Reforming the Constitution is the Only Way for Taiwan

The following is a speech given at the legislature by former president Lee on Feb. 2, 2015, at the invitation of the Legislative Yuan Press Club
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
Lee Teng-hui

I am extremely happy the Legislative Yuan Press Club has invited me here today to give a formal speech at the legislature for the very first time. Last year, after the student-led Sunflower Movement, I came to the cafeteria here to give a speech to the student groups. I’ve also been here for other events where I didn’t give a speech. So this is the first time I’ve given this kind of formal address here. The subject I wish to report on today — “Reforming the constitution is the only way for Taiwan” — is very closely connected with the legislature.


I. Taiwanese people’s issues in the 21st century

Looking back at the end of the 20th century, we see that Taiwan had its first democratic reform and economic miracle, attracting the attention of the entire world. This became the glory and pride of Taiwanese and gave them a raison d’être.

Although the times have continued to move forward since we entered the 21st century, most people have not felt happier or more secure because of that. The problems that Taiwanese people face, the hope they have lost, and their despair about the social and economic environment are all related to the continued worsening of Taiwan’s political and economic environment.

The duty of Taiwanese people in the 21st century is to first understand who we are. We are a democratic, free, and independent country. As Taiwan is located within a changing world, its people should understand the way the world is changing.

Amidst the quickly changing global milieu, Taiwan has entered a dynamic and unstable era of its own. How will we resolve the stagnation of its economic development, take on the challenges of democratic government, and face up to the effects of the China factor? We must understand ourselves, observe the changes in our objective conditions, and find the road we have to take.


II. Taiwan’s economic and social crises

For more than a decade, Taiwan’s capital, technology, and industry have flowed out to China in large quantities. The only thing the government has kept its sights on during this period is the interests of business conglomerates. Strategic deployment of natural industries has been lacking. Large enterprises have ceaselessly beaten the drum for opening up cross-strait trade, and as a result a cartel of cross-strait political and business elites has emerged. The greater part of the benefits from cross-strait trade has been monopolized by these few people. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s economic dependence on China has become deeper and deeper, and more and more of Taiwan’s youth have been pressured to go to China to find work.

With the indulgence of the government, these conglomerates have brought large quantities of fake foreign investment into Taiwan from China and other countries and pumped huge sums of money into real estate speculation. Land and property prices are now unreasonably high.

On the surface, Taiwan’s economic figures look good, but in reality, Taiwanese people are becoming poorer and poorer. The unemployment rate is grave. Salaries are falling backwards. The wealth gap is getting bigger and bigger. Society is becoming more and more unfair. Young people can’t afford to buy homes, are afraid to get married and have children, and don’t even feel sure they can afford to eat three meals a day. Life is unstable, and hope is harder and harder to see. And yet, the current government hasn’t presented a single effective policy to respond to these problems.


III. Taiwan’s political crisis

The student-led Sunflower Movement [which occupied the legislature from March 18 through April 10, 2014] was a result of the disorder of representative institutions, arbitrary use of executive power, and arrogance of leaders that followed Taiwan’s first democratic reform. The Sunflower Movement revealed the limits of that reform.

1. Reactionary forces’ counterattack against democracy, and the arbitrary decisions of leaders

Although Taiwan has enjoyed a democratic system for many years, many of its people still maintain an authoritarian mindset. After seizing governmental power and authority, these people display an attitude of “to the victor go all the spoils.” They have absolutely no concern for other people’s views and place no importance on the rights and benefits of other regions and groups. These leaders are unwilling to incline their ears to the voice of the people. As a result, today’s Taiwan only acts out the forms of democracy; in reality it is governed dictatorially.

2. Disorder of representative institutions and no manifestation of direct democracy

The current ruling party has used the revocation of party membership as a tool to control legislators. As a result, its legislators must follow the commands of the party, which has not considered the citizens’ interests one iota. The people have thus lost sovereignty, and their representative institutions are in a state of disorder.

Citizens’ doubts about policy are commonly played up as resistance to the party, making it impossible to conduct rational debate. Citizens only have the right to vote; they cannot meaningfully participate in policymaking. Moreover, they cannot monitor the government whenever necessary. The conditions of the current Referendum Act are too strict, so the citizens also have no way to pass a referendum when necessary to express their opinions on public policy.

3. Citizens’ loss of faith in democracy

Many Taiwanese have lost the consciousness that they are the masters of their own country, so they don’t care enough about public affairs. The loss of governing capability by political parties has caused a lack of faith in democracy among citizens. The power to safeguard democracy has been sapped. And when the desire for democracy is not firm enough, dictators have a new opportunity to take the scene.

