Nowadays, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s common to see people in public wearing masks.
But that certainly wasn’t the case in 1980 when about 50 Taiwanese Canadians drove from Vancouver to Seattle to hold a demonstration outside a Taiwan government office.
They were incensed over a brazen attack on family members of one of the leaders in Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement, Lin Yi-hsiung, who had been arrested and charged with sedition.
As Lin was being detained in jail, an unknown assailant broke into his home and stabbed his mother and two of his daughters to death. A third daughter survived. Lin’s wife also survived because she happened to be visiting him in prison when the hit man arrived at their home.
Vancouver accountant James H.T. Chou and the other protesters—including Pang-Liang Chang, Chian-Li Hsu, Dr. Charles Yang, Shing-Kuo Shig, Chung-Yi Lee, and their spouses—believed that the dictatorial Kuomintang (KMT) government was responsible for the slaughter.
“We all wore masks covering our face,” Chou recalled in an interview with the Straight.
That was because they didn’t want their families back in Taiwan facing any consequences.
The KMT was led by Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who brought many of his supporters from mainland China after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s forces.
The Vancouver activists were well aware of the KMT’s long history of repression, including a notorious massacre of about 10,000 demonstrators on February 28, 1947.
When a Seattle reporter declared that he wouldn’t interview people in masks, Dr. Yang removed his face covering.
“He ended up as the speaker leading the protest,” Chou said. “We were all chanting and walking.”
The diaspora reacted again in 1984 when a Taiwanese-American reporter, Henry Liu, was murdered in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City after writing a biography criticizing Chiang Kai-shek’s son, then Taiwan president Chiang Ching-kuo.
Overseas Taiwanese accused the KMT of ordering the hit.
Despite the long-running government crackdown, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party was formed in 1986. The repression continued until 1987 when martial law was finally lifted and the first democratic presidential election occurred in 1996.
Chou said that many in the diaspora tasted freedom for the first time after moving to Canada and the United States to attend school.
“I can only humbly suggest that all our efforts put tremendous pressure on the local political institutions [in Taiwan],” he noted.
Dictatorship to democracy
The story of Taiwan’s transformation from dictatorship into a vibrant democracy is one of many topics that will be addressed at this year’s TAIWANfest, which begins on Saturday (September 5).
Under this “Taiwan Model”, authoritarian rule has been replaced by fair elections, free-speaking 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.
In recent years, Taiwan has managed to grow its economy 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 and Hong Kong faces a clampdown.
Meanwhile, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are still imprisoned in that country. Yet some suggest that it’s not out of the question that one day, Taiwan could provide a road map for those seeking the eventual democratization of China.
Former president led the way
Chou 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.
“He was really a statesman,” Chou said. “He was so smart. He could see far, far away, setting a goal and knowing how to get there—with all kinds of twists and turns rather than going in a straight line. I admired him so much.”
The current president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, was reelected earlier this year to her second term.
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 Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto vice president Y-s Columbus 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.
Leo’s Toronto group is part of an umbrella organization, the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, which was very active promoting democracy and free speech in Taiwan in the 1980s.
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 was 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.
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.
Bookstore nurtured thoughts of freedom
TAIWANfest 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,” TAIWANfest organizer Charlie Wu told the Straight. “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, 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.
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 declared. “People are free to create. And you can see that by what is coming out of Taiwan.”
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.
“It only took one generation to dismantle a broken system and grant the Taiwanese people their inalienable human rights,” Chen told the Straight. “With the reelection of a female leader, it provides concrete hope for women seeking their chance to break the glass ceiling.”
Can Taiwan change China?
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 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 recently told the Guardian. “This is the inevitable trend of modern human political civilization. China will enter this stage sooner or later.”
In Toronto, Leo also shares this belief. He said it’s human nature to continue to search for something better.
“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 your movement, restrictions on your thought, there will always be resistance. There will always be a quest for changes.”
Vancouver resident James H.T. Chou, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as optimistic.
He believes that the Chinese Communist Party has brainwashed two generations since the Cultural Revolution into believing that Taiwan is part of China, notwithstanding its history.
“Anything that Taiwan did, or continued to do, with a Taiwan-centred identity would be very, very, very difficult for Chinese people to embrace,” Chou said. “I don’t know how many generations it would take.”