On July 9, 2007, the Asia America Initiative was invited to attend a discussion about building democracy in developing countries. The event, entitled "Divisive Politics and National Unity: Challenges of Democracy," was hosted by the Association on Third World Affairs.
One of the keynote speakers was Representative Joseph Wu of the Republic of China (Taiwan). As the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C., he also serves an ambassadorial function for U.S.-Taiwan relations. The focus of Representative Wu's talk was the historical, present, and future problems and prospects facing Taiwan's democratic development.
Martial law was lifted only in 1987, and the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties did not happen until 2000. As a relatively young democracy, Taiwan continues to have some remnants of its authoritarian past. Symbols such as the national anthem are vestiges of the old Kuomintang (KMT) dictatorship. Public allegiance to a "one China" policy is also split along historical lines. Indigenous Taiwanese in the south and in the provinces tend support independence, while more recent mainland emigres continue to support the concept of a unified China.
These historical influences combine with fierce domestic divisions to apply pressure on democracy in Taiwan. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) narrowly beat out the pro-unity KMT in the most recent, and highly controversial presidential election. With another presidential election cycle approaching this spring, politics continue to be deeply divisive.
Looming over and throughout the Taiwanese politics is the spectre of China. Representative Wu stressed that the China issue simply cannot be resolved with such domestic division. While there are minorities that push strongly for independence or unification, the vast majority of Taiwanese simply want to continue the status quo. The spring 2008 elections will thus have very significant implications for the future of China-Taiwan relations.
China, for its own part, has gone to great lengths to change the status quo. By throwing around its international clout, China has pushed for a sort of de jure unification. It has been successful in barring Taiwan from membership in key international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. It has also used foreign aid and economic power to pressure states into switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Representative Wu closed by reaffirming the resilience of Taiwanese democracy. Its foundations are built on the rule of law, respect for human rights, and due process. Despite many challenges, both internal and international, Taiwan has continued to move forward in the process of democratization.