Taiwan - Democracy and the digital world | DW Documentary
The main island of Taiwan — at the narrowest point of the Taiwan strait lies 130 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, and 100 kilometers from Yonaguni Japan’s westernmost inhabited island. For a long time, Taiwan was at the mercy of China or of Japan. After 1945, it became entangled in Cold War conflicts. When the Portuguese arrived on the island in the 16th century, they were struck by the beauty of its nature. They named it “Formosa” — ‘beauty’ in Portuguese.
Today Taiwan has a democratic government and maintains that it is an independent country. But it faces growing intimidation from China, which claims that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China. These carefully chosen words from Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, allude to the threat that China poses to Taiwan. The archipelago is not recognized as a nation or as a territory, even by international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Despite being diplomatically isolated, Taiwan has found ways to exist independently.
Since the appointment of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, the government has developed a digital democracy with help from its young, internet-savvy workers and its citizens. Hi, I’m Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister. I work not for the government, but with the government.
Not for the people, but with the people. During the coronavirus crisis, many governments ramped up their use of digital resources. The Taiwanese population generally trusts the government and complied with the new health regulations. And the virus situation there has been relatively stable. The Taiwanese archipelago has an important geographical location spanning both the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Yet on the world map, it is little more than a speck.
The strait that separates it from the People’s Republic of China serves as a supply route for goods from East Asia. It’s an area fraught with geostrategic tensions where China regularly carries out military manoeuvres. What’s the reason for such provocations? There are many reasons why China sees Taiwan as part of its territory one they will absolutely not let go of.
Taiwan is a democracy. The Taiwanese people vote and decide, and the Taiwanese government changes frequently. So you might have the Kuomintang party, which was long pro-Beijing, albeit prudently. Or the pro independence movement, which is also prudent, but unwilling to yield to China and its dictates on the status of Taiwan. This poses a serious threat to the Chinese regime. Because according to Beijing, there are no universal values or democratic values — these are western constructs.
But Taiwan demonstrates otherwise. It shows that China and Chinese culture can function perfectly well within a fully democratic model. It’s also interesting that Taiwan is one of the most dynamic and active democracies in Asia. Taiwan has taken a path of democracy, in diametric opposition to the authoritarian policies of Beijing. Digital technology is used in both China and Taiwan in public and political domains.
But the way in which it’s used could not be more different, as demonstrated by the pandemic. Whereas China imposed control and misinformed, Taiwan’s democratic system became more digital, inclusive and transparent. And while the Chinese government remained non-transparent, Taiwan actively listened to its citizens. It employed computer experts and ethical pirates, known here as “civic hackers”. Like Audrey Tang, who became interested in technology at a young age and is now a self-taught and highly talented internet expert.
Tang is a transgender woman who has been appointed Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Affairs. An authoritarian state is bad at detecting the talents and innovations of its citizens. In Taiwan, QR codes and text messages were widely used even during the early stages of the pandemic.
They were developed by computer scientists and some were even working on a voluntary basis. Taiwanese citizens know that their democratic system protects them against the Beijing government, and during the pandemic they generally supported all measures that benefited the common good. The QR codes provide a record of the people’s daily mobility. In other countries, people have concerns about data protection and privacy that spark mistrust, so they don’t want to comply and participate. States can become authoritarian and misuse the data. People all over the world admire the innovation and transparency of our democratic processes.
Our results are transparent, as are the methods we use. Our shared values guarantee that. To understand how this young democracy has prevailed, on this tiny speck in the Western Pacific, we need to look back as its long history. These islands have a mix of indigenous natives various Austronesian ethnic groups who colonized an important part of the maritime world, starting from Asia. They lived on their islands without much communication with the Asian continent or the Japanese archipelago up until the 17th century. In the 1600's, the fate of Taiwan could have gone in any direction.
The Japanese were there, and so were the Chinese, but both unofficially; just isolated individuals. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands didn’t have one overarching government. Everything was organized by tribes.
The coast became a way station in the rapidly expanding maritime trade. At the same time, China and Japan blocked access to their lands in a bid to stop any colonization attempts by the West. But the opium wars of the 19th century brought this isolation to an end. China succumbed to the British army and was forced to yield to the economic interests of Western powers. At the end of the 19th century, the Chinese empire which included Taiwan — entered into a conflict with imperialist Japan over its influence on the Korean peninsula. Japan won and China ceded Taiwan.
