Worse yet was the White Terror, which began on February 28, 1947 in response to KMT abuse of the local Taiwanese population, then numbering perhaps eight million. Officials of the KMT's Alcohol and Tobacco Monopoly abused a Taipei curbside cigarette vendor, accusing her of selling smuggled tax-free cigarettes. A riot broke out between the KMT officials and the local Taiwanese and, before it had ended, an estimated 10,000 people had been killed.

Over the next forty years, a further estimated 100,000 people—usually native Taiwanese—were imprisoned, executed, or "disappeared." Many languished for years in political prisons or in mental hospitals. (Green Island, off Taiwan's East Coast and ironically now a resort destination, was the center of this gulag archipelago.) Until the late 1980s, public discussion of the 2/28 Incident typically led to political prison.

Meanwhile, what was sardonically referred to as "Taiwan's single greatest export," its graduate students who streamed to American universities, mostly remained abroad (96% in the 1970s), often under surveillance from fellow students working for the KMT. Taiwanese who returned from abroad, such as Carnegie-Mellon professor Chen Wen-cheng in 1981, sometimes mysteriously "fell to their deaths" from high places.

Leaderless and dispirited, Taiwanese appeared to have become apolitical.

Thus, despite ruling for forty years in Taiwan, the KMT had never contested a multi-party island-wide election until 1989. Instead, Taiwanese taxpayers were forced to support the illusion of an all-China National Assembly, with KMT representatives chosen in 1947 occupying their seats until death. Constitutional revision begun in 1991 finally caught up with these surviving gerontocrats, many of whom actually lived in the United States.

Taiwan, the United States, and Japan

Taiwan's authoritarian reality was obscured abroad by Taiwan's allies, particularly the United States. Given the exigencies of the Cold War, the KMT's leading American backers—after the 1950s usually right-wing hawks such as Henry Luce of Time/Life, Inc. and film stars John Wayne and Ronald Reagan—insisted that Chiang's government, the Republic of China on Taiwan, was "Free China" and the only legal Chinese government.

Against Americans' views of themselves as "hard-headed realists" free of ideological blinders, the Taiwan Lobby in Washington exerted so much influence that the United States became the last major power formally to recognize the PRC when the two exchanged ambassadors on January 1, 1979.

Economically, American corporations (such as US Steel) had long favored collaboration with the big state-run firms of the KMT (China Steel), while Japanese investors preferred the more nimble pro-Japanese Taiwanese firms. Different from developing nations of that era in Africa or South America, Taiwan's leaders did not oppose Taiwan's client-state status or economic dependency on either the US or Japan.

The result of this collaboration was what has become known as Taiwan's Economic Miracle. The Miracle notwithstanding, the retarding effect of the American partnership with the KMT on the development of democracy in Taiwan was profound.

The US, which assumed that Taiwan would become the new Hong Kong after 1997, eventually found in Chen an erratic leader whose Taiwan-centric policies will presumably be reworked in a pro-American direction by Ma.

American politicians continue to find Taiwan a useful foil in issuing right-wing, anti-China, but not necessarily pro-Taiwanese rhetoric, however. Most recently, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), head of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, visited the island and issued a statement on the elections so out of touch with reality that KMT honorary chairman Lien Chan, born in China and himself a former presidential contender, felt obliged to comment that "even America has fools" in elected positions, an observation that played well in the Taiwanese media.

Wealth, Corruption, and Politics

In the 1980s and 1990s, the KMT was termed "the world's wealthiest political party" thanks to its decades of party-state rule that had allowed it to acquire holdings both locally and overseas in banking, real estate, manufacturing, the media, etc. More recently, however, the party cried "poverty" after the DPP, elected to the presidency (but not to control of the legislature) in the year 2000, tried to separate state, party, and economy.

The combination of the DPP's ham-handed "pay-back" policies against the KMT, persistent charges of corruption that were easily traced to Chen and the party's highest levels, and a faltering economy—producing, for Taiwan, an unprecedented 5% unemployment—almost lost them the elections in 2004 and all but guaranteed that Taiwanese voters would opt for the KMT in 2008. The DPP was returned to the presidency in 2004 by an election so hotly contested that a recount was necessitated, confirming a margin of merely 29,000 votes.

Aside from an unproven claim that Ma spied on his fellow students while at Harvard and the now discredited DPP charge that he continues to hold a U.S. Green Card, Ma himself seems to be clean. However, the KMT, historically a Leninist-style "vanguard" party, is said by political scientists to have undergone virtually no significant internal reform since its loss in 2000.

In 2008, part of the KMT's success came from younger voters who had no memory of the "old" KMT. They were nauseated by perceived DPP malfeasance, pandering, lackluster economic policies, and controversial educational and cultural decisions. Many educated, pro-DPP voters indicate that they voted for the KMT in the 2008 elections in the hope that a crushing defeat would finally push the DPP toward far-reaching reform. If so, their effort might yield a genuine two-party system sometime in the future.