4. The dysfunction of the media, the fourth estate

Taiwan removed its restrictions on the press long ago, but business conglomerates and the government have used their financial resources to take hold of the media and use them to manipulate public opinion. Although this is the era of new online media, and citizens can catch up on current events by using the Internet, this media control and manipulation of public opinion is still an effective means to threaten democracy. A resolution to this problem must be found.

5. Excessive centralization

The past 20 years of democratic reform have not directly assisted local development. This phenomenon is largely related to the excessive centralization of political power in the national government, which has resulted in local governance systems not being sound enough.

On top of that, the judicial system is unjust and has completely lost its credibility among the public.

Under these circumstances, we can say that the successes of Taiwan’s first democratic reform have reached a limit, and we must try to break through to the next step of reform.

Having already discovered these problems, I asked the Lee Teng-hui Foundation to hold a seminar on the nation’s economic development in 2012 in the hope that expert research could reveal Taiwan’s path to economic development and prosperity. In 2013, we held a seminar on ways to resolve problems facing local development and governance. I also proposed that Taiwan needed a second democratic reform. I published Taiwan Agenda in the 21st Century in hope of indicating the correct path for Taiwan in this new era. However, those in power paid little attention, so they’ve had no way to solve these problems.


IV. The Sunflower Movement, hope for reform

Taiwanese society underwent huge changes last year, and Taiwanese people’s thinking did as well. 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. A concrete proposal was also made for a citizens’ constitutional conference to resolve Taiwan’s political crisis. Because the ruling party has been unable to respond to society’s vocal demands for change, on Nov. 29 [2014] it suffered a massive defeat in local elections.

Afterward, the people discovered a big constitutional problem: Their incapable president, who had already lost popular support, would still continue to be president. He did not need to take any responsibility. So society raised its voice again to demand constitutional reform.

The Sunflower Movement’s great significance for Taiwan is that it has changed young people’s attitudes toward politics. “Save your country yourself. Change your politics yourself.” The power of the youth has thoroughly influenced Taiwan’s political development; on top of that, it has changed the Taiwanese people’s attitude toward politics. The citizens understand now that they can only change politics by participating in it themselves. Taiwanese have begun to take active interest in all kinds of political issues


V. The defects of Taiwan’s political system

The central government has great authority in our political system. Its restrictions over government operations and political power make the system’s design unsound. There is no way to resolve the dilemmas caused when the will of the government and the will of the people are at odds, which can even bring about the crisis of democracy falling backwards.

1. The president has authority but not responsibility

First of all, the scope of authority of the popularly elected president is not clearly defined; hence, it depends on the democratic literacy and the self-control of the president himself (or herself). According to the constitutional principles of separation of powers and balance of powers, the president’s authority must be restrained and balanced. However, there is currently no institution that can monitor and balance out the president: not the Legislative Yuan, nor the Judicial Yuan, nor even the Control Yuan.

When the president, the leader of governmental administration, loses the trust of the public, he has no need to take responsibility before the Legislature or the citizens. He need only change the premier. The president can then continue guiding the same administrative policies the same way as before. Elected presidents only have authority; they need not take any accompanying political responsibility. This is how the phenomenon of a president severely out of touch with his citizens’ wishes can come to pass.

2. Confusion about the principle of separation of powers

During the 2013 “September Strife,” the president and premier went so far as to jointly use the judiciary to launch a political power struggle. Their goal was to take down the speaker of the Legislature [Wang Jin-pyng (王金平)]. This was a grave violation of the principle of separation of powers and brought about a serious constitutional controversy. Yet the president suffered no constraints or sanctions afterward. His authority was not influenced in the least. This is a critical flaw in the current constitutional system.

The constitutional principles of separation of powers and balance of powers have already been totally confounded during the actual practice of politics in Taiwan. The citizens’ rights and interests have not received the protection they should under the president constitutional system.

3. The system of electing representatives is not representative enough

There are serious problems with the method of electing representatives. The national legislators are currently elected via a single-district two-votes system. Powerful people in local areas control their districts, so political power is monopolized, impeding the possibility of development of a new generation. The outstanding young generation of today has no way to rise up.

Additionally, under the single-district, two-votes system, there is a disparity between the proportion of the vote a party earns and the number of seats it takes. In the 2012 legislative election, for example, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) received 48.1 percent of the vote in the single-seat constituencies and 47.6 of the party-list vote, meaning it earned a majority in neither. Yet it took 64 seats from the election, 56.6 percent of the 113-seat total and a clear majority. Hence, when the KMT wants to force through its legislative agenda by using this majority, there are doubts about whether its position actually represents the will of the public.

