Could Taiwan Today Be Mainland China Tomorrow?6 min read

The shifting river of Chinese politics – Scott Savitt

There is a Chinese proverb: “The Yellow River shifts course every 30 years – three decades east, three decades west – and with it the fortunes of those who live alongside it” (Sanshi nian he dong, sanshi nian he xi 三十年河東, 三十年河西). People say this to comfort each other in times of trouble, the equivalent of “this too shall pass.”

Thirty years ago I was a Beijing-based correspondent in my early twenties, covering the student-led democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and subsequent military crackdown. Those seven weeks of peaceful, celebratory protests were the most hopeful experience of my life, and the slaughter I then witnessed on the Avenue of Eternal Peace the most traumatic. I watched as the army fired machine guns and plowed tanks into crowds to carry out their order to clear Tiananmen square before dawn.

It wasn’t as traumatic for me, of course, as for the victims, their families, and post-Mao China collectively – as evidenced by the blanket censorship that still surrounds the event. The Beijing authorities are so paranoid that every year they place all prominent activists – including the elderly Tiananmen Mothers, a national organization of parents of those killed – under house arrest for weeks leading up to June Fourth. The rest of the world just marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre with moving memorials; in China the day passed in deafening silence.

Mainland China today reminds me of nothing so much as the Taiwan I first reported on in the mid-1980s”

The nationwide anti-government protests and aftermath of the 1989 crackdown shocked the Communist Party into political paralysis. It froze a decade-long reform effort to separate Party and State. Successive liberal Communist Party leaders had advocated reducing the Party’s role in the economy and individual’s lives, including establishing legal limits on Party control of the media. A press law was set to be approved at the 1989 National People’s Congress, but was scuttled by the protests. After the massacre all moderate officials were sidelined, and there has been no substantive political liberalization since. The hardline Communist Party leaders who ordered the tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square remain in charge – either directly or through their offspring – and to the victors have gone the spoils of China’s mercantilist boom.

The lesson that China’s ruling classes learned from 1989 is that any political loosening could lead to demands for reform and street protests, so it’s best to never lift your boot off the people’s necks. The unwritten social contract is: You’re free to make money, but don’t interfere in politics… or else. Yet Xi Jinping and his fellow Red Princelings know that their legitimacy rests on continuing to deliver economic growth – now threatened by the trade war with the United States. Combine economic and political insecurity with tectonic cultural changes in Chinese society – including recent protest movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan – and you have the potential for a repeat of the generational clash of 1989.

Mainland China today reminds me of nothing so much as the Taiwan I first reported on in the mid-1980s for Asiaweek magazine. Martial law was still in force then, not to be lifted until July 1987. Hereditary dictator Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Republic of China founder Chiang Kai-shek, wielded absolute power, just like Xi Jinping does today. Most political dissidents I knew were either in prison, underground or in exile, also like the PRC now. Assault rifle-armed, steel-helmeted military policemen were ubiquitous on the island, as if the Chinese civil war had never ended. And behind the heavy military police presence was a politics defined by “old man rule” (laoren zhengzhi 老人政治) – also mirrored in today’s China – and the so-called “10,000-Year Legislature” (wannian guohui 萬年國會), where parliamentarians elected on the mainland in 1947 were entitled to serve for life.

Yet beneath this iron fist, a dynamic, modernizing and increasingly open society was emerging. A new, high-tech economy was booming. Every family seemed to have at least one member studying at a US university. Activism, both political and social, was increasing. Local environmental movements took aim at polluting factories, and later morphed into island-wide organizations with widespread urban middle-class participation. Socially-engaged music, literature, art, film and other cultural activities flourished. There was an atmosphere of youthful dynamism in the teahouses, bookstores and campuses that starkly contrasted with the repressive, militaristic politics of Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party.

If Chinese history is any guide, the older Xi gets the more precarious his absolute grip on power will be”

Chiang Ching-kuo’s declaration ending 38 years of martial law

These developments were a harbinger of the democratic political evolution that ensued. On July 15, 1987, martial law was unexpectedly lifted (although tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech and the press remained in place for several more years) and political opposition formally legalized. Taiwan’s long march toward its vibrant multi-party system was officially underway. Now Taiwan is led by a liberal president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party; its people overwhelmingly oppose unification with the mainland, and the island recently passed Asia’s first same-sex marriage law.

Ultimately, what brought about the end of martial law and transition to democracy is that Taiwan’s dictator got old and sick, and people lost their fear of him. When President Chiang was 67, he was at the height of his power. At age 77, in his Constitution Day speech on December 25, 1985, he declared that dynastic succession would end and that his successor wouldn’t be from the Chiang family:

The first question is the succession to the presidency. This sort of question only exists in despotic and totalitarian countries. It does not exist in the Republic of China, founded on the Constitution. So the next President will be elected in accordance with constitutional procedure by the National Assembly on behalf of the people.

Xi Jinping is now 67 and shows no sign of political loosening. It seems unimaginable that any Chinese Communist Party leader – not least Chairman-of-Everything Xi – could voice words similar to President Chiang’s. But since Xi removed term limits on his own rule, he’ll probably be in power when he’s 77, perhaps even 87 and in declining health – Deng Xiaoping was 84 at the time of Tiananmen. If Chinese history is any guide, the older Xi gets the more precarious his absolute grip on power will be. While I’m not predicting a rapid, nonviolent political thaw in mainland China like the one I saw in Taiwan, these are some developments to watch for in the PRC. The Yellow River shifts course every 30 years – three decades east, three decades west – and with it the fortunes of those who live alongside it. ∎

Header image: Taiwanese demonstrate on the street after the lifting of martial law in 1987 (PR Museum).