Taiwan: Flourish and Decline

Taiwan: Flourish and Decline

. 8 min read

Charles J. Wysocki. Originally published in the HIR September 1980 Issue.

The four seasons arise in succession,
and all creation lives cyclically.
For every flourishing there is a decline; civil and military are of the natural order.

Thus spoke my erstwhile butcher in his street-corner shop in Taipei responding to a query about Tai- wan's political future. Days later he revealed the source of his wisdom as Chuang Tzu – of course – the ancient Chinese sage. Indeed, complementary paradox and cyclical imagery have always played prominent roles in traditional Chinese thought. In considering Taiwan's present "flourishes and de- clines," however, the Western political concept of paradox as unresolved conflict may prove more appropriate in viewing political and social issues.

Taiwan's international prestige has been fading, yet its economy has been soaring. The establishment of unofficial ties throughout the world, however, seems to have reconciled this contradiction. Can this endure? As all chapters in traditional Chinese novels conclude, "Read on for more of this adventure."


Taiwan's diplomatic and economic histories seem to be a complementary paradox; that is, they diverge but re- main compatible like a Chinese official's Confucian out- look on the job and Taoist frivolity at play. In 1949 the Chinese Nationalist regime, under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fled the mainland for Taiwan where they set up the provisional government of the Republic of China (ROC). In the ensuing three decades, Taiwan experienced international embrace as a Far East bastion of the free world, and then, alienation along the slow humiliating road to diplomatic impotence: sign- ing of the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954; attacks by the People's Republic of China (PRC) on Taiwan's offshore islands in 1954 and on Quemoy in 1958; France's recognition of the PRC in 1964; repeal of the Formosa Resolution by Congress in 1971; expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations in 1971; and President Richard Nixon's trip to the PRC in 1972. As if to complete a long, subtle scene change, President Jimmy Carter announced on December 15, 1978 that the United States would sever diplomatic ties with the ROC and recognize the PRC.

To be sure, Taipei long realized the inevitability of the Carter action. The insensitivity with which the administration handled the affair, however, did little to ameliorate the sense of betrayal felt by the people of Taiwan. In fact, the announcement came only a week before an open election to fill vacancies in the National Assembly and Legislative Council, which was subsequently cancelled. The ROC government did conspicuously little to quell displays of public indignation over the diplomatic abandonment. But the resentment was directed toward the American administration, not the public or Americans living in Taiwan.

In January 1979, Robert Parker, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tai wan, stated, "There's no use pretending that normalization on the terms we got won't hurt [Taiwan]. It will." This comment typified the feeling many foreign observers had about the detriment of normalization. With a bit of imagination, one could conjure up an image of Taiwan slowly perishing in the South China Sea; but this is not the case, far from it. Taiwan has exhibited a rare resiliency both diplomatically and economically. The relationship with Washington has changed far more in form than in substance. Two unofficial bodies, the American Institute in Taiwan and the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, have undertaken the duties formerly performed by the American embassy.

Economic ties are stronger than ever. In 1979, U.S.- ROC trade rose by 30 percent, foreign investment was up 54 percent, half of the approximately $27 billion (in U.S. dollars) gross national product was exported, and the economy grew by 8 percent - by far the best economic performance in Asia for that year. Furthermore, as a Ministry of Economic Affairs investment report observed, "An increase in domestic purchasing power is creating bigger markets for industrial products at home, while export markets yet to be developed will provide new outlets abroad."

Unresolved Conflict

Use of unofficial international ties seems to have reconciled the diplomatic/economic paradox. But the very nature of the new relationships belies the government's domestic standing, and consequent political unrest would certainly affect the guided laissez-faire economy that has been molded by the paternal hand of the Nationalist Party.

The people of Taiwan generally accept the
government's use of the law as "an instrument for preserving social order rather than a means of protecting individual rights," stated a 1979 congressional human rights report. Thus upon U.S.-PRC normalization and the expiration of the Mutual Defense Treaty in January, Taipei increased internal and external security through continuing martial law (imposed in 1949 because of the "constant state of war with the Communists") and boosting the defense budget.

Originally, this move was very popular, yielding $17 million in public contributions in a single week. But now, as the possibility of direct conflict with the PRC seems less likely, the native Taiwanese, who are in the majority and have no emotional ties to the mainland, see maintenance of this "aura of crisis" as politically motivated. They do not support the Nationalist fictional scenario of mainland recovery which is directly linked to the unrepresentative nature of the Kuomintang (KMT) oligarchy. The members of this gerontocracy supposedly represent provinces on the mainland. Many of the Taiwanese also oppose martial law, ever-increasing taxes to support large defense budgets, and two-year male conscription. KMT policies are now also less well received by mainlanders who were born in Taiwan. Despite a cloying sense of Chinese history, geographic nostalgia is not an atavistic trait.

Political sentiment is difficult to pin-point in Taiwan. Although 85 percent of the population is native Taiwanese and 15 percent is mainlander, 70 percent of the membership of the KMT is now Taiwanese – but this too is misleading because membership is an inescapable requisite to climb the political ladder. Also, intermarriage is common and children born to parents who came from the mainland now outnumber their parents. In Island China, Ralph Clough commented that "conclusions must be based to a considerable extent on scattered impressions derived over the years from interviews dealing with sensitive political subjects not freely debated in the press or scholarly journals."

Indeed, free debate has its limits in Taiwan. Expressing views contrary to the government's claim to represent all of China, advocating accommodation with the PRC, and promoting the idea of an independent Taiwan are all seditious offenses, punishable under martial law.

