No democracy without civil society
7th December 2020
Author: Richard Hornik, East-West Center in Honolulu, USA, @RHornik
The death in August of former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui elicited many well-deserved eulogies for his role in the birth of perhaps Asia’s most vibrant democracy. Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, was a single-party autocracy under martial law for almost 40 years following the escape of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) party from Mainland China in 1949. In the 1980’s Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo began a tentative process of political pluralisation, building upon his remarkably successful efforts to liberalise the economy.
In 1987, Chiang lifted martial law and was succeeded by Lee Teng-hui upon his death in 1988. While Chiang formally permitted the creation of opposition political parties in 1986, it was Lee who then developed the institutions of democracy, for example, forcing the original members of the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, who had held their seats without re-election since 1947, to resign in 1991. In 1996, free and fair elections for the legislature and the president completed one of the most seamless transitions to democracy in the world. The proof of that came in 2000 when the candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency, ending over 50 years of KMT rule on Taiwan.
On the face of it, this transition was the work of two enlightened rulers who overcame entrenched political opposition and years of autocratic tradition. That narrative is made stronger by the fact that the Chiang Kai-shek had modeled the political structure of the KMT along the lines of a Leninist political party – one in which democratic centralism ensures strict internal party discipline while seeking to control or at least influence all external organisations.
But as is so often the case, the reality of Taiwan’s transition is far more complex and, in some ways, more hopeful than that it relied on two remarkable individuals. Most obviously, the liberalisation of Taiwan’s economy began the disentanglement of society from the many tentacles of the KMT, which was not only the single, dominant political power but also controlled huge swaths of the economy. As private entrepreneurs eroded the KMT’s control of the economy that in turn lessened.
More subtly, although the KMT, like the Communist Party of China, sought to control all aspects of social interaction, from the beginning it was constrained by its need for the approbation of the United States. For example, although the KMT tried to enforce the use of Mandarin as the sole language of Taiwan, that was resisted by the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, which became a leading advocate of human rights under KMT rule. Since Chiang Kai-shek identified himself as a Congregationalist, the optics of cracking down on fellow Protestants would have damaged his reputation in the U.S.
Likewise, service organisations such as Rotary and Lions clubs were largely tolerated, again because of connections to the U.S. And, in order to maintain a patina of democracy, almost from the beginning of its rule in Taiwan, the KMT permitted reasonably open local elections. These gaps in the oppressive power of the KMT were exploited by dissidents and political and social activists, who kept pushing for change and in the process informed the general population of the alternatives to autocratic rule. Those struggles created the foundations upon which Taiwan’s democracy has developed so comprehensively.
At roughly the same time that Taiwan was beginning its stunning transition to democracy, dissidents, students and social activists in the Peoples Republic of China launched their own effort to democratise Mainland society. But the demonstrations in Beijing in the spring of 1989 culminated not in the first steps toward pluralism in the PRC but rather a cold-blooded decision by the CCP to murder innocent civilians in order to maintain its iron control of society.
I interviewed many demonstrators in Beijing in May of 1989 and was struck by their almost universal uncertainty of what the alternatives to CCP control might be. They lacked even the basic vocabulary of social engagement and interaction because the CCP over the previous 40 years had succeeded in so totally in atomising society. The inchoate nature of those protests enabled the CCP to convince large sections of the Chinese population that its violent suppression of those demonstrations was necessary to prevent a return to the chaos the PRC had experienced during the Cultural Revolution.
Over the coming years and decades, many societies will seek to replace autocracies with democratic rule. Most will fail because the groundwork of building durable civil societies will be absent. And even those that have made substantial progress will stumble because of the complex challenges that await such efforts. As observers of these processes, it is incumbent on us to keep our optimism in check each time a new ‘colour revolution’ or similar uprising unfolds. As one cautious observer of Taiwan’s transition to democracy wrote in 1992:
“Despite such positive developments, it may be too early to conclude that democracy and constitutional government are on the way. Social forces must continue to struggle for further liberalization, treading a thin line between legal and illegal, reformist and radical actions to advance the frontier of permissibility. At the same time, the ruling party must be willing and able to accommodate social demands in a sensible way, and must realize that concessions and liberalization are not fundamental threats to their existence but positive developments enabling them to remain in the political arena in the long run." 
Taiwan’s successful transition to constitutional democracy was in no way assured, but polities that attempt that transformation without the basic building blocks of a civil society, regrettably, are almost always doomed to failure.
Learn more about challenges to democracy in the latest special issue of Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy.
Richard Hornik is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. His journalism career included assignments as editor of AsiaWeek, director of correspondents for Time Magazine, and Time’s bureau chief in Warsaw, Beijing and Hong Kong. He co-authored Massacre in Beijing: China’s Struggle for Democracy and has written for Foreign Affairs, New York Times and Wall St. Journal. He has an M.A. in Russian Studies from George Washington U. and a B.A. in political science from Brown. From 2007-19, he was a Lecturer at Stony Brook University and in 2012 was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
 Ngo Tak-wing (1993) Civil society and political liberalization in Taiwan, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 25:1, 3-16, DOI: 10.1080/14672715.1993.10408342
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