“Election” as a Consensus: The Changing Connotation of Taiwanese Local Autonomy in Postwar East Asia (1945–1947)

Written by Chao-Hsuan Chen.

In the past two decades, a number of researchers have sought to determine how the process of social protest after 1970s became the turning point in Taiwan’s democratization. However, the authoritarian Kuomintang’s (KMT) process of shaping the local electoral system, especially in the 1950s, has seldom been the subject of concern. KMT propaganda had for decades praised difang zizhi (地方自治), the system of local self-government implemented in 1951, as a milestone in the constitutional history of the Republic of China. Even if society has long ceased to fully believe in the KMT myth, nowadays Taiwanese people would regard difang zizhi as the basis of the electoral system, taking their participation in elections as a birthright. But it is worth paying attention to how Taiwanese local intellectuals’ interpretations of zizhi (自治) affected the KMT government’s policy of practicing local elections.

Why was Taiwanese society keen to participate in the 1946 elections for local councilors? How did certain local elites exerted their influence through the election and continue promoting the local general election system in 1951? Furthermore, while Taiwanese local intellectuals used a large number of KMT political terms to describe difang zizhi, how many of them came from Sunism (孫文主義, the doctrines of Dr Sun Yat-sen)? Or was the KMT’s connotation of difang zizhi derived from political concepts of the Japanese colonial era?

From a historical perspective, there were two different contexts in the formation of the local electoral system in postwar Taiwan. First, we must consider KMT officials’ ideological commitments to materialize Sunism, specifically appealing to the text of the Three People’s Principles (三民主義), as part of its survival efforts. Second, there were local Taiwanese elites’ efforts to obtain the right to govern their own affairs. These two historical forces shared the consensus that election was the essential part of difang zizhi.

From the history of Modern China, the political and economic ideas of difang zizhi came from Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People and since the 1920s had been a guiding ideological force for the KMT’s revolutionary movement. Yet neither Sun Yat-sen nor Chiang Kai-shek had made it clear what the term meant and how it might be materialized. The most they could say was, in effect, a vague idea of local fiscal independence. Furthermore, few KMT officials were keen on parliamentary politics, although its politics followed the principle of democratic centralism. Therefore, no elections were held in China after the KMT achieved its military goal of the Northern Expedition, establishing the Nanjing regime in 1927. After that, China was deeply mired in a continuous civil war and later the war against Japanese invasion.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese people under Japanese colonial rule had a different historical experience. In the 1920s, some Taiwanese enjoyed a relatively stable standard of living and a certain level of economic prosperity, yet they did not enjoy full citizenship as Japanese. The Japanese Empire promoted local institutional reform in the 1920s and Taiwan later experienced extremely limited democracy in 1935 and 1939. The colonial government held a local election for only half of the seats of local councilors, granting Taiwanese males, who paid an annual tax above five yen, the right to vote. Even though these two elections were strictly controlled by the colonial government, Taiwanese elites still accumulated significant experience in local election affairs.

The electoral experience of Taiwanese under Japanese colonial rule considerably affected local elites’ imagination of how local organizations shape the country. This informed their discussions of the 1946 local election, enacted in accordance with Chinese law made by the Chongqing government under Chiang Kai-shek. From January to mid-April, village and town level councilors, the county and municipal councilors and members of the Taiwan provincial council were to be elected in succession. Many Taiwanese intellectuals were not satisfied with this temporary electoral system, due to all the elections being indirect elections (except for the village and town level councilors). Some people expected the Chinese government to bring a more progressive social system to Taiwan rather than maintain the old regulations of the Japanese colonial era.

From the discussions published in newspapers and magazines of 1946, Taiwanese intellectuals cited descriptions of difang zizhi from Sunism to advocate the demands of universal suffrage and partial autonomy. Take the statement of Jiang Weichuan (蔣渭川), a well-known candidate for the election of Taiwan Provincial councilors, as an example. In April 1946, he stated that:

Taiwan is part of the Chinese territories. The people in the province can manage everything… Taiwan’s sovereignty belongs to the central government, but local politics should be self-governed by the people of the province…

The other candidate was Wang Tiandeng (王添灯), who stated that:

At this moment, what China should implement, especially in Taiwan… is the election of the provincial, county, and township, and village executives at once.

Jiang and Wang were not consistent in their interpretation of Taiwan’s autonomy or self-government, but they did share one aspiration: universal suffrage.

After the February 28th Incident in 1947, many of Taiwan’s newspapers stopped publishing commentary on public affairs due to the harsh political crackdown; most Taiwanese ceased to openly discuss their political views. At the end of 1947, the Nanjing Chinese government held the first and nominal general election of members of parliament. Some Taiwanese local councilors took advantage of opportunities at the National Assembly to contact Chiang Kai-shek for implementing difang zizhi, aiming at holding more local elections. In 1949, KMT officials and troops moved to Taiwan, declaring Taipei as the temporary capital of the Republic of China. The following year, the Korean War broke out and threatened the stability of East Asia. While the survival of the KMT regime was hanging in balance, Chen Cheng (陳誠), a confidant of Chiang Kai-shek, launched a series of institutional reforms that radically changed Taiwan’s political and social structures. One of the reforms was to institutionalize a local election system in response to Taiwanese people’s political demands. Finally, after all the twists and turns, in 1951, Taiwanese held the first local election for their own county mayors with universal suffrage in a strict sense.

To conclude, the establishment of Taiwan’s local electoral system in the 1950s was informed by a consensus among Taiwanese people and KMT officials that the idea of difang zizhi had to be materialized by holding local elections. After the 1950s, local elections in the name of self-government became one of the political foci among government officials, local elites, and Chinese liberal intellectuals. Although the KMT government remained authoritarian and its crackdowns on political dissidents were still harsh during the decades of martial law, the local election system has become an essential part of the nation’s political infrastructure.

Chao-Hsuan Chen is a PhD student, Institute of History, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue. Image credit: CC by Mathias Apitz/Flickr.

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