Democratic Progressive Party and Chen Shui-bian (Chen Shui-pièn)

Democratic Progressive Party
Democratic Progressive Party

After its defeat in the civil war the Republic of China (ROC), led by the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT), fled to Taiwan, an island province, while the Chinese Communist Party ruled the mainland, called the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Fearing invasion by the PRC and to ensure stability on Taiwan, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek prohibited the formation of opposition parties and imposed martial law in 1949; non-KMT candidates could nevertheless compete as independents or nonpartisans in local elections.

Although most citizens accepted the restrictions as a necessary price for living a relatively free and increasingly prosperous life, some criticized the mainlander-dominated KMT for monopolizing national power.

Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975. His eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was elected president in 1978 and reelected in 1984. Ching-kuo left important legacies. One was political reforms that included ending martial law in 1987, granting full freedoms, and allowing the formation of competing political parties.

He also declared that no member of the Chiang family would succeed him and promoted highly educated younger people, including native-born Taiwanese, to power. One was his vice president, Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui. Unlike the chaotic political changes during the same period in the Philippines and South Korea, Taiwan’s transition to democracy was peaceful.

In 1986 a previously “illegal” political party became legal. It was called the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and gained about 20 percent of the popular votes in legislative elections that year. After Chiang’s death in 1989, Lee Teng-hui accelerated the pace of political reforms and won two terms as president.

Chen Shui-bian
Chen Shui-bian

Fractures within the KMT caused by Lee’s policies resulted in the victory of DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian (born 1950) a lawyer, in the 2000 presidential elections with 39 percent of the popular vote (compared with 60 percent combined votes for the KMT and its splinter People First Party candidates). Chen won a second term in 2004 with a very slim majority, but the KMT and its allies won a comfortable majority in the legislature.

Taiwan’s stable democratic transition with a competitive party system was remarkable. However, it was accompanied by a new kind of corruption, locally called “black and gold politics,” that is, crime and money influencing the political process, a situation unknown under authoritarian rule.

Chen Shui-bian was popular among some Taiwanese for promoting a local identity and a thinly veiled goal of separating from China. Since the PRC regarded Taiwan as a renegade province and has not disavowed force to compel it to rejoin the motherland, Chen and the DPP’s policies have heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

And after China became Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner in 2000, Chen’s political stance and corrupt rule resulted in a downturn in Taiwan’s economy. Despite the end of the United States-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty in 1979, the United States continued to sell arms to Taiwan and remained interested in maintaining the people of Taiwan’s right to self-determination. Thus the unsettled relations between the two Chinas constituted the most important source of friction between the PRC and the United States.