Democracy and the Constitution: Taiwan as a Model for Change

Taiwan’s transition to a multi-party system provides a sophisticated navigation chart that the CCP could use to adapt and survive
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT

The parallel protest movements that have been staged across this part of the globe in recent months have all had the same ultimate goal: to craft a near-perfect democracy based on a supreme constitution that protects fundamental freedoms — including the right to demonstrate — and that evolves to accommodate the expanding demands of the people.

Student activists who took over and transformed Hong Kong’s boulevards into makeshift universities for democratic change have been removed — for the time being — by police armed with truncheons and tear gas. The forerunners of these protesters at Tiananmen Square, who were similarly seeking liberal constitutional rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), were crushed in a massive military attack followed by mass arrests.

Virtual Tiananmen Squares created across Chinese cyberspace, like the Charter 08 movement for an end to one-party rule, have been attacked by China’s cyber-army even as their leaders are arrested and tortured.

And now the leaders of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, whose occupation of key government outposts last spring was likewise impelled in part by opposition to the CCP, are on trial in Taipei.

But while Hong Kong’s leadership attempts to freeze calls for free elections in clouds of tear gas, and Beijing strengthens its position as leader of the anti-democratic world, Taiwan could emerge from its own demonstrations as a global model for liberal change.

With an array of schemes in the works to re-sculpt Taiwan’s supreme law, the island-nation could evolve into a colossal beacon illuminating how the power of anti-government protests can be transmuted into constitutional reforms that broaden basic rights and recognize the “demos,” or common citizens, as the fount of all political power.

A primary demand of the Sunflower activists who seized the Legislative Yuan was to convene a “Citizen’s Constitutional Congress,” and that call is now being echoed by former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and by potential future president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

As head of state from 1988 to 2000, Lee guided Taiwan’s initial transition from dictatorship to democracy; this remarkable pacific transformation led to Lee’s being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and high praise in U.S. Congress.

Lee is now calling for a new stage of reforms to liberalize the structure of the government and to give greater weight to popular will in charting the island’s future.

Taiwan statesman Yao Chia-wen (姚嘉文), a constitutional law scholar and one-time president of the Examination Yuan, says he will join Lee and other reformists to help map out the next stage of constitutional revisions. Lee, former chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and Yao, who once headed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will reach out to representatives of both parties, to scholars, and to young thinkers and activists to broaden a dialogue on these changes.

Some constitutional revisions being debated, Yao says, are connected to and inspired by the Sunflower Movement.

When university students briefly occupied the legislative chamber in 2014, he says, they demonstrated their idealism and strategic skills in organizing a movement that captured the attention of all Taiwan. But many of these youths are currently barred by the constitution from electing Taiwan’s president and congress.

The first new amendment is aimed at empowering Sunflower’s activists by giving them all the right to vote, Yao says.

The entire DPP will push to extend the vote to the Sunflower generation, according to Tsai Ing-wen, who now heads the DPP and is a leading candidate for president in the 2016 elections.

A progressive legal scholar with advanced degrees from Cornell University in New York and the London School of Economics and Political Science, Tsai has likewise called for a “Citizen’s Constitutional Conference” to collectively determine the next phase of the island’s evolution.

Expanding constitutional rights in Taiwan will simultaneously strengthen its web of connections with likeminded champions of democracy and freedom across the planet, she says.

Yao Chia-wen notes: “Many countries have already lowered the voting age to 18,” and adds that Taiwan should follow in their constitutional footsteps. The U.S. amended its law to give 18-year-old youths the right to vote in 1971, following mass anti-war protests led by university students that shook the country.

One of the demonstrators’ headquarters at that time was the University of California at Berkeley, where Yao sojourned as a visiting law scholar and got a close-up look at how to use popular protests to change the nation.

After returning to Taiwan, he helped set up the liberal Formosa Magazine and the seeds of an opposition movement, and was one of the leading dissidents arrested during the violent military crackdown on peaceful protesters known as the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979.

“I was tried for sedition — they said I tried to overthrow the government,” Yao recounts. Taiwan’s rulers placed Yao and other opposition leaders on trial in military tribunals, and he was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.

