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Taiwan’s Nuclear Future and Authoritarian Past

The intense debate in Taiwan over nuclear power has echoes of a less democratic past.

By Brent Crane for
Taiwan’s Nuclear Future and Authoritarian Past
Credit: REUTERS/Minshen Lin

Last August, chaos erupted in Taiwanese parliament. Opposing lawmakers thrust hard-clenched fists at one another while fervent activists tossed opened water-bottles from the stands like Molotov cocktails. Politicians and otherwise civilized men wrestled like teenage boys on the floor amid shouts, screams and camera flashes.

The Legislative Yuan had initially assembled to discuss the conditions of a national referendum deciding the fate of Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant in Gongliao, New Taipei City. The controversial plant, known ominously throughout the country as Nuke 4, remains a rallying cry for opponents of one of Taiwan’s most charged political subjects: nuclear power. The debate has been energized in recent weeks after former opposition party leader and staunch nuclear energy opponent Lin Yi-hsiung went on hunger-strike in protest of the government’s unwillingness to make concessions with Taiwan’s antinuclear lobby. On the surface, the conflict appears rather black-and-white: it’s the safety-conscious, environmentalists and academics versus the pragmatic economists and government bureaucrats. But the nuclear power debate in Taiwan is about much more than just safety and economics. It’s about reconciling Taiwan’s autocratic past with its democratic present.

Before beginning its transition to democracy in 1987, Taiwan was ruled under autocracy by the (since-reformed) Chinese Nationalists Party (KMT). Expelled from the Mainland following the Communists’ victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan and established an extensive security state. The Marshal Law era (1949-1987) was a time of strict government censorship, domestic surveillance, unexplained arrests, torture, and executions. Most Taiwanese were not allowed to leave the country and the government went to great lengths to ensure that no one tried to swim across the strait to China. In true Orwellian style, anything that could float – bicycle tires, beach balls – had to be registered with the government.

In February 1947, with only a limited number of KMT troops on the island, what began as anti-government demonstrations quickly spiraled into a mass slaughter. In a matter of days, tens of thousands of civilians were left dead across the country at the hands of KMT security forces. The protests and the subsequent 228 Massacre, as it is now infamously known, prompted the KMT to enact tighter and more ruthless mechanisms of control upon the population in the years that followed. Just as the Communists on the Mainland were trying to purge the society of the bourgeoisie and “capitalist roaders,” so were the Nationalists fervently exposing and eliminating any perceived communist elements on the island. This nearly forty-year campaign is known today as the White Terror, and it, along with the 228 Massacre that preceded it, are critical to understanding the present Taiwanese political psyche.

On the Taiwanese political front today, only reunification is as hotly debated as nuclear energy. The antinuclear camp, which polls suggest finds support from up to 70 percent of the 23 million Taiwanese, advocates full denuclearization of the island. Simply put, their biggest beef with nuclear power in Taiwan is that it poses too great a safety risk. The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 represents the type of nightmare scenario that antinuclear activists conjure up when they denounce the energy source. After all, Taiwan is highly prone to typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes. In late September 1999, for instance, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake killed 2,415 people in central Taiwan, injuring more then 11,000. Last September, Typhoon Usagi left Taiwan with 35 dead and with more than $4.33 billion in damages. The list goes on. And Taiwan’s compact size ensures that any plant destruction or malfunction on the scale of the Fukushima fiasco would be disastrous for the island, whose densely packed urban centers are never too far from any of the country’s four plants.

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Yet despite the risks, the ruling KMT party remains firmly pro-nuclear, and has proven resilient in weathering the antinuclear storm. President Ma Ying-jiu and his administration argue that stripping the already resource-scarce country of nuclear power, which provides 12 percent of Taiwan’s energy consumption, would have disastrous economic consequences. The country already imports nearly all of its energy. And in an increasingly unfriendly region, nuclear power represents one appealing source of homegrown energy security unaffected by maritime disruptions.

But Taiwan is a democracy, and matters of national consequence aren’t decided entirely upon the moorings of pragmatism. In true Jeffersonian fashion, the electorate, though hollering at an often unresponsive government, are demanding that their voices be heard. And with the ebb and flow of the youth-led Sunflower Movement, a government accountability project akin to Occupy Wall Street, Taiwan’s political atmosphere has been particularly energized lately.

