DEMOCRACY IN TAIWAN AND FISTFIGHTS IN THE LEGISLATURE

DEMOCRACY IN TAIWAN

Democrats in Taiwan have debunked the contention that democracy and Chinese culture are not compatible. Today, Taiwan is an open society with strong opposition parties, a lively legislature and over 300 newspapers, many of them critical of the government. Since democratization the divorce and crime rate and vote buying have increased in Taiwan.

Taiwan is "the first prosperous, stable democracy in the history of the Chinese people." It and South Korea are the most democratic of the Asian Tigers. A professor at Cornell told the New York Times, Taiwan proves that "you can have genuine democracy" in a Chinese society—that "you can lift the iron fist and things will not dissolve."

One study found that of only 50 percent of Taiwanese thought that democracy was the best political system, one of lowest ratings in newly democratic nations in Asia. In the Kuomintang era many Taiwanese felt the government was manipulated by the business elite, something that perhaps remain true today but to a lesser extent than before.

Kuomintang and Authoritarianism in the Chiang Kai-shek Era

The Kuomintang insisted for decades that it represented the true government of all of China. It kept in place a number of central political bodies that were established on the mainland in the 1940s with the understanding that sometime in the future the Kuomintang would take their rightful place once again as leaders on the mainland.

During the Chiang Kai-shek era, in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, the Kuomintang resisted holding elections by insisting that the National Assembly represented all of China and new election could not be held until the Kuomintang took over the mainland.

The members of the rubber-stamp legislative Yuan that governed Taiwan in the 1960s and 70s were the same ones that were chosen as part of the 3,000-representative legislature in Nanking in 1948 and came to Taiwan in 1949 when the Kuomintang fled China. Between 1949 and 1972, the Yuan shrunk from 760 members to 435. The missing members were mostly old men who died and weren’t replaced. In the 1980s, 76 members of the 399-member Yuan were older than 80, 200 were between 70 and 80.

In 1972, the Kuomintang sponsored new election, theoretically, only for Taiwan province. The election added 53 new members to a legislature. Elections for local offices had been held periodically since 1949.

A survey in one a Taiwanese magazine found that what many Taiwanese want is "rule by law, not greater freedom." In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, authoritarian governments in Asian countries such as South Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia did a better job at alleviating poverty than democracies in India and the Philippines. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea all "grew rich under highly authoritarian governments."

Singapore vs. Taiwan Model

"While Singapore and Taiwan embrace western concepts of free markets, the social structure remains Chinese," Philip Shenon wrote in the New York Times . "Measured on almost every scale of economic and social achievement, Singapore and Taiwan are the most successful Chinese-run nations in nearly 7,000 years of Chinese civilization. Their size belies their huge stature as role models for China. And their competition for the mainland's soul makes for the most interesting rivalry in Southeast Asia." [Source: Philip Shenon, New York Times, February 5, 1995 |=|]

"Many prominent Singaporeans see the Taiwanese as undisciplined roughnecks whose free-wheeling style of democracy, if adopted in China, could tear it apart," wrote Shenon. "The Taiwanese, or at least many of them, see Singapore's leaders as iron-fisted bullies who treat the citizens like dimwitted children.” |=|

An editorial in the Singapore-government-run Strait Times said there had been "a loss of national purpose and discipline after 10 years of democratization" in Taiwan. One columnist wrote that "what the Taiwanese have done with their greater political freedom has not been encouraging" and many Taiwanese "long for the earlier days of stability and honesty" under authoritarian rule. |=|

Taiwanese Laws on Communism

In 2011, Taiwan's legislature made it legal to advocate communism, changing a Cold-War-ear law that at one time was taken quite seriously. AFP reported: “Lawmakers amended the Civil Associations Act, removing an article that had made it illegal for organisations to promote communism. The proposal to amend the law had come from a legislator of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who had argued it was a violation of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. [Source: AFP, May 28, 2011 +++]

“The legal amendment is mainly of symbolic significance, as the ban on communist agitation has not been implemented with any particular vigour in recent years. For example, in August 2008, the Taiwan Communist Party was allowed to register as the island's 141st political party. However, in the first decades after Taiwan and China split at the end of a civil war in 1949, there were pronounced fears in Taipei that Beijing could be planning a fifth column on the island as preparation for an invasion. This tension is now a thing of the past, and relations have improved radically in recent years, especially since 2008 when China-friendly politician Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan's president.” +++