Besides that, don’t we need to abolish the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan to return to a tripartite system? There are also many other problems of deviation from the constitutional principle of separation of powers that, because they stem from the system itself, can only be resolved through constitutional amendment.


VI. Facing these problems and resolving constitutional dilemmas

Some have criticized me by pointing out that this system in which the president doesn’t take responsibility had been amended during my own term as president. My response to this is that we must see the true history of this time clearly in order to understand the present and face the future.

In January 1988, President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) passed away, and I succeeded him. At that time, martial law had not completely ended, and the party, government, and military were all still in the hands of the grandees of the party-state. I didn’t have my own faction, and I certainly didn’t control the military. Whatever I did had to go through the acting chair of the KMT, and there were people opposed to me.

In 1990, when I won the contest for the eighth presidential term, I faced a challenge from the conservative forces. The National Assembly, legislature, and Control Yuan were all under the control of the “ten-thousand-year parliament” (KMT lifers who had held their posts since the Republic of China government moved to Taiwan). Meanwhile, there were challenges to the party within society; a student movement had demanded reform; and there were times the country could have fallen into turmoil.

Through unstinting effort, I managed to bring about a new election for the entire National Assembly, starting the path to reform. In 1996, a direct presidential election was held, making Taiwanese people the masters of their own destiny. Looking at the results of these reforms now, everything appears to have been perfectly timed, but the conservative forces had constantly fought back against the reformers throughout, and China had continuously threatened us as well. Any step could have ended in failure.

The pace of economic development had to be maintained throughout the transition from authoritarianism to democracy in order to avoid upheaval and bloodshed. The reform was undertaken very slowly, step by step. The first stage of democratic reform required six constitutional revisions. Given the actual environment, these results were only achieved with the greatest effort. And these achievements are now called a model of the world’s third wave of democratization.

Because these changes resulted from reform rather than a devastating revolution, there was no way to completely remove the nation’s authoritarian legacy. Although the victims of the 228 Massacre and the White Terror were redressed, it was impossible to completely achieve transitional justice. For example, now everyone is extremely concerned about the KMT’s party assets. The continuation of this problem is the cost of having a quiet revolution.

In 1990, Taiwan held a national affairs congress to undertake large-scale reforms. In 2000, after a very short period of 10 years of democratic reform, the first transfer of powers between political parties took place, and it was a peaceful change of authority. The foundations of democracy are still very fragile, however, and must be further consolidated. Hence, democracy must be deepened and civil society built up. Through the expression of the will of the whole citizenry, the next stage of reform must take place to finish the mission we have not yet completed.

Because Taiwan is not a “normal” country, its international situation is more difficult than other nations’. To face China, Taiwan had to have strong leadership, and it needed to carry out the next step of political reform. Hence, the constitutional setup at the time allowed the president relatively greater authority. We chose to believe that a popularly elected president would have a certain level of democratic literacy and would respect and follow public opinion in order to keep citizens as happy as possible.

However, looking back, we see that not every popularly elected president has had that conception, instead disappointing the citizens again and again. Now, we can only go through the system again to create a more complete design. Hence, constitutional revisions have become extremely important.

The KMT, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and civil society are all as we speak presenting their opinions on constitutional revisions. This is a wonderful opportunity to unite Taiwanese citizens’ will and advance reform. Whether we call a constitutional conference or a national affairs conference — the name and shape of the proceedings are not important — the most important thing is that every party can sit down and talk about what kind of system we want to have in the future. Anything that would be beneficial to Taiwan should be opened up for discussion.

Presently the political parties praising constitutional revision are just speaking empty words. They haven’t taken the next step and made concrete arguments. Since there is such high consensus about amending the Constitution, I hope the chairs of the KMT and DPP will take responsibility by giving us concrete proposals, setting a timeline for reform, and really, truly carrying it out, in accordance with the will of the people. They absolutely must not let the citizens down! Simply put, they must not use talk of constitutional revision to trick ordinary people. They have to really put it into practice.


VII. Approval of civic groups’ proposed two-stage constitutional reform by the citizenry

When it comes to opinions about constitutional amendments, some people hope for a parliamentary system, others for a continuation of the semi-presidential system, and still others for a full presidential system. Some people hope for direct amendment of the original Constitution, and others for new or different additional articles. All this can be discussed.

Every country’s political development follows a different process, creating a different constitutional culture. The most important element of the design of a political system is the dispersal of authority, and for authority and responsibility to match up. Wherever there is power, there must be checks and balances. When the government and the citizens are at odds, there must be a mechanism to resolve that and allow the government to once again truly serve the citizens by following their wishes.