Yet Taiwan’s democracy is an edgy, awkward one at best, and a gridlocked, corrupt one at worst. And in its tiny existence, it has only voted into office one non-KMT President: Chen Shui-bian of the DPP party. He now languishes behind bars while sitting out a 20-year prison sentence on corruption charges; last summer he tried to kill himself with a bath towel.

So with only a brief interlude, the KMT has ruled Taiwan since 1949. Such a prolonged holding of power, most of it under authoritarian design, has left a deep imprint on Taiwanese politics that colors nearly all national debates. In Politicized Society: The Long Shadow of Taiwan’s One-Party Legacy, Mikael Mattlin describes the effects of the marking: “Whether they know it or not, many people operate according to a logic that either aims to overthrow the old system or to protect its dominance, thinking that stems from an authoritarian context.” To be sure, the general debate over Taiwan’s nuclear future is not immune to these kinds of subconscious machinations. And for the historically literate, such associations are quite consciously considered.

The three currently operating nuclear plants on Taiwan were all built during the Martial Law period: two in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one completed in 1985. Nuke 4, called Lungmen (Dragon Gate), which began construction in 1999 and is now 97.7 percent complete, was initially planned in 1980. As with most initiatives under martial law, Taiwan’s nuclear sector was devised without any inkling of the democratic process.

As Huang Chang-ling, chairperson of the civic rights group Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR) and associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University pointed out to the Taipei Times, “The decision to build the plant was a product of the authoritarian-rule period, its budget being allocated through a process in violation of democratic procedure.” With this logic then, all of the nuclear plants in today’s modern democratic Taiwan are each a sort of vestige of a darker, oppressive era and, seen in the light of popular opposition, potent symbols of KMT’s autocratic history. As the DPP party and its antinuclear allies pick up steam, the debate gets framed more and more in this light. Last month, for instance, the TATR pleaded with the government not to turn the hunger-striking Lin into “another 228 victim.” Three days after the government announced it would pause construction on Nuke 4, the 72 year-old Lin ended his hunger strike. It had lasted nine days.

But the government has been conservative in its concessions. Being careful not to agree to completely terminate the project, which has cost more than $9.3 billion, it has called for a national referendum on the issue. But controversy lies even within this seemingly democratic compromise: the plant can only be torn down with a majority vote involving at least 50 percent of the electorate’s participation. Getting half the population to vote is a difficult task in even the most exemplary of democracies. The DPP and its antinuclear allies are calling for a revision to the referendum laws, but the ruling KMT isn’t budging. As Nuke 4 collects dust, and as its investors worry about impending bankruptcy, Taiwan’s nuclear debate rests in an uneasy stalemate.

Opposition to Nuke 4 has galvanized tens of thousands of Taiwanese to hold demonstrations throughout the country in recent years. Clearly, the anti-nuclear camp is no longer a fringe element. On the contrary, opposition to nuclear power has become a household inclination, with some studies showing 55 percent to 70 percent of the population anti-nuclear. But Ma and his government have been reluctant to bow to popular demand. Before Lin began his hunger strike, he told followers, “Should anything unfortunate happen to me; relatives and friends, please note that it is them [the authorities] killing me. Please continue to pursue the implementation of democracy in Taiwan relentlessly.”

Unlike many of those followers, Lin, a political prisoner held under house arrest during the Martial Law era, remembers well the hardship of life under an authoritarian KMT. Of course, the party and the country has traveled far from its dark past. As it should be, Taiwan’s peaceful democratization is widely celebrated throughout the free world. Yet Taiwan’s democracy is as fragile as it is young. To be sure, the question of whether or not nuclear energy is right or wrong for Taiwan is a complex one. But issues of such magnitude need to be determined democratically; and if they weren’t to begin with, they should be reevaluated in a democratic fashion. Ma’s government should better facilitate nuclear energy’s reevaluation.

Of course, shifting an entire country from autocracy to democracy is no easy task. But Taiwan’s nuclear energy debate is a reminder that its transition isn’t yet wholly complete.

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Brent Crane is a Washington D.C.-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane.