A burst of Taiwanese democracy at Harvard

Steve Kelman attends two Taiwanese political rallies without leaving Cambridge.

A few days ago, I got some emails informing me of two independent events the same afternoon at Harvard, one at the Kennedy School and the other at Harvard's Asia Center. The first event featured the campaign manager for incumbent Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou and the other the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ying-wen.

Both candidates are in the U.S. in the run-up to Taiwan's presidential election next January. Because of my interest in Taiwan, I decided to check out both appearances, expecting two seminar-style events where the candidates would speak to a handful of Taiwan aficionados.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

I arrived at the Kennedy School event a few minutes late to discover an overflow crowd of perhaps 200. The room was so packed, there was virtually no standing room left. Almost everyone there – more than 90 percent, I estimate – were ethnically Chinese or Chinese-American. (It was hard to tell how many were Taiwanese.) Several Taiwanese TV cameras were in the back of the room.

The event began with the vice speaker of the Taiwan legislature giving some introductory remarks in Chinese (translated into English). Then the campaign manager took the dais and noted that his contacts with the U.S. government made it clear that the U.S. approved the less-confrontational stance towards China that the current government, elected in 2008 after two terms of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, had adopted.

He also argued that the softer line on China had allowed an upgrading of Taiwan's perilous non-status status in the world, with observers admitted to the World Health Organization and a doubling of the number of countries – to well over 100 – that give visa waivers to Taiwanese nationals traveling on Taiwanese passports.

He was fairly explicit that President Ma would not give up Taiwanese "sovereignty," a real hot-button issue for China. There were lots of questions from the audience, including some from mainland professors and students studying or researching at Harvard. There was an impassioned question criticizing the government from a Taiwanese professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

A half-hour later I trudged over to the other side of campus for the second speech. A large crowd was milling outside. It turned out that all the seats were gone, and hundreds of people were being turned away.

Again, these were overwhelmingly Chinese faces. With help from a Kennedy School administrator, I was able to get a seat inside.

The lecture hall was equally crowded at this event, a speech by opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen. But the tone was boisterous. Before the speech started, Tsai went outside to greet those for whom there was no space. When she was introduced, there was lengthy and thunderous applause from the audience, and lots of cameras flashing.

(There has been applause at the government party talk too, but it was restrained).

A key theme of her speech was that democracy was a central feature defining Taiwanese culture -- the Taiwanese peacefully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy over the past 10 to 20 years -- linking Taiwan to the United States and distinguishing it from China. She appealed to China to transition to democracy, so that China's rise in the world could be welcomed rather than feared, and so that China would, as she put it, associate itself with the universal values of the international community.

(Tsai was non-committal on the question of whether Chinese democracy would ease Taiwanese reunification with the Mainland, which a student raised. Tsai said only that it would make Taiwanese people feel more friendly to China.) A number of Taiwanese-American Harvard undergraduates asked Tsai for her views on how they should relate to Taiwan and to China. Many of Tsai's answers to questions were interrupted by applause.

As I understand it, one of the two speakers (I'm not sure which one) decided to come to Harvard when the other announced they would.

Originally, they scheduled themselves for the same time, but somehow an agreement was reached to separate the speeches by 45 minutes and half a mile. Harvard's status in Asia assured there would be Taiwanese TV cameras there.

The afternoon was unexpected and exhilarating. Hundreds of people came out for what were two high-spirited celebrations of democracy. To those in both audiences, I think, democracy in Taiwan was a treasure to be cherished and be grateful for.

 

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