Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou came out strongly in favor of Hong Kong protesters on Friday, and urged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to move mainland China towards a “constitutional democracy.”
In a speech marking Taiwan’s National Day celebrations, President Ma said that Taiwan had “strong support” for the democratic aspirations of the protesters in Hong Kong. He also called on China to allow free and fair elections in Hong Kong immediately, and cited former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in calling on the CCP to begin a democratic transition throughout the mainland.
“Thirty years ago, when Deng Xiaoping was pushing for reform and opening up in the mainland, he famously proposed letting some people get rich first,” President Ma pointed out. “So why couldn’t they [current CCP leaders] do the same thing in Hong Kong, and let some people go democratic first?”
Besides permitting Hong Kong to go democratic immediately, Ma argued that it was inevitable that the rest of mainland China will soon want greater democracy and the rule of law.
“Now that the 1.3 billion people on the mainland have become moderately wealthy, they will of course wish to enjoy greater democracy and rule of law. Such a desire has never been a monopoly of the west, but is the right of all humankind.”
He then said that the best time for the CCP to begin this transition to democracy is now. “Today, we again urge those on the other side of the Taiwan Strait to take note that now is the most appropriate time for mainland China to move toward constitutional democracy.”
Taiwan was previously ruled by as a one-Party state, but the KMT oversaw a peaceful transition to a constitutional democratic system during the 1980s and 1990s. Taiwan held its first ever direct presidential election in 1996. During the speech on Friday, Ma said Taiwan’s democratic system would “serve as a guidepost for ethnic Chinese societies.”
Ma’s speech is certain to infuriate Beijing, especially given that Ma at times appeared to directly refute CCP talking points. Most obviously, Ma’s argument that democracy is not a “monopoly of the west, but is the right of all humankind” was a direct challenge to the CCP’s claim that democracy is a Western construct unsuitable for China. Notably, the CCP has significantly stepped up its attacks on democracy and Western values under President Xi Jinping.
It was also notable that Ma compared allowing democracy in Hong Kong to Deng’s reform and opening up policy. Invoking Deng to make the case for democracy is highly problematic, of course, given Deng’s ardent support for one-Party rule and his decision to violently suppress pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Still, it was an interesting metaphor for Ma to use because Xi has frequently invoked Deng to legitimize his own efforts to rebalance China’s economy. In this sense, Ma’s Deng metaphor could also be interpreted as a direct challenge to Xi and the CCP.
Ma’s speech is all the more surprising given that he is known as a pro-mainland politician in Taiwan, and is regularly criticized for risking Taiwan’s future by moving too close to China.
It’s worth noting that despite Ma’s strong support for the Occupy Central protests, he also used the National Day speech to criticize some similar Taiwanese social movements in recent years, including the student-led Sunflower Movement.
“In the last year or two, protesters have resorted to some extremely zealous and illegal actions that ignored the lawful interests of people with different opinions,” Ma said. “Such undemocratic behavior has generated needless conflict, and allowed a minority to prevent legislative deliberations on many pending bills.”