Approaching the Meaning of A Democratic Society: A Reflection on the Taiwanese Elections

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On Jan. 13, 2024, Taiwan held elections for its presidency and legislature during a time of high political tensions between Taiwan, the US, and China. The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te won the presidential election. DPP is the progressive party that strives for a complete Taiwanese independence from China. The Kuomintang (KMT), or otherwise known as the Nationalists that lean towards a more favorable relationship with China, won 52 seats in The Legislative Yuan, slightly ahead of DPP’s 51 seats. This means that Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) will play a decisive role in the control of Yuan. The result of an elected pro-U.S. and pro-independent candidate will influence the ongoing power struggle between the U.S. and China as well as each respective sphere of control in the greater Asia-Pacific region. 

Away from politics, the elections demonstrate a mature society that has grown accustomed to the rule of democracy in which, quoting Professor Vincent Wei-Cheng Wang who was speaking on campus a few weeks ago for the Taiwanese Election Panel, “people, no matter which side they voted for, can accept the result and move on.” This draws a stark comparison to the parliamentary brawls that the country saw in its early days as a democratic state. However, the media coverage in the U.S. surrounding the elections was less so informative if not problematic.

In major western media, the election is hailed as a successful case study of U.S.-exported democracy that stands against the iron fist of the Chinese authoritarian regime. Such generalizing reports can easily lead to incomplete interpretations of the matter at hand.

First, the elections create a pristine P.R. image for the U.S. as the grand protector of democracy and justice. On the stage of international politics, the U.S. is portrayed to have acted in favor of the political interest of both the Taiwanese and Chinese people over this matter in their strive for a more democratic society. Back in the country, nationalist sentiments will grow. It is observed as yet another testament to the need for a steadfast U.S. democracy as well as American geopolitical and military dominance in the not-so-unlikely event of a war against China. However, such propaganda contradicts strongly the U.S. government’s ongoing war in the Middle East and the genocide it is committing in Gaza, in which it is shown to be anything but the upholder of peace and justice. It also reminds us of similar, past events in which the U.S. government was able to use democracy-building as a pretense for imperialistic-oriented and exploitative regional control that resulted in debacles such as the 2020-2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

In addition to this, these propaganda that depict China as nothing but an authoritarian regime encourage the understanding that an unelected Chinese government represents the Chinese population and their differing voices. It reduces and equivocates the well-hidden but diverse narratives that seek to strive for a more democratic, liberal, and equitable society to the Communist Party of China (CCP). Liberal voices that speak out for freedom are fragmented within Chinese society due to censorship, but they remain very much real in day-to-day life and on social media, adapting themselves to new forms of expression. However, western media coverage deprives not only the presence of these voices but the possibility that one could even exist. I find it hard to see how this is the right way for the U.S. government to achieve what it proclaims, namely, support for the establishment of a firm democracy in China and the region beyond. Instead, the U.S. government is once again using the façade of democracy-building for political and imperialistic gains, committing a deed that it accuses others for doing.

What if we see the Taiwan elections not as the frontline of a (cold) war between China and the U.S. but instead as a collective victory for all those who hold dear to freedom, no matter if you are Chinese, Taiwanese, or American? It sets a reminder of what a democratic society should look like, something that both the dictatorial CCP and The United States, where democracy will be soon, if not already, under heavy attack in light of this year’s election, need to learn from. It demonstrates the tangibility of building a democratic institution from its previous totalitarian, nationalistic government. It shows that democracy is not something that you obtain once and thus keep forever, but rather a privilege that requires close attention and maintenance at all times.

In observance of Black History Month, I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam in which he referred to the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The speech still rings today, not just in reference to the U.S. government, but all purveyors of violence and advocates of bellicose settlements. It alarms us against not only those who greed for the possession of power, but also those who do not see its nature as transitory. It alerts us against those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the simple fact that excessive power can engulf compassion, blur moral boundaries and devour humanness when one attempts to hold it too dear.

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