A journalist and author from Guangzhou, China, delivered an emotional and insightful presentation on democracy at the recent TaiwanFest in Vancouver.
Alison Zhao, a master’s student at Georgetown University, told her Labour Day audience at the CBC building that she was in Taipei as an exchange student when a Taiwanese presidential election was held in 2012.
It pitted the then incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, against challenger Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party.
Zhao recalled attending a massive DPP rally in front of the presidential palace, where one of its officials encouraged the crowd to chant for Ma to step down.
“I know there are speeches, rallies, criticisms,” Zhao said. “But I never thought you can really, like, shout that the incumbent president should step down in front of the presidential building.”
Zhao revealed that she was not amazed. She didn’t admire what she saw.
Rather, she was filled with fear because she expected that the crowd was going to rush into the presidential building and occupy it. And she was in the front row after being invited to attend the event.
Zhao mentioned that when she was growing up in an authoritarian state, she learned that if people get excited and very critical about an issue in a democracy, it can lead to chaos.
“So I was afraid and frightened at that moment because I thought it’s going to be chaos,” she disclosed. “It’s going to be occupation. It’s going to be riots. It’s going to be bloodshed.”
But that didn’t happen. The next speaker said his piece, eventually the rally ended, and everyone went home. In her words, they disappeared like water.
Zhao said she reflected on what happened over the next few days because she found the event to be so puzzling.
Then it dawned upon her that if people are allowed to vote against an incumbent president, then why do they need to shed blood? Why do they need to riot?
Next, she pointed out that the people of Hong Kong are fighting for their requests (including universal suffrage) with blood, pain, and violence.
“Why?” she asked. “Maybe they are not as lucky as the Taiwanese people that have votes.”
Then Zhao declared that if she were asked why democracy is important, she would respond that it’s because with votes, there’s no need for bloodshed.
“You don’t need to have riots,” she added. “Every time you just want to get your request passed and get your voice heard, you don’t need to [riot] because you have votes.”
She told the audience that as a child, she had exposure to the Hong Kong media because TV signals reached Guangzhou, which is not far away in southern China.
In fact, she described herself as a childhood “couch potato” who constantly watched Hong Kong TV in her middle-class home in Guangzhou. That's when she first heard about elections in Taiwan.
Zhao said she only realized that she was living in an “authoritarian state” when she went to college in China. She applied to go to Georgetown while visiting Taiwan on a fellowship several years later.
During that second stay in Taiwan, her book about feminist activists in China, Her Battles, was published in Taiwan in traditional Chinese script.
“I’m not planning to immigrate to the U.S. or Canada or anywhere else,” Zhao told the Straight in a recent phone interview. “I’m actually going back to China after my graduation.”