At the Taipei train station, a Chinese human rights activist named Kuikui watched with envy as six young Taiwanese politicians campaigned for the city’s legislative seats. A decade ago, they were involved in parallel democratic protest movements – that in China, and that of politicians on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait.
“We evolved as activists around the same time. Now he is contesting elections as an MLA, while I and my colleagues are in exile,” said Cuicui, who fled China for Southeast Asia last year due to security concerns.
Cuicui was one of a group of eight women I followed in Taiwan last week ahead of the January 13 election. Her tour was called “Democracy Details” and was prepared by mainland-born journalist Annie Jiping Zhang, who worked in Hong Kong for two decades before moving to Taiwan during the pandemic. Their goal is to help mainland Chinese watch Taiwan’s elections firsthand.
The women went to election rallies and spoke to politicians and voters as well as homeless people and other disadvantaged groups. He participated in a stand-up comedy show by a man from China now living in Taiwan, whose humor addressed topics that are taboo in his home country.
It was an emotional journey full of jealousy, admiration, tears and revelations.
The group made several stops at locations where the “White Terror” repression was carried out in Taiwan between 1947 and 1987, when thousands of people were jailed and imprisoned after being accused of spying for China. At least 1,000 people were executed. He visited a former prison that held political prisoners. For him, it was a history lesson in Taiwan’s journey from authoritarianism to democracy, a path he believes is increasingly unattainable in China.
“Although for Taiwanese people it may seem like traveling back in time, for us, it is the present,” said Yamei, a 20-year-old Chinese journalist living outside China.
Group members flew in from Japan, Southeast Asia, and the United States – all but China. Both China and Taiwan have made it difficult for Chinese to visit the island as tensions rise between them over Beijing’s growing claims to the island. His age was between 20 and 70. Some were activists, like Kuikui, who had recently left the country, while others were professionals and businessmen who had lived abroad for years and did not necessarily have political viewpoints.
Angela Chen, a real estate agent in Portland, Oregon, joined the tour to take her mother on vacation. Ms. Chen is a naturalized American citizen who culturally identifies as Chinese. The trip was an eye-opener, he said. She was shocked to learn how tragic and violent Taiwan’s democratization process was. His father, like many Chinese parents, told him not to get involved in politics. Now he felt that everyone has to contribute in taking the society forward.
Until a decade ago, traveling to Taiwan to watch elections was a popular activity for mainland Chinese interested in exploring the possibilities of democratization.
It’s easy to see why. Most Taiwanese speak Mandarin and share cultural heritage with China as Han Chinese. As mainlanders searched for an alternative Chinese society, they naturally turned to Taiwan for answers.
I traveled to Taiwan in 2012 to report on such a group, which included more than a dozen top Chinese intellectuals, entrepreneurs and investors. At the time, debates about the pros and cons of democracy, republicanism, and constitutionalism were common on Chinese social media.
Opinion leaders were asking whether China would ever have a leader like Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo, who gradually moved away from the dictatorial rule of his father Chiang Kai-shek in the 1980s.
It seems like a lifetime ago. Soon after, Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader and he led the country in the opposite direction. Civil society has been driven underground and discussion about democracy is taboo.
Last week’s group visited Taiwan under very different circumstances. Most of them wanted to remain anonymous, agreeing to talk to me only if I identified them by their first names, because merely cheering Taiwan’s democracy is politically sensitive.
At the former prison, Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, it was easy for the group to imagine how people spent their time in crowded, humid and shabby cells and washed their clothes in toilets.
“Many people thought Taiwan’s democracy fell from the sky,” Antonio Chiang, a former journalist, dissident and adviser to the late President Tsai Ing-wen, told the group over lunch after a tour of the prison site. “It was the result of the efforts of many people,” he said.
“It will take a very long time for China to become a democracy,” Mr. Chiang said.
Everyone knew it was true. Still, it was encouraging for him to hear this. But his disappointment did not last long.
He heard about the daughter of Cheng Nan-jung, a publisher and pro-democracy activist who set herself on fire in 1989 to protest the lack of freedom of expression. At the site of his self-immolation, his comments resonated with the visiting Chinese: “The plight of a country can only be solved by its people.”
Then he went to the comic’s stand-up show, which was from Xinjiang, the western Chinese region where more than one million Muslims have been sent to re-education centers. Everyone cried. It was both heartbreaking and saddening for them to hear someone use words like “Uyghur,” “re-education camps” and “lockdown,” which in China are considered too sensitive to be discussed in a public space.
“If everyone did what they can, did it well and did it with a little more courage, our society would be better off,” said the comedian, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For the group, the most powerful part of the tour was seeing citizens organize themselves and vote. As tourists gathered at the island’s Presidential Palace, journalist Yami was surprised to see that its entrance was painted pink.
“It wasn’t an institution of absolute seriousness or high walls that would intimidate you,” he said. The contrast with Zhongnanhai, the compound of China’s top leaders in Beijing, was “quite shocking.”
After watching a documentary about bar hostesses organizing a union, she learned that women had drafted legislation to protect their rights. This would be unimaginable for anyone in China.
While homeless people in Chinese cities are largely invisible—because authorities won’t allow them to be visible—the group discovered that many organizations in Taiwan provide food, places to shower, and other assistance to homeless people.
At election rallies, he saw voters – young and old, and parents in strollers – pack squares and stadiums to hear the candidates’ voices.
In the days before the election, he had heard from many Taiwanese who still had not decided which of the three presidential candidates they would vote for. Still, turnout on Taiwan’s election day was 72 percent, higher than the 66 percent turnout in the 2020 US presidential election. Highest Voter turnout in US elections since 1900.
Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, won with 40 percent of the vote – a result that was not satisfactory even to some of the party’s supporters. But still the people chose who would be their leader.
At a rally in the southern city of Tainan, amid the sounds of drums, bells and fireworks, Lin Lizhen, a jewelry shop owner, proudly told the tour group, “This is democracy.”
Then she said: “I know that people on the mainland also love freedom. “They don’t have the strength to fight back.”