The Chinese democracy movement and the Taiwan independence movement are not friends, so far

Written by Linda Gail Arrigo.

Image credit: Linda Gail Arrigo.

In the last two weeks proponents of democratization in China have held a large conference in Hong Kong and several events in Taipei in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident. Although I missed some of them due to other commitments, I did attend two presentations at the Café Philo, long the venue of social activists in Taiwan, with victims and witnesses and chroniclers of 6-4 such as Louisa Lim.

My summation, from my limited perspective: There has been little love lost between the Chinese democracy movement and the Taiwan independence movement. This is, I surmise, unfortunate, because Taiwan is increasingly in danger of takeover by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yes, there has been some contact over the decades, but not always friendly.

In the Taiwan democratic movement period in which I participated directly, 1977–1980, the PRC was a very distant presence though physically not far away; all contact was forbidden by the KMT ruling party of ‘The Republic of China’ on Taiwan. In fact, Taiwanese who found means to visit the PRC could be punished with imprisonment. For instance, the young daughter of the national legislator Huang Shun-hsin (黃順興 1923–2002), Nina Huang, was sentenced to five years in the 1970s.

The opposition to the KMT was, by a large majority, Hokkien-speaking native Taiwanese, and so the movement for democratization took on more of an ethnic and nativist slant versus the government of Chiang Kai-shek and its military and ‘mainlander’ hangers-on. A White Terror was unleashed under which even mild dissent was labelled communist agitation, and often punished with death – especially for mainlanders who could be linked to supposed communist ‘plots’. The few pro-China and generally leftist intellectuals in the opposition movement of the 1970’s tended to shun direct action, believing that the KMT was too powerful and it was only feasible to await liberation by the PRC, i.e. an armchair position. In contrast, the middle-class nativist leaders of the movement talked about economic and social rights of workers and farmers, at least in the abstract. Right after the crackdown beginning 13 December 1979, the security agencies decided to prosecute the nativists, but bypass or release pro-China intellectuals such as Ms. Su Ching-li, editor of China Tide. Whether this had anything to do with Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 appeals to the Chinese nationalism of the KMT leadership, including releases of KMT officers incarcerated in China for decades, we cannot know. It also seems unrelated to the preposterous indictment text of 1980, which claimed that funds were channeled from China through business contacts to Huang Hsin-chieh (黃信介), the titular head of Formosa: The Magazine of Taiwan’s Democratic Movement, who was sentenced to 14 years for sedition.

The outcome of the March-May trials following on from 1979’s Kaohsiung Incident was therefore to firmly identify democratization with the heroic nativist position advocating Taiwan independence and rejecting the Chinese nationalism of the KMT; this morphed into the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as of late 1986. In 1982 the PRC made some small effort to woo the native Taiwanese in the United States, the supporters of the Taiwan democratic movement, but that effort fell on deaf ears.

Leading up to and for a year or two after the Tiananmen Incident, I heard the KMT did provide some funding for Chinese dissidents, but with strings attached. I learned from Lin Xiling (1935–2009, 林希翎) that the magazine China Spring in Hong Kong had published ‘secret’ documents that claimed to reveal that the Taiwan independence movement had been supported by the PRC; she believed these were forgeries, but they could provide an excuse for arrests in Taiwan and also lead to bad blood with the Taiwan independence movement. Myself, exiled from Taiwan and living near New York City mostly with students from China in 1986–89, I did a few times help with dissident Chinese student activities, but I got thrown out of a large meeting under shouts like “Taiwan independence splitist!”, and my contact also got fired from his restaurant job after Chinese newspaper reports. My position has always been that the people of Taiwan have the right to decide their own future, not China, and that is labelled Taiwan independence.

When I was finally able to return to Taiwan in May 1990, after the Wild Lily sit-ins by students and professors and the accession of Lee Teng-hui to the presidency, martial law was over, but a hardline mainlander general was in the premier’s seat. The progress of 1990 through 1993, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, should probably be credited to the persistence of the Taiwan democratic movement and demographic change. The hypocrisy of the KMT government’s anti-communism was shown soon after. In 1990 a privately-purchased ship named ‘Goddess of Democracy’ that was to be refitted in Taiwan to broadcast to China had its transmitter impounded in Keelung.

