Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society

Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society

Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society

This article will examine the multifaceted impact of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That impact can be broken down into two categories: influence on Chinese civil society and impact on the PRC government. Chinese civil society includes Chinese netizens, liberal opinion leaders, and activists in Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The depth and implications of the Sunflower Movement’s impact are clearest if examined from the long-term perspective of how Taiwan’s democracy influences China’s political development.

Chinese fans of Taiwan Democracy and Republic of China HeritageIn recent years, more citizens in China have been openly expressing their desire for the freedom and dignity of a democracy on the internet, a trend with profound implications for cross-Strait relations. These netizens see Taiwan as a beacon of Chinese democracy, and hope that a constitutional democracy similar to Taiwan’s will one day be adopted in the PRC. Han Han (韓寒), a liberal writer and media superstar, expressed admiration for Taiwan’s freedom, democracy and, traditional culture after his 2012 visit in “The Wind from the Pacific,” (“太平洋的風”), and ends the post by hinting that he wished China would adopt the same system.

These views are an integral part of Chinese civil society’s opposition to the PRC government’s rationalization of authoritarian rule. For example, the government openly asserts “Chinese exceptionalism” on the world stage, claiming that Chinese ethnicity and culture make its citizens intrinsically unfit for, and even hostile to, democracy. Many Chinese, including imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, have criticized their unelected government’s stance as racist and self-serving. Taiwan, whose complex cultural heritage is partly Chinese, is in their eyes the most powerful refutation of the myth of Chinese exceptionalism.

Among these liberal Chinese, “Republic of China (ROC) fans” (guofen, 國粉) and their influence are becoming particularly noteworthy. The Chinese government clearly sees the ROC fans as a political threat to its legitimacy, judging from state media attacks. The Global Times admitted in 2015 that guofens’ public opposition to official political narratives around ROC heritage has become “an ideological struggle…with political significance.” In addition to the coordinated, state-sponsored attacks on guofen in recent years, observers in China, Taiwan and the West also point to their impact as a political phenomenon.

Taiwan’s Democratic Demonstration Effect for ChinaChinese analyst Zhang Boshu noted in 2012 the potency of Taiwan democracy’s demonstration effect for China. Part of that demonstration effect comes from the opportunity Taiwan affords many Chinese to observe and even participate in democracy. Due to the absence of language and cultural barriers, many Chinese netizens have become Taiwan political buffs, following talk shows and election campaigns. Some Chinese tourists timed their visits to Taiwan around the election cycle, until Beijing blocked such tours in 2014 and halted them altogether in 2016. More casual tourists, struck by the political openness, gracious civility and traditional culture untouched by the Cultural Revolution, have become ‘fans’ of Taiwan’s political system.

Opening direct cross-Strait exchanges have also shaped many Chinese students and nonprofit professionals, who directly experience Taiwan’s democracy. Chinese activists draw and amplify their inspiration from Taiwan. For example, President Tsai’s election helped mainland Chinese girls envision a future as a political leader, which “has a deep, long-lasting and incalculable effect on the women’s movement” in China, according to feminist and journalist Zhao Sile. Exile writer Yu Jie writes that exchanges lead to more democratic awareness among Chinese students and even, in some cases, concrete support for rights defense in China. In addition, more advocacy groups and individuals in Taiwan, becoming more globalist and less political in their outlook, are showing support for human rights and improved governance in China. The recent detention by Chinese authorities of Lee Ming-che (李明哲), a university lecturer who shared Taiwan’s democratic experiences with Chinese contacts online, furnishes the most visible example to date of this type of exchange. The Chinese government clearly finds such exchanges threatening, fearing an erosion of its legitimacy.

Chinese civil society’s admiration for Taiwan’s democracy has also on occasion turned into political identification. A rights advocacy group called the Pan-blue League (泛藍聯盟), based largely on the internet and consisting of young Chinese, has called for ‘reunification’ under the  ROC banner. Five of its leaders sought asylum in Taiwan in 2015 but were later repatriated. A 2010 Taiwan government publication took note of the League’s ability to survive draconian political controls in the PRC.

