Over the last year at NRO, I’ve written four or five times about human-rights abuses in China and the Chinese threat to Taiwan. A few weeks ago Taiwan’s foreign ministry invited me to come have a look at their country as part of press tour. I went for a week, and I’ve just come back.
Taiwan is a beautiful country; every inch of land that doesn’t have something built on it is covered by thicker forest than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. The mountains that cover about two-thirds of the island look very much the way they do in dynastic Chinese landscapes — lots of individual, rounded peaks, swept over by slow, rolling fog that gives the impression of a dry-ice volcano hidden somewhere in the distance.
Taiwan’s buildings are slightly less beautiful. The architecture in the capital, Taipei — where I spent most of my time — is on the homogeneous side; brutalist, with a lot of concrete and plastic. You get the sense that the entire city was built during a month in the late Eighties and became obsolete one day in 1995. Even the traditional Chinese buildings — remember, Taiwan is the Republic of China; free, non-Communist China — tend to have an artificial Chinatown feel to them, as if they were built for tourists.
There are a few notable exceptions. At the center of the city is the Presidential Office Building, a striking red-and-white brick palace built during Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period, which lasted from Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese War, in 1895, until its defeat in World War II. It’s very pretty. East of the presidential palace is the super-skyscraper Taipei 101, which, from 2004 to 2010, was the tallest building in the world. It’s not pretty, exactly, but it is extremely impressive. It’s 1,671 feet tall and looms over Taipei’s other skyscrapers like a giraffe surrounded by toddlers.
Until 1981, the tallest building in Taiwan was the Grand Hotel, commissioned by erstwhile president-cum-dictator Chiang Kai-shek as a place to host foreign dignitaries. It looms over a northern suburb, and it is a somewhat beautiful, imposing building in a classical Chinese style, dominated by red-column façades and a two-layer peaked Chinese roof. It’s surrounded by enjungled mountain foothills, and is very eye-catching.
It was designed by Yang Cho-cheng. Also designed by Yang Cho-cheng: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a massive white-and-blue edifice topped by a Chinese version of the Lincoln Memorial. Inside is a massive sculpture of a seated Generalissimo Chiang flanked by two of his favorite quotes. Every hour the guards are changed in a sort of pseudo-Victorian ballet. Eighty-seven steps lead up to the main hall, because the general was 87 when he died; underneath the main hall is a Chiang Kai-shek museum, featuring two bulletproof limousines, a wax model of the general in his office, and hagiographic captions to blown-up photographs. The entire place has a distinctly fascist feel to it.
As tyrants go, Chiang Kai-shek was less Stalin, more George III. He ruled Taiwan under martial law from 1949 — when his Nationalist Kuomintang party lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao’s Communists — until his death in 1975. I suspect his grip on power was based on a sincere belief that it was a necessary first step to freeing the Mainland and instituting democracy for all China. Nonetheless, when he died, Taiwan was every inch a military dictatorship. The Memorial opened five years after his death; he isn’t buried inside because he believed his body would be moved back to liberated Mainland China. He’s entombed in a portable sarcophagus near the airport.
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial memorializes a president of Taiwan who imprisoned about 140,000 Taiwanese citizens, and executed about 3,000 more; it was one of the stops on my press tour. Another of the stops was a press conference with Taiwan’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou. During the press conference, a Taiwanese reporter stood up and asked Chiang Kai-shek’s successor how he felt about having a staggeringly low approval rating — just 30 percent — and how he felt about “people seeing” him “very negatively . . . even [making] fun of [him].”
The reporter who asked the question wasn’t executed. He wasn’t even arrested. President Ma smiled and said the approval ratings and editorial cartoons don’t keep him up at night. He defended his record, briefly, and then moved on to a question about his policies toward Mainland China.
Since the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall opened, the square outside it has been a gathering place and a magnet for protests. In March of 1990 — less than a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre — a sit-in was organized in Memorial Square by the so-called Wild Lily Movement. The Lilies demanded democracy; this was a response to the one-party, one-candidate presidential election of Lee Teng-hui. President Lee called 50 of the protesters to his office and promised reforms, which he said would culminate in full democracy by the end of his six-year term.
A peaceful transition from dictatorship to real, stable democracy is a rare thing in the history of the world.
And that’s exactly what happened. Six years after the protests in the shadow of General Chiang’s massive memorial, Taiwan had its first free presidential election. There was a 95 percent turnout, and President Lee was reelected with 54 percent of the vote. Four years after that, Lee and Chiang’s Kuomintang party lost power, and the presidency was gracefully handed over to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. Eight years after that, the Kuomintang retook power with Ma Ying-jeou at the top of the ticket. Next year, when term-limited President Ma retires, the odds-makers say the executive will once again be won by the opposition.
A peaceful transition from dictatorship to real, stable democracy is a rare thing in the history of the world. Outside of the mountains and forests and architecture, and some nice museums, the main thing I saw during my press tour is that Taiwan is a remarkable little country.