A tale of two nations

It might seem hard to imagine now but 20 years ago there were many similarities between the political situation in Taiwan and China. Both countries had an authoritarian polity with strict controls on freedom of speech. On university campuses the party-state (KMT or CCP) maintained tight control over student organisations and political activities. The situation in Taiwan was less repressive and there was a formal opposition movement in the DPP.

In The Perils of Protest, Teresa Wright makes a comparative study of the 1989 student protests in Beijing and the March 1990 Wild Lily Student Movement in Taipei. She examines in detail the organisational and decision making behaviour of the students. The actions taken by the students in Beijing and Taipei had many similarities including the launching of hunger strikes and separation of students from non-students during protests.

At the time both the KMT and CCP were in the midst of factional struggles for power. In China the reform-minded Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) was then the likely successor to Deng Xiaoping. However, Zhao’s reform plans met with opposition from the conservative Premier Li Peng (李鵬). In Taiwan Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) became the President following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) in 1988. Under the constitution Lee had to stand for reelection by the National Assembly in March 1990. This was the cause of a power struggle between the mainstream faction of Lee and the non-mainstream faction, consisting of “mainlanders”.

The student movements that developed in both countries had the potential to promote genuine political reform. In Taiwan the Wild Lily Movement demanded the re-election of the National Assembly and convening a National Affairs Conference to discuss direct elections for the President. President Lee met with the students and agreed to their demands leading to the Wild Lily protest ending peacefully.

In Beijing the protests met with an increasingly hardline response from the government that culminated in the tragedy of the Tian’anmen Square Massacre. While Taiwan developed into a democracy, China has remained strictly authoritarian. 20 years on there seems even less hope for democracy in China than there was in 1989. One can only imagine what might have been if the brave students in Tian’anmen Square had sparked reform instead of meeting with a brutal crackdown.

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In Taipei there will be an event to commemorate the Tian’anmen Square Massacre at 7pm on Wednesday 4 June at the park opposite Watson’s in Shi-Da Road.

Representatives of Taiwanese civil society groups have released a joint statement (中文) saying:

On the twentieth anniversary of June 4th, we call on all sectors of Taiwanese society to express our firm commitment to the pursuit of democracy and human rights, to support the prosecution of those responsible for June 4th, and to push for democracy in China.

The DPP have also issued a statement (中文).

8 thoughts on “A tale of two nations

  1. There was far more freedom in Taiwan than in China 20 years ago. I think you overestimate the control the government had over people and especially students at that point. I don’t know if Wright was here for the Wild Lily Protests, but I never felt threatened by the authorities for the duration of the protest, and none of my fellow students seemed to either. Comparing the situation to that in China seems a bit far-fetched.

    You also might include the fact that the PRC government largely ignored the students at Tiananmen until the workers started getting involved.

  2. Poagao, I was waiting for your response. I did write that the situation in Taiwan was less repressive. However, many aspects of the authoritarian system remained in place and the specter of past violence still lurked in people’s psyche. For much of April and May 1989 the students in Beijing probably didn’t feel threatened either. The similarities and differences are explained in more detail in Wright’s book.

    I know you witnessed the events in Taipei and you will have many insights as a result of that. Maybe you should write about it in your forthcoming book. I would certainly be interested to read it.

    My post was not intended to be a detailed analysis, just to highlight the two very different results.

  3. Very informative and thoughtful post, thank you!

    By the way, there is also a memorial vigil/protest at Freedom Square today. They were setting up for it last night and some people had already begun arriving. I don’t know if they’re still there due to the rain.

  4. i was also at the protests. i’ll have to read wright’s book, but just from what you write here, i’m skeptical that the students had that much of an impact of lee deng-hui. they must have been preaching to the choir. maybe lee could have used the student movement as a justification for what he already wanted to do.

  5. v, I think your analysis is quite fair. LTH was fairly certain of being re-elected President in 1990 anyway. The student movement can be seen more as a helping hand rather than a decisive factor.

  6. This is an interesting comparison, and with the political background and the key participants in the two student movements being so similar, I think President Lee is the one who made all the difference in Taiwan. Sadly, that Taiwan as a democracy is totally gone now. Nowadays, students get sent to a police station for just shouting to Ma. There won’t be any “a tale of two nations” like this in the future, since Taiwan is returning so fast to the pre-Lee era, and its democracy is really becoming a history. I am also afraid that Taiwan will no longer stand as a nation soon.

  7. Hi David, please excuse me for stating my second thoughts on this comparison. Now I doubt that the Wide Lily Movement makes a genuine counterpart for the 6-4 Movement. While a students’ demand for political reform, the former also amounts to a protest of the long oppressed Taiwanese against the ruling minority of the Chinese refugees, aka. “Wai-sheng-ren”/”outsiders”. With this racial factor taken into account, it seems more appropriate to compare the former with another student movement against a corrupt regime that is at the same time foreign. In this case, again, President Lee was the one to make difference. The Wide Lily Movement was blessed with unprecedented circumstances that the KMT was headed by a president of Taiwanese ethnicity, and more crucially, of faith in God (for being Taiwanese alone is never enough for combating the Chinese, A-Bian for example). Had the KMT had a “Wai-sheng-ren” as the president, it is very likely that the Wide Lily Movement would have ended up like the protesting students in the 228 incident.

  8. Well, in Germany you get arrested for constantly talking to signature collectors … Not much better …

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