A case in point is the Kaohsiung Incident. The Formosa Magazine Association (FMA), sponsors of Formosa magazine which is a forum for a variety of opposition political views, applied for a permit to hold a march in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on December 10, 1979 to commemorate World Human Rights Day. The police denied them permission. A large group assembled under the auspices of the FMA nevertheless.

According to Huang Yueh-chin, professor of Law at National Chengchi University in Taipei, this group consisted of five opposition groups: older generation Taiwanese with anti-government bias, intellectuals advocating democracy, hard-line political dissidents, post-college idealists, and criminals using politics as an outlet for criminal activity. Among these groups, there was a struggle between those favoring violence and those favoring moderation. The marchers carried clubs and torches, as well as posters calling for an end to martial law, political oppression, and censorship.

As the march began, unarmed police formed a barricade around the marchers. Feeling threatened, the group charged the police, and a bloody riot ensued. One hundred eighty-three persons were injured, the great majority of whom were police. Approximately 150 arrests were made; 33 persons were tried for civil offenses; and 8 leaders of the FMA were charged with attempting to "overthrow the government by illegal means" and tried publicly for sedition in military court. Despite the pleas of Amnesty International, various other human rights organizations, and concerned individuals, military courts found all eight guilty; they sentenced six to twelve years in prison, one to fourteen years, and Shih Ming-Teh, the general manager of Formosa (previously imprisoned for sedition), to life imprisonment. The government banned Formosa, confiscated all existing issues, and suspended two other opposition publications.

Public response was mixed - and very emotional. The champions of opposition goals favored acquittal but remained silent, while many who believed that the rioters were trying to use violence to disrupt the stability and prosperity of Taiwan advocated execution. Major General Hsu Mei-lin of the Taiwan Garrison Command called the riot a "well-planned, organized, and premeditated act of violence." In contrast, the 1979 congressional human rights report stated, "These arrests were viewed by many as politically motivated because the arrests were for 'sedition' and seemed far more severe than warranted by the incident itself."

This harsh verdict by a government which has flaunted its liberal ways in comparison to Peking has, for the time being, precluded the possibility of legitimate and peaceful political evolution with opposition cooperation. And the round-up of the opposition leaders has increased – at least psychologically - the polarization between the opposition and the Nationalists. These problems remain amid uncertainty as to whether the Nationalist government will now, unencumbered, move toward democracy or again shrink from the inevitable task.

Confusion and Complacency

Unresolved conflict undoubtedly will continue to
surround Taiwan's present "flourishes and declines." They conjure up a dynamism of history, emotion, and reality that is not easily reconciled. But, beneath the visible "seasons" of Taiwan's social and political life, there lie some subtle, but no less pervasive, problems.

Michael Duke, professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Wisconsin, who has taught European History at National Taiwan University, noted that several years ago when he assigned the works of Western philosophers with opposing views on consecutive nights, the Chinese students returned on the third day baffled over the contradictory nature of the assignments: "First we are told one thing, then another. Which is correct? "To simplify to a degree, the Chinese educational system fosters conformity rather than individualism, consistency rather than creativity. In Chinese society these are desired characteristics - through them harmony can be maintained. But one can hear a dissonance below this harmony.

An introductory booklet provided by Taiwan's Ministry of Education stated:

Education in the Republic of China is based on the Three Principles of the People [nationalism, democracy, people's livelihood]. It is one that is ethical, democratic and scientific in order to elevate the level of knowledge for all the citizens and glorify the Chinese cultural heritage. The ultimate aim is to develop human resources for the reconstruction of Taiwan as a bastion of national recovery, [emphasis added]

The government has pursued these goals with ardor – almost to the point at which education becomes synonymous with indoctrination.

The political and cultural over-emphasis has had a reverse psychological effect on Taiwanese who have been the products of the school system since 1960. KMT rhetoric and traditional values have become so routine and pervasive in education that the individual no longer has the opportunity to articulate them for himself. Hence, they have lost meaning. (Similarly, cynicism and political "exhaustion" are described by PRC students in the U.S. who have lived through the Cultural Revolution.) In these times of economic prosperity, social mobility, and exposure to the "new morality," Confucian ethics and the "state of constant war with the Communists" hold little relevance – and imply obligations much too inconvenient to ponder. As a result, a generation that portrays harmony and understanding may be a masquerade of indifference and confusion.

The combination of a potentially dangerous political situation and economic prosperity have engendered a sense of wariness and complacency in the business and professional sectors of Taiwanese society. To a disturbing degree, members of these groups have chosen to live above politics. Their well-being is tied directly to the country's economic stability. Many high-positioned and well-ensconced professionals have been educated abroad, and while they may not condone the policies of Taiwan's authoritarian, one-party government, the stability it commands has persuaded many consciences to abstain from substantial criticism.

Self-preservation does not seem innately bad or unsensible, but in Taiwan the most intelligent, articulate, and respected members of the business and professional communities - whose voices would most certainly be heard - have chosen to remain silent. This complacency contains a contradiction because only with meaningful reform will individual professions and business concerns be truly secure.


On the surface, the paradox of diplomatic impotence and economic prosperity appears to have been reconciled through the use of unofficial organizations. In fact, they seem to complement each other. But, this cannot endure; international realities have undermined the most fundamental policy of the KMT, recovery of the . mainland, putting the controls of martial law, censorship, and unequal representation in serious question. And, beneath the veneer of Taiwan's political "flourishes and declines," excesses in education and economic prosperity
have resulted in confusion and complacency. True to the Western political conception of paradox, there are conflicts in Taiwan that remain unresolved. Only by their resolution will Taiwan find harmony.