Meanwhile, many of the self-proclaimed pro-socialist pro-China activists and intellectuals in Taiwan, particularly those in the labor movement, in years following 1990 surprisingly proclaimed support for the most conservative forces of the KMT, evidently on the basis of Chinese nationalism. Some served in KMT administrations as a façade representing social involvement, a façade useful as the KMT became increasingly challenged by the DPP in popular votes. However, in at least one large meeting of the China Tide group, there was an authoritative dissenting voice who objected that Marxism does not take a stand for any particular nationalism. That dissenting voice was quickly hushed. Some questioned China’s commitment to socialism as well.

Nativist Taiwanese activists have had no such reservations about their Taiwanese nationalism, even as Taiwanese nationalists have in general become increasingly rightwing in the last two decades – neatly conforming to the charge of the leftist pro-PRC intellectuals that Taiwan independence is a tool of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie. Taiwanese in the US, where ties could be forged with Chinese dissidents, have not exhibited any particular sympathy for the Chinese dissidents, though I have occasionally heard discussion of Chinese dissident positions on Taiwan independence: some Chinese dissidents are said to be personally sympathetic, but dare not violate the sacredness of Chinese nationalism in public, for it would damage public support for their cause. So native Taiwanese generally do not see reason for common ground with Chinese dissidents.

The exception has been Cary Hong (洪哲勝), who was founder of the Taiwan Revolutionary Party, a group of about 25 members that split from World United Formosans for Independence in 1984. He slipped from public view in the early 1990s, after his organization achieved considerable success in training Taiwanese social activists during sojourns at a safe house in the New York suburbs, as well as transmitting texts on non-violent social protest into Taiwan. I was able to interview Cary Hong again in August 2016, and learned that he had spent over twenty years running an online magazine of writings by Chinese.

As Taiwan has come under China’s growing economic power as well as indirect influence/control by China over most of Taiwan’s media, the matter of political freedoms and human rights in China is of increasing concern. The arrest and sentencing of Taiwanese citizen Lee Min-che (李明哲) in November 2017 in Hunan for “subversion of state power” makes this danger explicit. His wife told me that he and other friends were intentionally encouraging less well-known human rights organizations in China. Some Taiwanese and also foreign residents in Taiwan have been banned from entering China, for nondescript reasons, and others are now afraid to go even to Hong Kong. We can guess that China has already collected detailed information on activists of all stripes in Taiwan.

A rather ugly exchange has played out over the last few months. President Tsai Ing-wen has hesitantly moved towards providing temporary asylum in Taiwan for Tibetans and others persecuted in China. The Taiwan Association for Human Rights, founded in 1984 by opposition forces, has urged their protection. Brian Hioe, a Chinese-American grad student who came to Taiwan during the 2014 Sunflower movement and joined with native Taiwanese youth to establish a leftist Taiwan independence position in the online bilingual magazine New Bloom (破土), wrote an article (16 May 2019, “The Coming Storm Regarding Asylum Laws in Taiwan”) supporting legislation for full asylum for Chinese dissidents. This has been attacked by Allen Kuo, moderator of the Bay Area Taiwanese Americans bulletin board, who said that not one more Chinese should be allowed into Taiwan; Chinese have been a blight and a tragedy on Taiwan since 2-28. I responded to Allen that Taiwan needs to respect international norms for asylum; and Taiwanese may some day even need to seek aid or solidarity from Chinese dissidents.

I could not help but feel troubled about these quandaries and contradictions when faced with the speaker at the Café Philo last week, Fang Zheng, who has no legs below the knees and sits in a wheelchair because he was run over by a tank at Tiananmen Square in 1989. There is no clear or unambiguously righteous narrative in my above account of experiences and positions. But perhaps my account can help others to fit together and comprehend the historical picture of this many-sided struggle, as well as the ideologically-charged and very subjective arguments that relate to the different positions. The consequences may one day be all too real.

Linda Gail Arrigo is political activist, human rights activist, and academic researcher in Taiwan. She used to serve as the international affairs officer of Green Party, Taiwan.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connections between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.

One comment

  1. Why would “the Chinese democracy movement and the Taiwan independence movement” be friends? Don’t they have quite different objectives?

    Someone can be keen on democracy in China and still insist on Taiwan being part of China. Once a Chinese friend told me without displaying any sign of irony that China and Taiwan must be united regardless of who takes over whom. So, the Chinese democracy movement and a, as yet hypothetical, Taiwan bringing democracy to China movement might make better friends.


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