The Sunflower Movement: Enlightens Chinese Civil Society and Frightens Chinese StateThe Sunflower Movement, a milestone in Taiwan’s grassroots movements, magnifies the demonstration effect for Chinese civil society by challenging assumptions derived from decades of authoritarian rule. For example, through the suppression of even the least political form of assembly and association, the Chinese government sows fear among the middle class that social movements can only produce mob rule and societal collapse during political transition. Civil society leaders in China, haunted by Communist Party history, likewise believed that mass movements are almost invariably turned into a tool of the political elite, ending in anarchy. Many of these leaders initially opposed the Sunflower Movement, fearing that it would irreparably harm Taiwan’s democratic institutions. The outcome surprised these Chinese in meaningful ways. They saw that both civil society and elected government can act with restraint and resolve conflict with dialogue.

The Sunflower Movement and its Hong Kong counterpart, the Umbrella Movement, have converged in ways that are significant for democracy in the region. Having transitioned from British colonial rule to PRC jurisdiction, Hong Kong’s vibrant political culture is curtailed by long-standing institutional and structural limits under a liberal oligarchy. The people of Hong Kong do not have the luxury of Taiwan’s expanding political space for broad-based protests and grassroots organizing. The concrete organization around large-scale civil disobedience in preparation for Occupy Central, provided by Taiwan activists before the Umbrella Movement, was one of the many tactical and inspirational channels through which Taiwan democracy touches Hong Kong, which is itself a cornerstone of liberal political influence on mainland China. In the same way, traditionally inward-looking Taiwan democrats are paying more attention to the erosion of civil and political liberties in Hong Kong. The common threat from Beijing has led to greater solidarity and sharing of strategies and perspectives between the two movements.

The impact of these social-political trends upon Chinese civil society produces the opposite effect on Beijing. The threat that the Sunflower Movement poses to the CCP regime goes beyond mere interference with unification goals. The smear campaign that the Chinese propaganda machine produced against the movement indicates the extent of this perceived threat. Beijing’s hostility is rooted in its own history. The success of the Party’s grassroots organizing and reliance on China’s student movement during its rise to power prove the contagious power of social movements. For the same reason, the Party deeply fears that spreading awareness of the Sunflower Movement in China would trigger the memory of the Tiananmen massacre and its suppression of the largest spontaneous social movement in China since 1949. Chinese netizens often obliquely reference this fear by prophetically quoting Chairman Mao: “All those who crack down on student movements will come to a bad end“(凡是鎮壓學生運動的人都沒有好下場)

Civil Society as a Game-changerIn conclusion, pro-Taiwan sentiments among more liberal Chinese may eventually become a game-changer for cross-Strait relations. For example, their views turn the usual debates about the effect of the Sunflower Movement on cross-Strait relations on their head. Many Chinese have been concerned about a cross-Strait political and business alliance undermining Taiwan’s democracy. These Chinese fully support the Sunflower Movement’s wariness of PRC encroachment. They see the Sunflower Movement as pro-China, since it protects democracy in Taiwan, which must remain vibrant and autonomous if it is to provide a true demonstration effect for the PRC. Conversely, more Chinese liberals have come to blame the Chinese government’s military threat for feeding Taiwan’s independence movement. While nationalist sentiments that support the Chinese hardliner stance toward Taiwan independence appear to be the mainstream opinion, and have grown more vocal and bitter since the Sunflower Movement and the election of Tsai, at least part of this phenomenon is likely attributable to PRC government setting of news agenda. Sudden changes such as an economic crisis may weaken the government’s hold on public opinion.

A Chinese democrat and participant in the New Citizens Movement (中國新公民運動), Zhang Xiangzhong (張向忠), reportedly sought asylum in Taiwan. He told the press that “we can’t let China unify Taiwan, it should be the other way around. We should let all the people in China enjoy the […] democracy and freedom both Taiwan and Hong Kong have.” There is reason to believe, judging from the Chinese response, that Taiwan’s democracy does indeed pose a challenge to Chinese authoritarianism. In the long haul, Taiwan’s demonstration effect is likely to play an important role in China’s political  transition. The international community should take note that a secure and democratic Taiwan, by its pull on China, promises greater peace and stability in the region and the world.

Main Point: People in China are supporting democracy in Taiwan as part of their political liberalization. The demonstration effect of Taiwan’s democracy and its refutation of Beijing’s claims of Chinese exceptionalism both contribute to that liberalization, which the Chinese government considers a threat to its legitimacy. Over the long term, Chinese civil society’s support for Taiwan is likely to change the dynamics of cross-Strait relations. The world should take note of the significant benefits of Taiwan democracy for peace and stability in the region.