Everyone hopes to amend the Constitution right now, but they must understand the true political situation, because in 2005, the seventh time the Constitution was revised, the two major parties sought to freeze the amendment to the Constitution, making revisions an extremely difficult thing. If everyone insists on his or her own opinions, then it only takes a few people disagreeing to make amendments impossible. So I approve of civic groups’ proposal of a two-stage process of constitutional revision. In the first stage, the amendments on which consensus has been reached will be passed. That includes the following:

Of first importance is to revise Article 12 of the Additional Articles. This stipulates that an amendment must be proposed by at least one quarter of the legislators, and then at least three quarters of legislators need to attend a meeting on the amendment, and then at least three quarters of those present must approve the amendment. The proposed amendment must then be announced to the public, and six months later it must receive a majority of the votes in a referendum in which at least half of the nation’s eligible voters cast a ballot. This threshold is extremely high. Thus, the first step to revising the Constitution in the future is to change this article.

Secondly, the voting age must be lowered to 18. This is the global trend, and it would meet Taiwan’s present needs. Social consensus on this is also very high. I hope that this will be taken care of in the first stage of amendments.

Besides that, I propose the following amendments:

To improve the electoral system of the national Legislature: Increase the number of legislators. Lower the share of the party-list vote that a party needs to be seated in the legislature (currently 5%). Make the party’s number of seats in the Legislature match its proportion of the party-list vote.

Clearly stipulate the limits of the authority of both the president and the premier. Keep authority over national defense, foreign relations, and cross-strait relations in the hands of the popularly elected president.

Additionally, the Control Yuan and the Examination Yuan may have to be abolished.

Redefine the relationship between the central and local governments.

Guarantee the protection of substantive equality and social justice.

If there is already consensus on an amendment, include it in the first stage of constitutional revision. If not, leave it until the second, and have the citizens talk it over again. Let the citizens substantively participate in the discussion and revision of the Constitution. Let the Constitution display the true will of the people of Taiwan.

I hope that in order to achieve the first phase of constitutional revision, the legislature will pass a bill of proposed amendments on June 30 and announce it on July 1 so that the public can vote on them on the day of the presidential election and make Taiwan’s constitutional system more robust.


VIII. Conclusion

Finally, I hope we can all continue to work hard to jointly promote the progress of Taiwan, give its citizens better lives, and make the Taiwan we love a democratic, free, equal, and happy country! Thank you all, and I wish you all a happy new year!


Lee Teng-hui was president of Taiwan from 1988 until 2000. This speech is translated and reprinted with the consent of the Lee Teng-hui Foundation. Translated by Anonymous/Thinking Taiwan.

3 Responses to “Reforming the Constitution is the Only Way for Taiwan”

February 23, 2015 at 7:20 pm, AR said:

Excellent. A landmark speech. Full of truth.


February 24, 2015 at 8:10 am, Torch Pratt said:

This is so powerful, so courageous and truthful! LTH has long been my Role Model for a better Taiwan, and this address just makes me like him that much more. I love this guy! This speech is great for many, many reasons. Torch Pratt


February 24, 2015 at 4:22 pm, Peter Dearman said:

I think Taiwan would be an ideal place to enact some form of alternative voting, such as “Rank Voting,” “Range Voting” or “Instant Run-off voting.” These methods of tabulating the vote are far more democratic than the traditionally used “First Past The Post/Winner-take-all” (FPTP) method that is typically associated with Western-style representative democracy.

The problems with FPTP are numerous, but the main criticisms are that voters tend to only vote for parties they believe have a chance of winning, thus the vote gets skewed in a conservative direction. (Some critics say this is a good thing, but I’d bet Taiwanese wouldn’t agree at this point in history.) Furthermore, FPTP tabulation has been clearly shown to lead to a polarized two-party dominance in the long run, again, something that Taiwanese currently abhor but have no idea what to do about. Alternative systems tend to nurture the growth of smaller parties. (Again, this is something that critics see as a bad thing.)

Alternative voting, more specifaclly termed “Preferential Voting,” basically means that every vote matters – leading to high voter turnout and satisfaction. For example, in “Rank Voting” (my favorite) a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates as they like, and the candidates are scored based on their overall popularity. If Canada currently used Rank Voting, it is doubtful Stephen Harper would be Prime Minister, because a majority of Canadians strongly oppose his policies but, unfortunately, split their vote among a few strong opposition parties, and FPTP couldn’t care less. Harper gets the most “winner-take-all” votes, and that’s that. If he burns Alberta’s tar sands as fast as he hopes, the whole world may pay the price.

Wikipedia has detailed articles on all the major alternative voting systems. Just begin learning more here: Google will get you there too!


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