For 50 years, the Japanese Empire occupied and colonized the islands. At the start of the 20th century, a political figure emerged in mainland China who established himself as the incarnation of a new, modern and democratic China: Sun Yat-sen. In 1911, this revolutionary put an end to the feudal system, then under P?yí — the last emperor of China.
The Qing dynasty that had ruled the Chinese mainland for around 300 years, was overthrown. Sun Yat-sen became the first President of the Republic of China. He ruled for just a few weeks.
But his democratic ideals still resonate today. Sun Yat-sen is revered in Taiwan as the founding father of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name. And likewise in the People’s Republic of China as the pioneer of the revolution. He’s an important figure in the cultural and political identities on both sides of the strait. In Taiwan’s capital Taipei, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall is a popular attraction for Chinese tourists, who come to watch the changing of the guards.
By the 1930s, the colonized islands had become visibly more Japanese. Japan was making plans to expand its empire from here into Southeast Asia. It developed new communication lines and trade routes.
But when Japan lost the Second World War in 1945, it had to return Taiwan to China, which was then led by the nationalist Kuomintang Party under Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao Tse-tung took a stand against these nationalist forces, with support from the Soviet Union. Chiang Kai-shek had support from the U-S. A civil war ignited between the two Chinese camps. Chiang Kai-shek lost and was forced to leave. He went into exile in Taiwan in 1949.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and loyal Kuomintang supporters followed him. Initially, the Taiwanese were happy to see the back of what they called the “Japanese dogs”. They welcomed the Republic with open arms. But that enthusiasm quickly wore off. They were traumatized by the awful oppression that occurred following the events of February 28th, 1947, which ended in a massacre. So after having welcomed the departure of the “Japanese dogs”, they said to themselves: “now we have the Chinese pigs.”
On February 28th, 1947, a crowd gathered in front of Taipei City Hall. They were protesting a brutal incident the previous day, when a woman had been beaten by authorities for selling untaxed cigarettes. Kuomintang police fired into the crowd to disperse them. Months of brutal oppression followed, with arrests, torture, summary executions and imprisonment.
Martial law was introduced. It wasn’t lifted until 1987. Mr. Yan witnessed these events. The many years of dictatorship, known as the White Terror, are a bleak and tragic period in Taiwanese history that remains a sensitive subject to this day. My family members were among the victims.
The extent of it only became clear in 1989. My father was educated, he was a doctor. So was my grandfather.
My father was arrested three times. First by the police, then by the Commander, and then by the military police. During this time my grandfather disappeared for two months.
He was in prison. For my uncle, things were even worse. He was young university professor, with a strong personality he was very direct. One day they took him.
They threw him into the river and he drowned. It was part of a plan to bring the Taiwanese elite under control. Three members of my family were victims of it. When the Kuomintang arrived, we quickly realised how backward they were. Particularly when compared to the developments introduced by the Japanese.
Taiwan is Taiwan. China is China. For the Taiwanese, they are two different cultures. But we accepted this government from China. At the end of the war, Taiwan took a seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.
The Kuomintang Party was ruling the islands with an iron fist and enforcing colonial policies: continental Chinese culture was given predominance, freedoms were suppressed, the press censored, and history rewritten. In 1949, having been defeated by Mao, Chiang Kai-shek’s rule was confined to Taiwan. He wanted to reinforce Chinese culture there, to assert that Taiwan was a Chinese island, full stop. Contrary to social and historical facts that show Taiwan’s identity to be far more complex. After the colonization by the Japanese, and the authoritarianism of the Chinese, Taiwan faced another tragedy in 1971. This crucial event would change the political and diplomatic structure of Taiwan.
US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly decided to visit China under President Mao to make a deal regarding the Vietnam war. The communist authorities had a stipulation — the “one China policy”. In other words, Taiwan should be recognized as part of China. This policy is still aggressively pursued to this day.
Taiwan was excluded from the United Nations Security Council. And China triumphantly took its place. A resolution was passed that only the People’s Republic of China could represent Chinese affairs at the United Nations. And no longer Taiwan.
