. According to Leo, former president Lee attended Tamkang before later obtaining a PhD in agricultural economics at Cornell University. These educational experiences influenced Lee’s values and shaped his appreciation for democracy.

Even though the KMT controlled the country from the late 1940s through the 1980s, the government needed Taiwanese-born technocrats like Lee to run the administration, facilitating his rise to power. “He was among those who just worked hard and was very smart,” Leo said.

Getty Images / shiyali

Getty Images / Jui-Chi Chan

President Tsai Ing-Wen on the campaign trail in 2016 (top). The rainbow crosswalk in Ximending, Taipei. Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in May 2019 (bottom).

Toronto TAIWANfest is organized by the Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto in partnership with the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association. ACSEA’s managing director Charlie Wu told NOW that the festival will feature videos showcasing three bookstores in Taiwan, including one that played a pivotal role in helping the country on its road to freedom. The Tonsan Bookstore in Taipei was established by Chen Lung-hao in 1982, providing the city’s intellectuals with what they needed to know to advance the cause of democracy.

“The owner is actually Hakka,” Wu said. “He’s by nature very conservative, trying to do his business. But at the same time, he knows what people want.”

Wu added that Tonsan was kind of messy in the 1980s, enabling the store to “disguise its secrets” from the authorities. In addition, Toronto TAIWANfest will present videos of two other bookstores in Taiwan, the hypermodern Duzu and Causeway Bay Books, which is operated by a Hong Kong bookseller in exile after being arrested and then released in China.

“We talk to the store owners [in the videos] so people can get a feel of the bookstore culture – the literary arts community in Taiwan – and how that has played a role in Taiwanese democratization over the years,” Wu said.

Top to bottom: Taipei’s Tonsan Bookstore was a hub for intellectuals during military rule.

He emphasized that the term “Taiwan Model” does not just refer to politics. It also reflects artistic and cultural freedom.

“People are free to express,” Wu noted. “People are free to create. And you can see that by what is coming out of Taiwan.”

A new generation

Toronto artist and curator Alicia Chen decided in 2014 to devote her life to enhancing Taiwanese democracy. This year, she became Tsai’s Toronto campaign manager, organizing more than 400 people to attend a fundraising event. Chen has been particularly impressed by Tsai’s strong support for same-sex marriage, which she followed up with groundbreaking legislation.

“There is power in believing that you can take control over your life,” Chen told NOW. “It only took one generation to dismantle a broken system and grant the Taiwanese people their inalienable human rights. With the re-election of a female leader, it provides concrete hope for women seeking their chance to break the glass ceiling.”

According to Chen, both Canada and Taiwan are led by “young, thriving and innovative leaders.”

“Young voters and campaign committees were the driving force in Taiwan’s recent winning election,” she noted. “They initiated and devoted themselves to politics with a shared goal for a better future… I hope the courage and actions of these individuals will inspire some young Canadians to stand up and take ownership of their rights and responsibilities, rather than giving in to passivity and remaining lost.”

However, there remains a great deal of concern among Taiwanese people that China’s president, Xi Jinping, is intent on absorbing the independent island nation into the People’s Republic of China. That would restore the boundaries of China before the first Opium War from 1839 to 1842, which resulted in Hong Kong being ceded to Britain.

Taiwanese nationalists like the recently deceased historian Su Beng, on the other hand, insist that their country was never truly part of China – it was simply colonized by the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as by Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. Moreover, the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese also colonized Taiwan at different times in its history, but it’s now an independent nation with its own national assembly that answers to no one but the people living on the island.

So could the Taiwan Model ever come to fruition in mainland China, which is currently under the thumb of dictatorial rule. While Xi has changed the rules to enable him to govern the country for the rest of his life, some cracks are beginning to show. For example, a former teacher at China’s elite Central Party School, Cai Xia, recently declared that Xi has “killed the party” by seizing all power. According to her, that’s leading to huge mistakes, including the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s causing countries around the world to look upon China as an enemy.

“China is bound to go through political transformation, toward democracy, political freedom, rule of law and constitutionalism,” Xia told the Guardian. “This is the inevitable trend of modern human political civilization. China will enter this stage sooner or later.”

Back in Toronto, Leo also shares this belief. He said it’s human nature to continue to search for something better. In this regard, he’s inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, notwithstanding the current shortcomings of American democracy. 

“In China, many people live in fear,” Leo pointed out. “They’re not really happy. It’s not enough if people are well fed, they can do all kinds of shopping and they can go on tours. If there are restrictions on our movement, restrictions on your thought, there will always be resistance. There will always be a quest for changes.”

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