Grass-roots democracy in Taiwan.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 6 2006 2:17 PM

Seeing Red

Grass-roots democracy in Taiwan.

Members of the "red-shirt army." Click image to expand.
Members of the "red-shirt army"

There is a new brand of red scare sweeping through the island of Taiwan. It even involves a red army—the "red-shirt army," a wildly popular, month-old anti-corruption movement pressing for the immediate resignation of Taiwan's beleaguered yet charismatic president, Chen Shui-bian. In the Taiwanese popular imagination, crooked rule is nothing new: The island spent much of the 20th century subject to the whims of foreigners, first as a Japanese colony and then as a tantalizing piece on the Cold War chessboard. But this is a particularly vexing moment, with swarms of citizens uniformed in red hoping their not-quite-nation can evolve from a democracy in name to one in substance. It's taken a while to get here—and to the shared chagrin of China and the United States, there's no telling what comes next.

The history of Taiwan in the 20th century describes a profound and seemingly irresolvable identity crisis. After centuries of informal relations with the mainland, Taiwan—then a mix of indigenous islanders and migrant Chinese—became a province of China in 1887. The close of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895 delivered Taiwan to Japan; the close of World War II in 1945 entrusted it to the Allied forces. The United States then delegated control to China's anti-Communist party, the Kuomintang (known as the KMT), and throughout the 1940s, the island's population swelled with settlers from China. Despite their principled leaders, KMT rule was corrupt and paranoid. The nadir was the "228 Incident" of 1947, in which a standoff between thuggish KMT policemen and an elderly, native peddler escalated into a mob free-for-all. Island-wide government crackdowns on native dissent claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. For the next 40 years, Taiwan was under martial law.

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In the 1980s, Taiwanese society gradually liberalized, though the entanglements of the last decades persisted. Due to ambiguously worded postwar treaties, it has proved impossible to define the island's legal status with regard to China. (China would argue otherwise—the mainland contends that the Allies returned Taiwan to the Chinese nation.) During the Cold War, all that mattered was the anti-Communist/pro-American tenor of Taiwanese politics. But in the post-Cold War world, Taiwan has grown obsessed with the question of sovereignty.

Today, Taiwan's relationship with China is the island's only political issue. Neither a self-admitted piece of China nor its own nation, the definition of the "status quo" changes daily. When chatter about independence grows too loud, China brandishes its arms; when the zeal for independence wanes, a politician always seems to appear ready to stir up the masses. In the 1990s, it seemed this precarious back-and-forth would find resolution with the ascendance of Chen, the hotshot young mayor of Taipei, and his largely pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

Once Chen was elected president in 2000, he softened his stance on independence, pledging instead to resist formal independence as long as China abstained from forcing the issue militarily. Still, Chen has frequently tested China's patience; it is no coincidence that many landmarks and businesses have been renamed to reflect a staunchly Taiwanese identity. Images of seminal KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek have vanished from many government buildings, while references in official documents to Taiwan—as opposed to the internationally recognized designation of the Republic of China—have grown in frequency.

In 2004, Chen earned a second term after surviving a bizarre and nearly unbelievable assassination attempt the day before the election. This term has been plagued by scandal: Chen's son-in-law was charged with insider trading and embezzlement. His wife is said to have accepted payoffs from a Japanese department store in return for political favors; there were grumblings that his office had overreported expense reimbursements as well. This June, when suspicions of corruption first surfaced, KMT legislators tried to recall Chen, but they lacked the necessary votes. Soon after, Shih Ming-teh, a former DPP leader whose pro-independence radicalism in the 1960s had landed him a lengthy jail term, personally asked Chen to resign. Chen ignored him. On Aug. 10, Shih organized an island-wide campaign: If 1 million islanders pledged the equivalent of $3 each, he said, he would lead a movement to depose Chen. (To maintain the act's symbolism, larger donations were refused.)

Car with smashed windows. Click image to expand.
Car with smashed windows

The goal was met, and the group chose the color red as an expression of anger but also to distinguish the new group from the "blue" KMT and the "green" DPP. On Sept. 9, the red-shirt army demonstrated in front of the presidential palace; nearly 300,000 people participated. (To give some perspective, Taipei's population is 2.6 million.) Some were concerned with Chen's alleged indiscretions; others were concerned with corruption generally; and some were probably KMT sympathizers. The next week, the crowd moved to Taipei Main railway station. It is a lively scene. A red car with smashed windows—the work of pro-Chen mobs, the army alleges—is the centerpiece. Chalked slogans and thumbs-down stickers festoon all clean surfaces. Visitors can even buy T-shirts and key chains featuring the group's thumbs-down logo—as well as tiny Chen voodoo dolls. (Other than the black hair, there is no resemblance to Chen.) A popular singer has composed a jingle in support of the protests.

The last major demonstration was on Oct. 10, when the army interrupted National Day festivities. Up until this past week, it seemed the movement was slowly losing steam. But in a shocking turn of events last Friday, Chen's wife and two former aides were indicted on charges of using fake receipts to bilk a diplomatic fund out of $450,000. Prosecutors claim they have enough evidence to indict Chen, too—once he leaves office. Despite a TV address last weekend in which he admitted that he had lied to prosecutors, Chen refuses to step down. (The distressing irony here is that fighting corruption was one of Chen's early campaign promises.)

The DPP has not withdrawn its support, though certain elements have politely hinted that it would be best for Chen to resign. But the true consequences may be felt elsewhere—Taiwan, after all, has survived worse. Instead, it is likely that China is watching Chen's troubles with keen interest. What will this do to the island's independence movement? Is it in China's interest for Taiwan's politics to center around something other than sovereignty? More important, what if this focus on fighting corruption is contagious? What if it reaches China?

There's also the matter of the arms sales and tear gas. Last week, picketers surrounded the American Institute in Taiwan to protest a controversial bill that would authorize billions of dollars for the purchase of American arms. Since Washington's relationship with China prohibits formal recognition of Taiwan, the headquarters of the AIT—a private organization with State Department ties—serves as a de facto embassy. In parliament, Lee Ao, an eccentric shades-wearing legislator, crashed the committee deciding the bill's fate, donned a gas mask—and a V for Vendetta mask atop that—and tear-gassed the committee members. As members coughed their way out of the chamber, Lee pledged to maintain his opposition to the costly bill.

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