Awakening Tide – The Call for Freedom on the Long Road to Democracy

Exhibition Overview

    Taiwan’s democratic development has been an arduous and protracted process. In their quest for democracy, the Taiwanese people began more than one hundred years ago not only to strive for political participation but also for a constitutional political system, the separation of powers, and the rule of law, as well as for the safeguarding of basic human rights such as individual freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to publish, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. In order to achieve these goals, one wave followed another in the struggle for human rights and the movement forged proudly ahead by continually enlightening and mobilizing the public. Although the movement suffered repeated setbacks, it always rose up again, unyielding and indomitable.

    On the long road to democracy in Taiwan, the call to fight for its realization was never muted. The fruits of democracy that we enjoy today were won through the blood and tears shed by the many before us. This is a fact that we should carefully reflect upon and be fully aware of.

1. First Waves of Enlightenment: Japanese Colonial Period (1895–1945)

    In 1918, after the end of the First World War in Europe and amid a tide of demands for national self-determination, the Taiwanese people began to strive for democracy. Apart from calling on the Japanese colonial authorities to establish a Taiwan parliament and launching a petition movement in support of this demand, which continued for more than a decade, the Taiwanese people also set up a number of magazines and newspapers such as Taiwan Youth, Taiwan, the Taiwan People’s Journal and the Taiwan New People’s Journal to propagate ideas and to awaken the general public. They also establish the Taiwan Cultural Association in order to “elevate Taiwanese culture.” Later, Lin Hsien-tang, Chiang Wei-shui and others found the Taiwanese People’s Party, demanding political, economic and social rights, while the Alliance for Taiwanese Local Autonomy demands self-rule on the local level. Finally, in 1935 they won a form of local self-rule with half of councilors appointed by the authorities and the other half by popular vote, but with the right to vote limited to adult males.

Historical Background

○ 1895: Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan

○ 1910s to 1920s: Taishō Democracy in Japan

○ 1911: Xinhai Revolution in China

○ 1918: “Fourteen Points and Principles for Peace” proposed by US President Wilson, promoting the principle of national self-determination

○ 1919: March 1st (Sam-il) Movement in Korea

○ 1919: May 4th Movement in China Milestones in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy:

○ 1921: Petition Movement for Establishing a Taiwan Parliament (1921–1934); Taiwan Culture Association (1921–1931)

○ 1923: Police Incident

○ 1927: Taiwan’s first political party: The Taiwanese People’s Party (1927–1931)

○ 1930: Alliance for Taiwanese Local Autonomy (1930–1937)

○ 1935: First elections: City and township councilors


1920: Taiwan Youth; 1922: Taiwan; 1923: Taiwan People’s Journal; 1930: Taiwan New People’s Journal 

2. Democratic Undercurrents: Cold War and Party-State Authoritarianism (1945–1970)

    After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Republic of China took over Taiwan on behalf of the Allied powers. However, due to the discriminatory policies practiced by the Taiwan Provincial Administrative Executive Office (the provisional provincial administration installed by the ROC government) and conflicts arising from cultural differences, a minor incident involving the confiscation of smuggled cigarettes ignited the February 28 Incident of 1947. Due to the deteriorating situation in the civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party China (CCP) and in order to tighten their control on society,  the ROC government declared martial law in Taiwan Province, limiting the constitutional rights of assembly, association, free speech, publication and travel, and allowing civilians to be tried by military tribunals. Martial law continued in force for 38 years. Beginning in 1946, the Central Government carried out local elections, and thereby gave men and women alike the right to vote on a level not enjoyed in Taiwan during Japanese rule. However, the local elections at the county and city level in Taiwan from 1950 were often carried out in an unfair and manipulative manner. By contrast, at the national level there were no elections to the ROC legislature and the National Assembly over many years, with the mainland legislators National Assembly delegates elected in 1948 continuing in office in order to enable the Central Government to maintain its claim to legitimacy as the only legal government of China. When a group of intellectuals began to criticize this situation through their magazine Free China and prepared to found a political party in 1960, Lei Chen and his supporters were arrested and their plan failed. In the same year, some articles of the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion” were revised to the effect that the President and Vice President were no longer subject to the constitutional term limits under which they could only hold office for a maximum of two terms. As a result, Chiang Kai-shek was elected and remained in office as President for five consecutive terms until his death.

Historical Background

○ 1945: Defeat of Japan; takeover of Taiwan by the Republic of China

○ 1949: The Chinese Communist Party(CCP) gains power on the Chinese mainland; the Kuomintang (KMT) is defeated and retreats to Taiwan

○ 1950: Korean War; the US 7th Fleet helps defend Taiwan

○ 1966: Cultural Revolution in China

Milestones in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy:

○ 1946: Elections of people’s representatives at all levels

○ 1947: February 28 Incident

○ 1948: Promulgation of the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion; 1949: Declaration of Martial Law in Taiwan Province

○ 1949: Establishment of Free China magazine

○ 1950: Local government elections; 1957: “Five dragons, one phoenix” (i.e. five male and one female candidates) are elected as members of Taiwan’s provisional Provincial Assembly)

○ 1960: Failed attempt at founding a political party: China Democratic Party

○ 1964: “Declaration of Formosan Self-salvation”

○ 1968: Ms. Hsu Shih-hsien elected Mayor of Chiayi City

3. Stirring up New Waves: The impact of the tangwai movement
 (1970s to 1980s)

The withdrawal of the Republic of China from the United Nations in 1971 set the stage for political developments in Taiwan in the 1970s. On the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, Vice-President Yen Chia-kan assumed office as President, and in 1978 Chiang Kai-shek son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was elected President.