A Fledgling Democracy

Taiwanese democracy is still in its infancy, not surprising given the KMT's legacy of Leninism, White Terror, secret police control, successful economic planning, and Great-Power alliance.

Formally governed by a constitutional and bureaucratic framework inherited from Sun Yat-sen and a hybridized Taiwanese, Japanese, and American public culture, a mature democratic mind-set was not the shaping influence in these recent election campaigns. True, party-run campaigns do suggest to the outside observers who jet in for brief visits that a "political-party" (zhengdang) sensibility dominates public life in Taiwan—but, that is true in only the most superficial sense.

Many mature parliamentary democracies are characterized by depoliticized voters who cast their votes and then go back to their everyday lives, leaving politics to the "professionals." In contrast, Taiwan remains a highly charged pre-democratic society with a legacy of vanguard-parties (like the KMT, the DPP is said to be organized according to the principles of democratic centralism) that unceasingly mobilize resources and "true believers" but retard grassroots politics. It is one in which political "movements" inflected by communal interests still outweigh political campaigns.

Rather than a zhengdang approach, a "cliquish" (banghui) mentality that emphasized the traditional definition of "Taiwanese" versus "Mainlanders" (with Mainlanders now including the PRC) resurfaced in the campaigns this winter. Not surprisingly, the campaign calculus was set by what is called "communalism" in Southeast Asian and Indian politics ("we native-born Taiwanese" versus "those foreign-derived Mainlanders"). This view emphasizing contrasting loyalties was reinforced by the fact that, like many KMT supporters, Ma's daughters returned from the US to cast their votes while Hsieh's draftee son returned from his military base in the Taiwan Straits.

Today, almost all KMT members, with the conspicuous exception of President-Elect Ma, are actually Taiwan-born. However, the historical basis of the "grudge" of native Taiwanese dating back to the 2/28 Incident in 1947 still unites the DPP's main constituencies. Until this most recent election, they included northeastern, southern, and rural Taiwan but have now been restricted to southern and rural districts far from Taipei, the center of government patronage, the military, higher education, etc. Conversely, the KMT's main constituency remains overwhelmingly northern, urban, educated, and/or technocratic.

The DPP was ultimately trumped by Ma's promise to reopen mainland markets to Taiwanese investors so that ordinary businessmen, along with high-flying KMT supporters, can cash in. Attempting to explain the DPP's disastrous loss not once but twice in 2008, failed DPP presidential hopeful Frank Hsieh conceded that his party—conceived in the crucible of relatively recent anti-KMT struggles toward the end of the White Terror—no longer holds a monopoly on "Taiwanese identity" politics.

Despite democracy's shallow roots on the island, Taiwan remains a stable political entity in world affairs. It does so thanks to the fact that most residents agree in continuing to define themselves in localist, Taiwan-centric terms in opposition to both the PRC government and to the KMT's historical emphasis on Taiwan as a Chinese province.

In the end, as almost all pundits agree, voters returned to the KMT by origins.osu.edu, not because of the party's superior campaign strategy. Its record of guiding the economy and keeping at bay the communal issues that plague many other Asian nations, including the PRC, were also a plus. With immense resources and a historical legacy that involves patronage of Taiwan's best and brightest, the "old but new" KMT has learned how to court voters by conducting a clean campaign.

It should also be said, many voters are now seduced by an advanced consumer culture and repulsed by the DPP's raucous, religion-stoked "love Taiwan patriotism." They no longer care about, or even understand, the history of the old KMT. And maybe that's a good thing for Taiwan.


Important Figures

Sun Yat-sen
12 November 1866 – 12 March, 1925.
Known as the "Father of Modern China," Sun became the provisional President of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912, and later co-founded the Kuomintang political party (KMT)—the political party that recently regained control in Taiwan, where the KMT and ROC leaders fled after the rise of Mao Tse-Tung and the Communists in the 1940s. His leadership is marked by cooperation between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT, because Sun believed in some of the tenets of socialism. After his death, that relationship soured quickly.

Chiang Kai-shek
31 October 1887 – 5 April 1975.
Chiang worked on consolidating the Chinese government and empowering the KMT at the expense of the Communists, whom Chiang saw as political enemies. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Chiang led the Republic of China against the invasion of both the Japanese army and the Communist threat.

Chiang Ching-kuo
27 April 1910 – 13 January 1988.
As a teenager, he studied communism and engineering in the Soviet Union, and married a native Belarusian, who the Chinese called Chiang Fang-liang. He initially chafed against his father's anti-communism, but relented in the late 1930s and 1940s when Stalin allowed him to return to China and take his place in his father's government, first in Shanghai and then as director of the secret police once the ROC moved to Taiwan.