Eight years later, after Lee was catapulted into the presidency following the death of the last of the Chiang dynasty, Lee moved to end the “Temporary Provisions Effective during the Period of Communist Rebellion,” which for decades had been used to suspend the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, along with free elections.

President Lee also issued a general amnesty for political prisoners that covered the founders of the DPP to fast-forward the transition toward democracy, a move that a future president of Taiwan could repeat to pardon any leaders of the Sunflower Movement convicted in today’s trials.

The new alliance for constitutional change forged between Lee, a one-time president, and Yao, once an accused rebel, reflects the remarkable progress and speed of Taiwan’s evolution into a full-fledged democracy.

Yet Lee recently warned, during a talk at the legislature, that the liberalizing reforms he led at the close of the last century are now imperiled: The Sunflower Movement, he explained, was triggered in part by “reactionary forces’ counterattack against democracy, and the arbitrary decisions of leaders.”

To guard and strengthen Taiwan’s democratic foundations, he said, a new round of constitutional change is needed, with input from all sectors of society, including the Sunflower dissidents.

These young protesters, he noted, were in the vanguard of appeals for reform that were spread out across Taiwan society. “During the student movement in March, all of society spoke up to demand change. Through the Internet, the power of civil society was mobilized to become a powerful force for reform,” he said.

This force, Lee added, should guide the reshaping of the island’s constitution and the restructuring of the government.

Yao agrees, and suggests the revamped constitution will help foster a nation-wide reconciliation following last year’s standoff between the rulers and the ruled.

There is no reconciliation in sight for Hong Kong, where an unstable truce now prevents protesters from recapturing the streets and campuses they seized last fall.

It is unclear how long this truce will hold.

In a speech likely to inflame passions among those who joined the demonstrations, Hong Kong Chief Executive C. Y. Leung (梁振英) recently praised the local police for their “restraint” in handling Occupy Central activists, and bragged that “only” 760 protesters had been arrested.

The Beijing-appointed leader also suggested that firing tear gas canisters at unarmed youths in Hong Kong had been almost benevolent compared with the means used to crush pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square a generation ago. “Throughout the Occupy movement, the handling of the incident was left entirely to the Hong Kong Police,” he stated. “The Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was never called out from their barracks.”

The decision not to deploy PLA troops against Hong Kong’s student protesters, he added, “was a reassuring sign on the part of the Central Government of the faith and confidence in the Hong Kong Government and its Police Force,” according to an official transcript of his speech published by the Hong Kong government.

But Benny Tai (戴耀廷), a constitutional law professor at the University of Hong Kong who co-founded the Occupy Central movement, says the government’s tear-gas assaults on protesters have tremendously backfired.

Within hours after these first chemical attacks were launched, hundreds of thousands of youths joined the barricades to show their opposition.

“The disproportionate force used by the police, especially firing tear gas, has generated more support for the movement,” he says.

As the shadow of Beijing’s rule grows deeper and darker over Hong Kong, “All kinds of freedoms are in the process of being eroded,” he says. “That is a strong reason for Hong Kong to have democracy to counter such a trend.”

The civil disobedience movement he helped plan and activate, Tai says, is patterned after Martin Luther King Jr.’s mass protests across the U.S. a half-century ago, and is aimed at realizing the guarantees on free elections, free speech and free assembly that are written into Hong Kong’s “constitution” — the Basic Law.

Professor Tai holds special expertise on the Basic Law, because he helped draft it, after obtaining an advanced degree at the elite law school of the London School of Economics. This constitution took effect on Britain’s handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in mid-1997.

Protests aimed at actualizing the Bill of Rights inscribed in the Basic Law, and even the violent police crackdown on Occupy Central youths, he says, are all generating public sympathy for the forces of democracy in Hong Kong.

Although the occupation of Hong Kong’s financial district has been halted, the movement’s supporters are still waiting in the wings, like an invisible army of pacifist protesters.

“The whole idea of civil disobedience,” he explains, “is an act of protest to try to change an injustice in the laws or system.”