Demonstrations in Taiwan

Protests and demonstrations occur on a regular basis in Taiwan's major cities, particularly during elections. Protests are an accepted part of political life in Taiwan and are generally peaceful. Demonstrations rarely turn violent, although they may occasionally become confrontational between opposing groups. Protest organizers must obtain a protest permit from the police. Police often set aside areas for demonstrators, and police presence is clearly visible. [Source: Taiwan 2012 Crime and Safety Report Overseas Security Advisory Council - Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State]

Taiwan has a law that requires police approval of public gatherings. Occasionally there had been protest against this law that defied the law itself. In 2008, Associated Press reported: “About 3,000 Taiwanese college students marched in the capital to protest a law that they say limits people's constitutional right to demonstrate freely. The students, many in black shirts symbolizing impaired human rights, shouted slogans as they paraded in a downtown district with police and government buildings. They demanded that demonstrators be allowed to stage protests as they wish. They said the current law gives police too much power to bar protests. The group ignored police officers who held up signs ordering them to disperse for failing to obtain approval. [Source: AP, December 7, 2008]

“The students have been staging sit-ins for weeks to protest what they saw as heavy-handed police measures to limit protests during November 2008 visit by a mainland Chinese envoy, Chen Yunlin. They have agreed to halt the protests after today's demonstration because lawmakers said they would debate the issue in the Legislature. Chen, the highest Chinese official to visit Taiwan in nearly six decades, was dogged by protesters who viewed his trip as a Chinese attempt to put the self-governed island under its fold. At one point, hundreds of protesters confronted police outside a restaurant where Chen was having dinner. Thousands also demonstrated in downtown Taipei when President Ma Ying-jeou held a brief meeting with Chen. Many later tried to surround Chen at his hotel, an area off limits to protesters, prompting police to use water cannons and clubs to disperse the crowd.

Fist Fights and Shoving Matches in the Taiwanese Parliament

Fistfights, shoving and shouting matches seem like routine events on the floor of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwanese parliament). Whenever parliament members really go at it the event gets worldwide media coverage. Legislators fight over access to the floor microphone, furniture is thrown around the legislature and shoes are thrown as at the podium. Once a legislator smashed a microphone against an opponent's head. On another occasion an opposition deputy splashed water in the face of a Kuomintang party member. At least three parliament members have been sent to the hospital.

The bickering and fighting between political parties in the legislature has lead to near government gridlock. In the 1996 summer session only six bills were passed. "Yes, the Taiwanese politicians are breaking the heads of one another like clowns in Parliament," a Taiwanese writer told the New York Times. "But I would rather see this sort of boisterous, tasteless farce than quiet and dignified ceremonies where oppositionists are locked up." [Source: Philip Shenon, the New York Times]

Numerous violent acts have occurred during parliamentary sessions in what is known locally as "Legislative Brawling" . During a debate on a bill to allow the criminal records of legislators to be made public, a female DPP member accused a Kuomintang member—a reputed triad leader—of having ties with gangsters. He responded by slapping her, slamming her head into a lectern, punching her face and throwing a cup of hot tea at her.

According to the BBC: “Taiwanese MPs frequently come to blows to resolve disputes, After starting a transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1987, the country is split between the two parliamentary factions. In 2004, one politician suggested MPs should be forced to take breathalyser tests before legislative meetings to prevent the frequent fist-fights. Back in 2001, MP Lo Fu-chu was suspended from parliament for six months after punching a female colleague. [Source: BBC, May 8, 2007]

Journalist Arthur Zich observed one legislator call his colleague a garbage heap. His rival responding by calling him "the fattest cockroach feeding on the garbage!" In 1995, the Legislative Yuan was presented with the Ig Nobel Prize Peace Award, for "demonstrating that politicians gain more by punching, kicking and gouging each other than by waging war against other nations."

Legislative Brawling Events in Taiwan

In March 2004, a serious scuffle broke out between the ruling and opposition party members after an argument over vote recounts from the presidential election. In May 2004, Lawmakers Chu Hsing-yu and Lai Ching-teh got into a brawl over legislative procedures. TV stations showed Chu grabbing Lai and trying to wrestle him onto a desk. He then tried to headbutt his colleague before jabbing him in the stomach. The brawl resulted in having a traffic policeman called into the chamber to test Chu's alcohol level, after he was accused of being drunk. The tests showed no sign of alcohol influence. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In October 2004, during a debate on a military hardware purchase ordinance, the opposition and ruling party engaged in a food fight after a disagreement broke out. DPP deputy Wang Shu-hui chewing up a proposal to halt voting on direct transport links with Mainland China. In May 2006, amid a proposal about creating direct transport links with Mainland China, DPP deputy Wang Shu-hui snatched the written proposal and shoved it into her mouth. Opposition members failed to get her to cough it up by pulling her hair. She later spat the proposal out and tore it up. This is the third time that the DPP’s actions have stopped a vote over this issue. During the incident another DPP member, Chuang Ho-tzu, spat at an opposition member.

