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Taiwan’s Democracy in Crisis: Next Steps and Their Importance for the World

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Taiwan’s Democracy in Crisis: Next Steps and Their Importance for the World

Now that the controversial legislative reform bill has passed, what steps should Taiwan’s civil society take? 

Taiwan’s Democracy in Crisis: Next Steps and Their Importance for the World

An estimated 100,000 people fill the streets during a protest against the legislative reform bill on May 24, 2024.

Credit: Taiwan Economic Democracy Union

Taiwan’s legislative controversies are capturing global attention, shedding light on the broader geopolitical struggle with China. China’s rise, marked by expanded political and economic clout, positions its authoritarian regime as a troubling new standard that starkly contrasts with Taiwan’s democratic aspirations. As “the beacon of democracy in Asia,” Taiwan is not just fighting internal political battles; it’s on the frontline of defending democratic values against China’s authoritarian ambitions. 

Recent legislative expansions and contentious proposals have plunged Taiwan into a democratic crisis. This isn’t just a typical partisan struggle seen in democracies; it’s intensified by the strategic maneuvers of the People’s Liberation Army and the looming threat of Chinese interference. These developments demand a rigorous examination of how Taiwan can continue to uphold regional peace and democracy.

Doubts about the accountability of Taiwan’s legislators are growing due to just-passed legal provisions that some claim are unconstitutional. These could potentially allow China to access personal data and increase surveillance, raising alarms among civil society groups. Despite this, the Kuomintang (KMT), the party behind the bill, has not addressed these concerns and plans to explain the legislation’s complexities only after its passage. As of late on May 28, the bill has passed its final reading and will be submitted to the president for enactment.

The KMT’s disregard for transparency has sparked massive protests, with 100,000 citizens surrounding the legislature – the largest demonstration since the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Yet, the KMT dismissed the rallies as partisan conflicts, suggesting the protestors are merely tools of the ruling party. This claim is questionable as the movement clearly transcends traditional party lines. 

Looking forward, what actions should Taiwan’s civil society take, and what challenges might they face? These considerations will shape Taiwan’s democratic practices for years to come.

The civic assembly organizers have strategically outlined their plans for action, focusing on three main areas: strengthening the democratic constitution, increasing legislative accountability, and bolstering mechanisms to defend democracy against China’s authoritarian influence.

In an effort to preserve impartiality in the legislative expansion debate, the recent assembly urged President Lai Ching-te to delay the bill’s promulgation and send it back to the legislature for reconsideration. If the legislature stands by its decision, the case should be referred to the Constitutional Court to assess its constitutionality.

Although Taiwan reduced the threshold for legislative reconsideration to a simple majority of all members in 1997, extending the legislative process would enhance public understanding and participation, thus better reflecting the constitution’s spirit. This approach effectively counters the rapid legislative tactics employed by the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). 

Civic assembly organizers advocate strengthening the constitutional order and propose a public referendum as a third way to uphold constitutional principles, offering a direct democratic solution to rectify the shortcomings of representative democracy.

Furthermore, to mitigate potential Chinese influence over KMT or TPP legislators, a direct approach is necessary – demanding greater accountability to Taiwanese voters. If the bill is reconsidered, civic assembly organizers encourage voters to actively voice their concerns, particularly those who initially supported the TPP, hoping to advance Taiwan’s democracy. Proposals for more stringent monitoring of legislative activities suggest improving evaluation mechanisms and enhancing transparency in legislative proceedings. The public is also urged to consider recall procedures against any legislators who misuse their power. 

Meanwhile, after the assemblies, new grassroots initiatives were announced, which involve training speakers to go into communities and raise awareness about the bill’s issues.

A central issue in the ongoing legislative debate is crafting effective legal measures against Chinese influence, posing a substantial challenge for activists. While civic assemblies in other democracies typically drive political change through fair elections, Taiwan’s situation is compounded by external threats and concerns that its democratic system itself may be undermined.

This isn’t mere speculation, but a potential reality within the next four years. Following their narrow legislative majority, the KMT has signaled intentions to amend critical national security laws relating to elections, relations with China, and immigration policies. If the TPP continues to cooperate with the KMT or remains neutral during critical votes, the KMT could solidify its control.

Last month, following former President (and former KMT chair) Ma Ying-jeou’s meeting with Xi Jinping, his foundation called for amending the “Anti-Infiltration Act,” which prevents Chinese interference in Taiwan’s political processes. Eric Chu, the current KMT chair, supported this move, proposing changes to other national security laws, including one that governs Taiwan’s political agreements with China to ensure they do not compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty. These actions suggest the KMT hopes to use its legislative control to rethink Taiwan’s approach to China in ways that could jeopardize national security and sovereignty.

Historically, interactions between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party have not heralded peace but have instead reinforced China’s territorial claims over Taiwan, sparking crises. This pattern was evident when former KMT chairperson Lien Chan and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued the “Lien-Hu Communique” in 2005, advocating for a “peace agreement.” These efforts continued under Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency. 

In 2019, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu met with the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, supporting the “1992 Consensus,” which Xi Jinping has defined as Taiwan’s version of “One Country, Two Systems.” Han, the KMT’s candidate for the 2020 presidential election, is currently the speaker of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

Shortly after Ma and Xi’s meeting, Fu Kun-chi, the KMT caucus whip, visited China with 16 legislators. A local politician from eastern Taiwan, Fu has long capitalized on his family’s business connections with China. He has also tried to establish an economic structure in his local area that is heavily reliant on China. Leading his party, Fu expedited the controversial legislation to expand the legislature’s powers; he also proposed reducing the residency requirements for Chinese spouses seeking Taiwanese citizenship, quickly gaining the TPP’s support.

These actions by the KMT, particularly with TPP backing, raise significant concerns about the potential for multiple channels of Chinese influence within Taiwan’s democratic system. This collaboration could solidify the KMT’s control beyond its fragile majority, intensifying the democratic crisis evident in the ongoing legislative disputes.

The controversy in Taiwan’s legislature is drawing global attention due to the critical importance of Taiwan’s democratic performance and resilience amid Chinese hostility. History in Taiwan is far from settled, making it premature to declare a victory for liberal democracy. Instead, Taiwanese citizens are increasingly turning to constitutional mechanisms to empower themselves against legislators who abuse their power. This is crucial, as factors related to China complicate the accountability of democratically elected officials. 

Over the next four years, Taiwan’s democracy is likely to experience turbulence from these complex challenges. If Chinese influence proves to be substantial, both the Taiwanese public and the international community must recognize that these spontaneous civic assemblies are essential in resisting China’s authoritarian expansion. Through strategic actions by Taiwan’s civil society, we may witness a new and vigorous phase in the evolution of Taiwanese democracy.