Leaders of the Occupy Central protests are willing to sacrifice themselves — even go to jail — in order to achieve a higher level of justice in Hong Kong’s future, says Professor Tai, a potential future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And despite Beijing’s labeling the protesters as would-be rebels, he says, Occupy Central’s program of civil disobedience “is not a riot and is not a revolution.”

As a debate rages across Hong Kong over how to press forward the next stage of a popular front for free elections, Tai concedes that some residents of the former British colony are skeptical whether “you can get democracy through civil disobedience because you are facing the communist regime.”

Similarly, he explains, some intellectuals criticized Gandhi three quarters of a century ago for urging the people of Germany to engage in acts of peaceful resistance against totalitarian ruler Adolph Hitler because “there is no chance to advance any course of justice by using civil disobedience if you are under the rule of Nazi Germany.”

Yet Professor Tai says he is confident that the backers of Occupy Central, and all Hong Kong society, will one day realize their dream of a constitutionally protected liberal democracy: “The ideal of democracy can be achieved,” he predicts. “In the long run it may be beneficial to China if China is serious about political reform.”

But over the last several years, the CCP has waged a battle against advocates of constitutional democratic rule with an arsenal of arrests, trials and torture that rivals the Tiananmen military crackdown.

When hundreds of Chinese intellectuals issued their Charter 08 call for a new constitution to end the constant torrent of “human rights disasters” — like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters — that have plagued life under communist rule, the CCP rapidly arrested its chief author, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), along with other co-leaders of the movement.

Liu, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, has been locked away in a Manchurian jail on charges of inciting the overthrow of the communist system. Liu was a young professor when he attempted to defend student protesters who had been encircled inside Tiananmen Square by martial law troops and tanks on June 4, 1989. He was awarded the Peace Prize, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” In a letter written from his remote Chinese prison cell, he dedicated the Nobel award to the martyrs of Tiananmen, after memorializing them in the Charter 08 appeal for a new democratic China.

“The heavy [11-year] sentence for Liu Xiaobo was obviously intended to signal that Charter 08 was a dangerous threat to the regime – both the ideas contained in it, and the breadth of support that it received,” says Andrew Nathan, an expert on the CCP and its critics at Columbia University in New York.

“Liu Xiaobo and other signers of Charter 08 were participants or supporters of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and it’s fair to see Charter 08 as the further development and specification of the ideas expressed in 1989,” he adds.

The critique of Communist Party rule embodied in the Charter 08 manifesto stretches back to the earliest days of the People’s Republic: “The Communist defeat of the Nationalists [KMT] in the civil war thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism,” its framers charged. Opening a new post-communist constitutional convention, they added, could help China “join the mainstream of civilized nations and build a democratic system.”

Human rights scholar Teng Biao (滕彪), a co-signer of the charter who was detained, says he was alternately interrogated and tortured by security agents who had printed out all of his writings, including his microblogs.

“They threatened to charge me with incitement of the subversion of state power,” he recalls. “They tortured me for all my human rights activities and articles.”

“The Party can’t hide its fear of democracy,” adds Teng, who has since found sanctuary as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School.

China’s leadership, says Professor Nathan, fears that opening the gates to a liberal constitutional system could mark a death sentence for continued CCP rule, and that is reflected in its attempts to crush the Charter 08 movement and its refusal to grant real democracy in Hong Kong.

Yet he says the dismantlement of the dictatorship that prevailed in Taiwan for four decades, and the island’s continuing crafting of a constitution that meets international standards on fundamental rights, provide a model that reformists in the CCP might one day push to copy.

Taiwan’s transition to a multi-party system provides a sophisticated navigation chart that the CCP could use to adapt and survive, in some liberalized form, in the democratic constitutional structure set out in Charter 08, he adds.

But the reform faction of the CCP, like liberals across universities, the media and Chinese cyber-society calling for enlightened constitutional rule, is now under attack.

Under the current Chinese leadership, Nathan adds, “The party thinks it has to rely on repression to stay in power and believes that if it doesn’t nip all challenges in the bud, then challenges will spread like wildfire.”


Kevin Holden writes about the forces of democracy and those of dictatorship, and the potential to counter human rights crimes worldwide via the United Nations and the national laws of rights champions around the globe.

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