Which the US did not veto. It was originally proposed that Taiwan should keep its seat, after all there were two Vietnams, two Germanys. But Chiang Kai-shek was so angry that the US had abandoned him that he refused, and the People’s Republic of China became the sole representative at the UN. Mao would have had no way of opposing the dual state and dual recognition idea. But sadly it never came to that.
So Taiwan is now a strange diplomatic entity that doesn’t officially exist, but is actually very active. It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. this was famously said by Deng Xiaoping who succeeded Mao in the late 1970s. He set the Chinese Communist Party on course to liberalize the economy.
Meanwhile Taiwan was rapidly industrializing. Along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, the island was one of the four so-called tiger economies, with booming economic growth. Since the 1990s, the two Chinese societies have followed radically different political paths, despite their common economic interests. “Chinese growth”, “economic reform”, “Chinese economic miracle” the fact is that all of this came mainly from investments in China from the outside, especially from Taiwan. It was Taiwanese companies that went to China and invested there. They contributed significantly to China’s economic growth and continue to do so.
Without Taiwan, the Chinese economic miracle as we know it wouldn’t have been. But while the Kuomintang still held onto dreams of re-taking mainland China, the economic relationship between communist China and Taiwan was about to take a major turn. Between 2008 and 2016, Kuomintang member Ma Ying-jeou was the President of Taiwan. During his second term, he put forward the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which reinforced China's economic grasp on Taiwan. It was met with fierce resistance from the Democratic Progressive Party, who demanded transparency.
The public, especially the younger generation, also became suspicious. Many felt the agreement would be harmful to Taiwan’s national interests. Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Chinese nationalist party, had been president since 2008. Little did he know that his plan was doomed to fail. But his colleagues, especially those from the previous generation, knew very well that you don’t negotiate with communists, especially the Chinese, because you always lose. However, Ma Ying-jeou held onto his illusions.
And as China grew, rather than be gobbled up, he thought it was better to be on their side and negotiate the best possible position before it was too late. As someone who’s studied geopolitics, I find this completely absurd and astonishingly naïve as the communists never negotiated to actually negotiate, but to buy time. By March 2014 a year of tension had been brewing between the conservative and democratic members of parliament over the murky free trade agreements with China. These were not favorable to Taiwan.
On March 17th, the night before the agreements were to be signed without debate or discussion — there was a public outcry. At that time, Wang Jin-pyng was a leading Kuomintang member and President of the National Legislature. The Kuomintang Chairman announced that the content of the agreements would not be included in the government statement. The parliamentary session was closed.
The agreements had been approved without discussion, and that caused unrest among the public. On the evening of March 18th, members of the opposition joined protests led by students. The events that followed became part of the poignant Sunflower Movement a cornerstone of Taiwanese political history.
One of the movement’s key activists was a young political science student called Lin Fei-fan. At 9pm, a first group of students forced their way into the parliament. At 9:05, a second group used another entry, to distract the police. The strategy worked, as there were only a few police officers in the parliament.
Students came in through different entrances and the police were soon overpowered. But once we were in, we faced a new problem. Without a floor plan we didn’t know our way around the building. Where were the light switches? How did you turn on the air conditioning? We all just had to find our own way, and the situation became sort of ‘organic’.
Everyone had their cellphones to film what was happening and livestream it online. The reach of digital technology meant lots of people could join us. By occupying the parliament building the students demonstrated to the whole country just how much resistance there was to these trade agreements. The longer the occupation went on, the further the political debates spread. Citizens mainly participated in the movement online. At the heart of these discussions was a new platform run by Audrey Tang and a number of “civic hackers” — called Gov Zero.
Kao Chia-liang was among the first generation of these dedicated IT experts. During the Sunflower Movement he and various other software developers put the trade agreements online, making them widely available, so that people could properly discuss them. We had started a project six months before the Sunflower Movement. We wanted to set up new digital resources to enable people to understand the contents of the agreements with China. The government at the time was presenting its campaign as a boost for the economy, while saying people are fools.
They don’t need to know what we’re doing. Leave it to us, we’ll take care of it. That annoyed me, and all my colleagues. We believed that, as software engineers, we had the means to make a change. Their first port of call was to explain how the agreement would impact the business world; something the government had failed to address. For software developers who wanted to participate in the movement, Gov Zero was the place where technology and the ramifications for society came together.
