The Debate | Politics | East Asia

How Taiwan’s History Illuminates the 2020 Election

Taiwan’s democratic culture — and ties to Hong Kong — long predate the 21st century.

By Evan Dawley and Wayne Soon for
How Taiwan’s History Illuminates the 2020 Election
Credit: Flickr/ Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan’s 2020 elections produced a landslide victory for Tsai Ing-wen as president and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the dominant party in the legislature. Voters in Taiwan appeared to have based their decision on the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong. While Tsai was firm in backing the protests, Taiwanese voters increasingly saw the March 2019 visit by Tsai’s opponent, Han Kuo-yu, to the Liaison Office in Hong Kong as an indication of Han’s lack of resolve to prevent Taiwan from becoming the next Hong Kong.

However, we should also view the recent vote in a longue durée perspective. Understanding the deep roots of Taiwan’s democracy helps to explain the resolve of contemporary Taiwanese.

The emergence of true democratic elections in Taiwan after the end of martial law in 1987 was a process that began at least as early as the 1920s, when Taiwan was a Japanese colony and Taiwanese consciousness developed alongside a range of political movements and activities. Taiwanese took advantage of Japan’s relatively open era of Taishō Democracy to participate in local and island-wide politics. Perhaps most well-known were the Petition Movement, in which Taiwanese submitted multiple petitions to Japan’s Imperial Diet requesting the creation of a legislative assembly for Taiwan, and the Taiwan People’s Party, which organized public demonstrations and advocated for the rights of Taiwanese. Together with Japanese settlers, they actively engaged with the consultative councils and assemblies established by the colonial government to address both local concerns and larger issues of Taiwanese-Japanese relations. In 1931, Taiwanese took this established process one step further by holding mock elections for these advisory bodies across the island; Taiwanese candidates won an overwhelming majority of seats at the municipal, prefecture, and island-wide level, much to the chagrin of Japanese settlers. These efforts met with only limited success, most notably when the colonial government approved local elections in 1935, but even so, they made political participation a piece of Taiwanese identity.

Following the end of the war, when the Republic of China gained sovereignty over Taiwan, Taiwanese again sought a larger role in governance, especially at the local level. When the new provincial administration recreated the advisory councils of the Japanese era, the appointed delegates used them to defend the interests of their communities as the island’s economy collapsed in 1946. For example, in the northern port city of Keelung, Taiwanese municipal councilors castigated the mainland Chinese mayor for not employing more Taiwanese in the city government, for failing to relieve the financial distress of city residents, and for replicating the earlier “enslavement policies” of the Japanese colonial government. These political and economic concerns exploded in the 2-28 Uprising of 1947, in which Taiwanese rose up in protest against the ROC’s re-colonization of Taiwan. High on their list of demands was a call for greater Taiwanese participation in local and island-wide government. Their uprising was violently crushed, but the drive for popular politics did not end.

The political activities of Taiwanese during the first half of the 20th century laid a foundation for later developments. They set the stage for Taiwanese participation within the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party), for their engagement with tangwai politics (that is, the participation of non-KMT candidates) in local elections, and for their creation of the Taiwan Independence Movement at home and abroad. Therefore, the flourishing of democracy over the past three decades should be seen as the manifestation of a much longer process, and as something deeply rooted in the identities of Taiwanese.

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Present conditions, as well as history, influenced the election. For example, unlike many democracies where healthcare remains a contentious issue for voters, healthcare barely registered as an issue in the Taiwanese election. Such a political silence is significant, suggesting a broad consensus among the Taiwanese that healthcare works well. In a 2019 survey, 89.7 percent of Taiwanese surveyed were satisfied with the National Health Insurance System, the highest rating ever since its inception. In contrast, 71 percent of Americans said their healthcare was in “a crisis” in 2017.

Taiwan’s democratization propelled policymakers to reform healthcare in the country. The KMT sought voters’ support in increasingly competitive elections by proposing and constructing a better healthcare system for its people. The government surveyed healthcare systems around the world and designed an excellent model in 1995 that provided extensive coverage for a wide range of illnesses. The new system covered every Taiwanese, including those with pre-existing conditions, allowed patients to select their doctors (no gatekeeping), required only a modest co-payment for doctors’ visits, and instituted affordable monthly premiums. Competitive politics have not kept politicians from raising premiums to keep the system afloat, even though deficits in the insurance system remain a thorny issue for policymakers. Yet almost no Taiwanese would want Taiwan to return to pre-NIH days. The DPP’s careful calibration of this inherited system from the KMT has won voters’ trust and prevented it from being an electoral issue that has pulled down incumbent parties in mature democracies.

Finally, it is no wonder that the Taiwanese were following events in Hong Kong carefully before casting their votes. Their interest in Hong Kong goes back to the colonial period in the early 20th century. Taiwanese merchants competed with their Hong Kong counterparts in developing robust trade routes to Japan and the United States, creating a robust Pacific trade that rivaled the Atlantic one in the 20th century. Such competition drove information exchange between both polities, which increased over time. Popular culture tied both polities together, with Cantopop and movies making waves in Taiwan from the 1980s to 2000s, and Taiwan Mandopop and movies shaping popular culture in Hong Kong from the 2000s onwards. Ironically, tying these two polities even closer was Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, implemented in Hong Kong in 1997 and also envisioned by the mainland as a framework for Taiwan to join the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s resounding support for Tsai was by no means inevitable. Still, Taiwan’s longstanding experimentation with democracy and interest in the fate of Hong Kong helped explain why Taiwanese made the choices they did in 2020.

Evan Dawley and Wayne Soon teach history at Goucher College and Vassar College, respectively. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their institutions.