Taiwanese MPs Injured in Bloody Parliament Brawl in 200

7In May 2007, two dozen members overwhelmed the Speaker's podium, which became a free-for-all between the ruling (DPP) and opposition (KMT) parties with punches and sprayed water, requiring at least one hospitalization. The fight was over an alleged delay of the annual budget.

The BBC reported: “Legislators in Taiwan threw punches, sprayed water and wrestled violently, in a row over an electoral reform bill. The brawl broke out when more than 24 members of parliament from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stormed the Speaker's podium. They were trying to stop the Speaker addressing the bill, and accuse the opposition of delaying the 2007 budget. [Source: BBC, May 8, 2007 |::|]

“Lawmakers from the DPP accuse opposition Speaker Wang Jin-pyng of abusing his position, saying he is delaying the annual budget by insisting the electoral bill is passed first. Mr Wang is a member of the main opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), which holds a slim parliamentary majority with several smaller parties. As Mr Wang prepared to speak, DPP members descended upon the Speaker's podium. KMT members responded by attacking their DPP rivals, exchanging punches and climbing on top of each other's shoulders. One female lawmaker was seen with a large gash on her arm after the melee. |::|

“And at least one MP was taken to hospital for examination after receiving an injury to his forehead, Associated Press news agency reported. Tuesday's offending electoral bill proposed changing the make-up of Taiwan's electoral commission so it reflects the parties' representation in parliament. Commission members are currently nominated by the government and approved by the president. The last major brawl, in January, centred on a similar KMT proposal.” |::|

Massive Taiwan Parliament Brawl in 2010

In July 2010, a brawl broke out on the Taiwanese Parliament floor between the pro-China Kuomintang and the anti-China Democratic Progressive Party over an economic agreement signed with China. According to the Huffington Post, “The brawl initially started with the Parliament members just throwing paper and trash bins, but eventually turned into an all-out fight, ultimately sending two politicians to the hospital. Other minor injuries were reported and the parliament speaker called a recess until Friday. [Source: Huffington Post, July 8, 2010]

The Metro reported: “It’s been several months since the legislators in Taiwan’s parliament got into a huge brawl with each other, but they’ve returned to their old ways – with two hospitalised following a punch-up over a trade pact. Legislators kicked and punched each other, threw rubbish bins and splashed water during the fight in the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, with two members being sent to hospital. [Source: The Metro, July, 2010 /=/]

“The fight between the nationalist ruling Kuomintang party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party broke out after the speaker rejected opposition attempts to hold an in-depth debate on a controversial trade pact with China. The brawl, which saw rival legislators try to push each other off the podium, is at least the third major scrap in Taiwan’s parliament this year – after two year’s of relative calm as lawmakers vowed to lose their reputation for mass bouts of fisticuffs. The previous rumbles have centred on one law to open up university enrolment to students from the Chinese mainland , and legislation that would see local officials being appointed , rather than elected.” /=/

Taiwan's Legislature May Open to Chinese Tourists

In June 2011, Taiwan's parliamentary speaker said he will consider opening the legislative floor to Chinese tourists so they can observe Taiwan’s see freewheeling democracy in action firsthand. Associated Press reported: “Lawmaker Wu Yu-sheng of the ruling Nationalist Party proposed that the legislature open its floor to the visiting Chinese because "out of all places in Taiwan, the legislature is where democracy is most thoroughly implemented." Taiwan's leaders hope the visiting Chinese envy the island's freedoms and human rights and in turn demand that their government relax its strict political controls. [Source: Associated Press, June 24, 2011 <+>]

“Taiwanese tour operators say many Chinese tourists - used to the propaganda programs on state TV - have asked to stay in their hotels to watch the freewheeling TV political talk shows on Taiwan. The United Daily News said a number of Chinese college students had received a "shock education" when interning at Taiwan's legislature. "They were surprised that our lawmakers could question and even shout at senior government officials," the report said. <+>

“Taiwan's senior officials, from the premier to all ministers, regularly deliver reports to the legislature and patiently answer lawmakers' questions in lengthy sessions. Following Taiwan's transformation to democracy in the 1990s, lawmakers frequently ripped off microphones and brawled with their colleagues over differences, but such displays have given way to verbal debates in recent years.” <+>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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