Kao Chia-liang launched the Gov Zero platform in 2012. Audrey Tang regularly contributed. Hello everybody.
The number of contributors grew rapidly during the Sunflower Movement. Things can be turned around in the digital world. People can access a wide range of opinions and discuss amongst themselves. They can find common values and share their creativity.
Digital democracy is very different to analog democracy. In April 2014, the campaign to bolster economic allegiances between communist China and the Kuomintang was suspended. The protests had worked. Two years later, that failure of the Kuomintang party impacted the election results. Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, became the first female president of Taiwan. It was the movement that brought about the resounding defeat of the Kuomintang in 2016.
With only 35 seats, the party lost its majority for the first time. The consequences were severe. Finally, civil disobedience was recognized from a legal standpoint.
That had never happened in Taiwan’s legal history. I don’t know whether things would have gone this way elsewhere. We now know that we can tell the government No! We’re not doing it like that.
That’s such a new concept for young people. The Sunflower Movement showed us our power. We, the people, have the real power.
The two parties did not resume negotiations under Ma Ying-jeou. And they obviously weren’t taken up during Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency either. So this handful of students — there were just a few dozen to start with managed to overpower not only the Taiwanese government but also China. The China that is crushing Hong Kong, that built concentration camps for the Uighurs, that wiped out Manchurian culture, and almost Tibetan too. For years now they have managed to stop negotiations that would have seen Taiwan lose its sovereignty. Thanks to the Sunflower Movement, all over Taiwan there are now teams of designers who work to make important information accessible.
Some groups, for example, focus on complicated government budget documents. They transform them into easy to understand graphics. The designers use open source software, with conversion tables that are both accurate and pertinent. The defence budget, for example, can be converted to be seen in terms of the average cost of a lunch.
Or the education budget in “liters of milk.” Just two years after Tsai Ing-wen was elected, Taiwan enacted a series of progressive laws. In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2020, thanks to a quota system, the proportion of female members of parliament rose to 42%. Kolas Yotaka, a former spokesperson for the presidential office, was one of them. As an MP, she has pushed forward a bill concerning the cultural protection of Taiwanese indigenous people.
We put forward a bill to protect the fundamental indigenous rights. This gave indigenous peoples a bigger voice and helped them to gain greater acceptance. Indigenous culture here has rapidly diminished over the last century. If you ask them what’s left of it today, they’ll tell you that more has been lost than preserved. For indigenous peoples, the process of democratization is crucial in preserving their identities.
We’re now taking things one step at a time. And we recognize that they have lost a lot. We now call indigenous languages “national languages.” We’ve decided that they should be considered official languages.
The committee has made online dictionaries for 16 indigenous languages. Information technology connects machines. Digital technology connects people. I’m referring to one of the campaign pledges of President Tsai Ing-we to make broadband access a human right.
That doesn’t just mean access to the internet, but also communication beyond borders. Today only a very small minority wants to join the current Chinese political system. But at the same time, only a small minority wants to declare independence because the Taiwanese people have no desire to enter into conflict with Beijing that could end in war. In fact, the majority of Taiwanese want some kind of status quo, while hoping for protection or some sort of guarantees from major democracies like the U-S in the event that China takes military action to speed up a reunification with Taiwan. There are only two scenarios in which Chinese government would only consider a military operation against Taiwan.
The first is if it was sure to win. The second: if Taiwan claimed independence well actually it IS independent, but if it changed its name to the Republic of Taiwan or Formosa or something. That would force the communist party to go to war even if it wasn’t certain it would win. In my opinion, China wouldn’t launch a military mission unless it was sure to win.
Why? Because losing to Taiwan would spell the beginning of the end for the communist regime in China. And that’s not an option for the regime. Regarding China’s aggression against Taiwan not just military but also diplomatic I would like to call on the whole world to take an interest in Taiwan, and that everyone needs to be brave. If we share the same values of democracy, freedom, openness and human rights, it should be clear to everyone that Taiwan is a solid partner for the future.
Taiwan has always thought of itself as a small country. But who says we’re small? Is it us? Or did that come from the Kuomintang? For years I’ve been asking how small Taiwan really is.