At the end of 1978, when the US announced that it was about to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing and severed diplomatic relations with the ROC, President Chiang Ching-kuo issued an emergency order to suspend elections and the tangwai movement (the opposition “outside of the ruling KMT party”)* instantly lost its platform to campaign against the Kuomintang. At the end of 1979, the opposition centered around the editorial office of Formosa magazine and staged a demonstration in Kaohsiung on Human Rights Day (10 December). This led to the “Kaohsiung Incident,” which made headlines worldwide. As some of the arrested opposition leaders were charged with treason, which in principle carried a mandatory death penalty, they received widespread support; and due to the international attention, the government agreed to hold a public trial. This gave the Taiwanese public the opportunity to learn about the ideas propagated by those who were fighting for democracy. After this, the defense lawyers and family members of the sentenced opposition figures further spread democratic ideas and in 1986 the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was founded. The following year, the Republic of China government lifted martial law.

* Under martial law there was a ban on founding new political parties. Therefore, the opposition against the KMT was called the “tangwai” (i.e. those “outside the [KMT] party”).

Historical Background 

○ 1971: The ROC withdraws from the United Nations

○ 1975: Death of Chiang Kai-shek

○ 1979: The US passes the Taiwan Relations Act

○ 1980: Murder of three family members of detained opposition leader Lin Yi-hsiung

○ 1981: Chen Wen-cheng Incident

○ 1984: Chiang Nan (Henry Liu), author of a biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, is assassinated in the US

Milestones in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy:

○ 19711975, 1977: Three declarations by the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan

○ 1979: Kaohsiung Incident

○ 1970–1980: Rise of the diverse tangwai movement

○ 1986: Founding of the Democratic Progressive Party

○ 1987: Lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan and Penghu


1975: Taiwan Political Review; 1979: The Eighties; Formosa Magazine; 1981: Cultivate; 1983: Progress; 1984: Freedom Era, Neo-Formosan Weekly, The Movement

4. Nationwide High Tide: Progress or Regression? (1990s to present)

After the lifting of martial law, Taiwanese society actively pursued reform. Following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988, Lee Teng-hui became President. In 1990, political infighting intensified between the Kuomintang’s “main faction” and “non-main faction.” In this situation, the “National Assembly of Ten Thousand Years,” i.e. the assembly that had moved from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan and had never been re-elected since, seized the opportunity to extend its powers, with the result that thousands of young people and students assembled on the square in front of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in a sit-in to protest against that move. This “Wild Lily” student movement, which took the white lily as its symbol, had a profound and lasting impact. It indirectly prompted President Lee Teng-hui, who was elected in May of that year, to initiate constitutional reforms with the goal of a putting up all seats of the National Parliament (the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly), and abolishing the seats still held by members elected in mainland China in 1948. The following direct elections of the mayors of the metropolitan cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung and of the Taiwan Provincial Governor in 1994, and the direct elections of the President in 1996, which made Lee Teng-hui the first President elected by popular vote, completed the democratic reforms of the political system. In 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential elections and Chen Shui-bian assumed office; and thus completed the historic first transfer of power from one political party to another. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou was elected President and the Kuomintang returned to power. In 2014, due to disputes around the legislative process for the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), students occupied the assembly hall of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislature), launching a 23-day-long resistance movement against the agreement, nicknamed the “Sunflower” student movement by the media. In 2016, with the third changeover of power, Taiwan elected its first female President, Tsai Ing-wen.

Historical Background 

○ 1988: Death of Chiang Ching-kuo

○ 1989 Tiananmen Incident in China

○ 1990: Political controversy in February

○ 1995–1996: Missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait

Milestones in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy:

○ 1989: Self-immolation of Cheng Nan-jung

○ 1990: Wild Lily Student Movement

○ 1991: Article 100 Action Alliance

○ 1992: Full elections for all seats in the National Parliament (Legislative Yuan and National Assembly)

○ 1996: Direct presidential elections

○ 2000: First transfer of power between political parties

○ 2008: Wild Strawberries Movement

○ 2014: 18 March Sunflower Student Movement

5. Future Tide: Deepening of Democracy  

Stocktaking on the State of Democracy

○ What aspects of democratization from the period of political enlightenment during the Japanese era have “not yet been realized”?

Right to vote and eligibility for election for all citizens, male and female, from the age of 18

Implementation of a jury system in the judiciary

We are all living in the stream of history. While looking at yourself, which wave would you like to be part of?

○ Reflections on the Exhibition

Many positive results that Taiwan has achieved to date in terms of democracy and human rights are the fruits of the blood, sweat and tears of the many who fought for these goals before us. Apart from feeling deep gratitude for them, we should always be aware of what motivated them, learn from their ideas and spirit, and also understand where their limitations were. Moreover, we must also reflect on the current state of Taiwan’s democracy and human rights and ask, “What  have we actually achieved?” and “Are there still shortcomings?” We must then go one step further and reflect on what kind of understanding we should have of democracy and human rights, and how to progress further.