In recent speeches, both politicians claimed that Taiwan’s democracy is in danger. But the way they conceptualize this danger is markedly different.
When discussing Taiwan under martial law with my students, we often consider how to best categorize its authoritarian rule. If we exclude the economic sector, at least in the first couple of decades, Taiwan had many of the typical features of a totalitarian system. The widespread use of political terror, leadership cult, extensive indoctrination programs, one-party state — these are all hallmarks of totalitarianism that were present in Taiwan in the 1950s. Scenes in archival TV news reports following the death of the dictator Chiang Kai-shek look similar to those in North Korea. Therefore it was interesting to hear former president Ma Ying-jeou recently arguing that under the leadership of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “Taiwan has become a totalitarian country.” In other words, Ma was putting Taiwan into the same category as North Korea or Stalin’s Soviet Union.
On June 12 and 13, former president Ma and President Tsai Ing-wen both gave speeches on Taiwan’s democracy. Democracy has long been a central element of Taiwan’s national identity and source of pride. However, the contrasting understandings of the state of Taiwan’s democracy seen in these speeches reveal the deep divisions between the blue and green camps.
In her speech at Columbia University, Tsai talked of Taiwan being a “thriving democratic society,” claiming it “set the standard for transitioning democracies around the world.” The idea of Taiwan as a model democracy has in the past been frequently used by both Kuomintang (KMT) and DPP administrations. Tsai argued that Taiwan shows how progressive values can take root in Asian societies and took the legalization of same-sex marriage as an example.
Ma’s speech was given at a conference under the title of “The Distance between Taiwan and Democracy.” In keeping with the conference theme, Ma argued that Taiwan under the DPP was moving further away from democracy. Of course that is quite common for those in the opposition to accuse the ruling party of reverting to authoritarian tendencies, and we did hear similar claims by the DPP against Ma when he was in power between 2008 and 2016. However, Ma listed a number of areas such as transitional justice legislation and revisions to referendum regulations that, in his view, have undermined Taiwan’s democracy to bring it to the brink of North Korean-style totalitarianism. It was as if the two, Ma and Tsai, were discussing completely different countries.
We can also see the distance between the two in their references to the term authoritarianism. In Ma’s speech, the term is firmly equated with the DPP and he argues that its policies are leading to “a restoration of authoritarian rule.” In other words, the threat to democracy is from a single domestic source: the DPP. In contrast, Tsai highlights how the authoritarian threat is coming from China in multiple forms. There is no mention of the China threat in Ma’s speech and instead he has tended to see it largely in terms of economic opportunity, with no security implications.
Many democratic theorists stress the importance of transitional justice in the process of democratization. Therefore, Ma’s critique of the DPP’s transitional justice policies is worthy of attention. Taiwan has often been praised for its gradual and relatively peaceful democratic transition. Samuel Huntington placed Taiwan in what he called the transformation category of democratization, in which the elites in power take the lead in bringing about political reforms.  A consequence of Taiwan’s gradual democratization was that the old authoritarian ruling party, the KMT, adapted more successfully to democracy than, for instance, the former Communist parties in Eastern Europe. Therefore transitional justice programs after democratization were quite limited and piecemeal, leading Wu Nai-teh back in 2005 to categorize Taiwan as having “transition without justice.” 
One of the major causes of what he terms Taiwan’s high levels of politicization is that so much of the old one-party state system was left intact after the democratic transition.
The KMT’s business and property empire (known as the party assets), as well as its affiliate groups such as the China Youth Corps, survived intact. Only after the DPP controlled the presidency and secured a parliamentary majority after 2016 could more systematic transitional justice measures be implemented. While the DPP views these as a way to rectify imbalances in Taiwan’s democracy, Ma and the KMT take the opposite view and have repeatedly tried to discredit such policies. This political debate is also seen in academic circles. The Finnish scholar Michael Mattlin has argued that Taiwan has paid a price for its model of gradual democratic transition. In his book Politicized Society, he argues that one of the major causes of what he terms Taiwan’s high levels of politicization is that so much of the old one-party state system was left intact after the democratic transition. 
Hong Kong has become increasingly salient in Taiwan’s politics since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Therefore it was revealing to see the way both Tsai and Ma addressed recent developments in their speeches. Tsai pointed to the way protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for democratic freedoms and noted that “the people of Taiwan stand with them.” She also cited the Hong Kong experience of “one country, two systems” to show that “authoritarianism and democracy cannot coexist.”
Given that China’s official model for unifying Taiwan is also “one country, two systems,” Tsai was also reminding domestic and international audiences that there is a consensus within Taiwan that this model is unacceptable. Taiwan’s public opinion has tended to be sympathetic to recent waves of protests in Hong Kong; therefore the New Party’s (NP) open support for the controversial Extradition Bill was noteworthy. While Ma did not go as far as the NP, his remarks also revealed the gulf between him and Tsai in how they view Hong Kong’s protests. Instead, Ma argued that what he called Tsai’s anti-democratic actions in Taiwan are just as bad as those of the Hong Kong government. Therefore he argued that Tsai has no right to criticize the Hong Kong government’s actions, and even described her as “even more disgusting than the Hong Kong government.” He went on to condemn her “populist attempts to manipulate the anti-extradition protests to win popularity.”
Where issues do affect electoral outcomes, it is often not the concrete policy details or official statistics that matter, but rather voters’ perceptions of an issue. When the KMT came back to power in 2008, a key factor was its ability to convince voters that the DPP was to blame for the poor state of the economy. The fact that economic indicators were quite positive was less important than who was telling the more persuasive story.
Although it is clear that both politicians see Taiwan’s democracy as in danger, the way they conceptualize this danger is markedly different. In addition to how Taiwan should handle its external relations, we can expect a similar debate over the state of Taiwan’s democracy in the upcoming national elections. The question, then, is whose version of the story of Taiwan’s democracy will be more persuasive.
 Samuel Huntington (1991), The Third Wave of Democracy, (Oklahoma).
 Wu Nai-teh (2005), “Transition without Justice or Justice without History: Transitional Justice in Taiwan, Taiwan Journal of Democracy 1 (1), 77-102.
 Mikael Mattlin (2018), Politicized Society: Taiwan’s Struggle with its One Party Past, (NIAS Press).
Top photo: Billy H.C. Kwok/端傳媒
You might also like
More from Taiwan Politics
President Tsai’s Second Term and Cross-Strait Relations: What to Watch Out For
The next four years will be marked by uncertainty over China’s trajectory and the state of the world in the …
Candidate Claims ‘Nobody Loves Taiwan More Than Xi Jinping’
Family business connections in the Pingtan free-trade zone and a son’s involvement with the CPPCC are raising questions about possible …
Above All, The Legitimacy of Taiwan’s Democracy
Since democratization, the main political parties in Taiwan have agreed to rules of the game which have served to legitimize …