The roots of the longstanding divisions that continue to haunt Taiwan’s political scene lie in contrasting understandings of the martial law era by the two major political parties.
Last week I joined a panel discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. Each of us came at the topic from different angles based on our academic disciplines and personal experiences. As a political scientist working on Taiwan’s electoral politics, I reflected on the changing ways that Taiwan’s two main parties have portrayed the martial law era in their political advertising.
I first came to Taiwan in 1989, just two years after the lifting of martial law. My own experiences that year left me with the impression that Taiwan remained under the shadow of martial law. I still recall how uncomfortable I made classmates feel when I touched upon taboo subjects in conversations. At that time Taiwan was going through a political transition, but it was still unclear what kind of political system would eventually emerge. Would it follow the pattern of rapid democratization seen in South Korea or the electoral authoritarian model in Singapore?
Today most of my students were born in the mid 1990s. For many of them martial law feels like ancient history. Each academic year, in my first class on Taiwan politics I remind students that we cannot understand modern Taiwanese politics without reference to the country’s experience of authoritarian rule. An example I often cite is that the present party system dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has its roots in the electoral politics of the martial law era.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Taiwan’s democratization is that it was a relatively peaceful transition. Since transition, Taiwan has seen large scale protests and high levels of mobilization in electoral campaigns. However, electoral and protest violence has been quite rare. One such case is of course the Sunflower Occupation in 2014, which featured occupations for almost a month of the parliamentary debating chamber and the streets around parliament. With the exception of the forceful removal of protesters occupying the Executive Yuan, the whole occupation was largely peaceful. My students in London are quite amazed to hear about the lack of brutal police treatment of the Sunflower Occupation.
This brings me to the essay’s puzzle. Why are we seeing such high levels of violence in some of Taiwan’s recent protests since 2016, especially those protests against pension reform? A tempting answer would be to blame Taiwan’s divisions on the conflict between supporters of unification and independence. My own long-term analysis of political advertising in Taiwan suggests that is not the answer, as with a few exceptions, parties have steered clear of actually promoting either solution in their ads.
Looking back at the KMT and DPP’s election advertisements and the way they address the martial law era can help us to understand why they adopt such distinct attitudes toward issues such as pension reform or transitional justice. The roots of these divisions lie in contrasting understandings of the martial law era. From a DPP point of view, the martial law political system was entirely illegitimate, while for the KMT it was not only legitimate but even a golden era for Taiwan.
From a DPP point of view, the martial law political system was entirely illegitimate, while for the KMT it was not only legitimate but even a golden era for Taiwan.
Let me offer some examples of how we can see such contrasting understandings of the legitimacy of the martial law period. In the 1990s, numerous KMT election ads highlighted its role in creating Taiwan’s economic miracle under the martial law. One such 1995 ad showed a series of clips from Taiwanese films (such as Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman) to show how the country has gone from being a backwards agricultural economy to a prosperous, modern urban society. Other ads saw the KMT taking credit for Taiwan’s political and even gender miracle. One such KMT ad from 1995 featured a woman remembering her childhood experiences of local democracy and how even a woman could be elected township chief. The narrative of this kind of ad is that Taiwan’s democratization was a gradual and top-down process that started very early in the martial law era. A third theme coming out of these ads is that the martial law era was one of ethnic harmony and that the DPP has long been the instigator of ethnic tensions. A 2016 Eric Chu TV ad started with the following, “There used to be a Taiwan where you would not be under suspicion or isolated for having different viewpoints. One Taiwan, where we did not care where you come from. Together we created a miracle.” Chu’s ad asked voters to return to this golden era.
The DPP’s understanding of the martial law era is entirely different. Its ads told harrowing tales of victims of political persecution under martial law. Such ads were particularly common in 1992 and 25 years later I sometimes still find it hard to watch these. Voters are reminded of the KMT’s culpability for the February 28 Incident and its long-term refusal to address the wounds left by Taiwan’s handover to Chinese rule after World War II. Of course little was said on Taiwan’s economic achievements from this era. It reminded voters that this was the world’s longest ever martial law and how it was only because of the DPP’s relentless pressure that the KMT was forced to lift martial law. In order to delegitimize the old political system the DPP stressed the 10,000-year-old parliament and the parliamentarians frozen in office (called old thieves). A further DPP theme was to attack the KMT’s accumulation of party assets as a form of political corruption and leftover feature of martial law. In 2008 the DPP’s party assets rap video called on voters to join the national referendum to nationalize KMT party assets. A common message was that under martial law an unfair society had been created that favored the KMT and its supporters. One area we see this was when the DPP first began calling for pensions reforms in the early 1990s. Some of these ads noted the unfairness of the welfare system that saw pro-KMT occupational groups with generous pension benefits while the rest of society had to fend for themselves after retirement. Since the military, education and civil service sectors were disproportionally made up of mainlanders, the KMT tried to frame this as an ethnic attack.
In other words, the bitter clashes we have seen since 2016 over pension reform and transitional justice can only be understood with reference to distinct understandings of the martial law era. For a politician such as Hung Hsiu-chu, the martial law era welfare system, KMT party assets and the blurred state-party divide are entirely legitimate. Such politicians view threats to these institutions as political persecution. In contrast, the DPP views such institutions as leftovers from authoritarianism that need to be remedied as part of Taiwan’s democratization process. The last KMT leader that was able bridge this divide was Lee Teng-hui. It remains to be seen whether the new KMT chairman, Wu Den-yih, can bring about a less hostile inter-party relationship. Recent parliamentary clashes suggest it will be a tough task.
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