An anniversary and the death of an icon of democracy show just how far apart Taiwan and China have moved in the past 30 years

As Taiwan marks the anniversary of the end of martial law, China’s brutal one-party system is getting worse and worse, as the tragic case of Liu Xiaobo illustrates all too clearly

Protesters carry a picture of late Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo at a downtown park in Hong Kong (By Associated Press)

Last Saturday, the July 15, saw Taiwan marking the 30th anniversary of the end of martial law.

It was on that day in 1987 that the "Order of Martial Law," which was introduced by the Governor of Taiwan Province, Chen Cheng on May 19, 1949, was finally lifted by President Chiang Ching-kuo.

At the time, Taiwan had endured the longest period of military rule anywhere in the world. Today, 30 years later, that single-party military dictatorship has been replaced by a stable and thriving democratic system, which has seen the successful and peaceful transfer of power on three occasions to date.

Taiwan's democracy is not perfect; no democracy is. But it has allowed the people of Taiwan to have a voice in how the country is run. It has overseen countless positive developments, with the standards of living improving across the country as Taiwan embarked on a rapid period of economic development.

No-one who witnessed the scenes in Legislative Yuan last week, when legislators came to blows not just once, but twice, can be in any doubt about the vibrancy and passion the people of Taiwan, and their representatives feel for the future of their country.

Same day, a different world

On the same day as Taiwan marked the end of its military dictatorship, several thousand miles to the north, on a small boat off the coast of North-East China, a hastily-arranged and low-key sea burial was taking place. It was here that the ashes of Liu Xiaobo were being spread.

Liu Xiaobao was a Nobel Laureate and a man who was perhaps more passionate about the democratic process than almost anyone else in the world. As one of the authors of "Charter 08," a political manifesto which called for the introduction of democracy in China, he risked his freedom to stand up for the right of the people to choose their representatives. And he paid a huge price.

Two days after its publication, Liu was arrested by the Communist Party and charged with "subversion of the state." In other words, with promoting the removal of the single-party Communist regime. He was subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison.

His stand for democracy saw him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, much to the chagrin of the Chinese Communist regime, but he nonetheless remained in prison.

In late May this year, it was revealed that Liu Xiaobao had been diagnosed with incurable liver cancer. Liu requested to be sent abroad for treatment, but this request was denied, despite offers from countless countries, including Taiwan, to treat him. He died in custody on July 13th.

"A crude, cruel and callous political show"

It is a shocking tale of repression, but this is just the top of the iceberg, as the Communist Party of China has strived to ensure that in death, he cannot create a legacy. Liu's wife, Liu Xia has been held under extra-legal house arrest since his confinement and remains there despite the call of numerous world leaders for her to be released.

It is widely accepted that his burial at sea is something that was forced upon Liu's family by the Communist regime in order to stop his supporters having a focal point to remember his legacy and continue his campaign. Those efforts appear to have been in vain as global memorials at sea are planned this week in his memory.

Meanwhile, on the same day as his cremation and burial, his brother, Liu Xiaoguang, was forced before the media to read a prepared statement praising the Chinese Communist Party for their compassion over his death.

Few doubt that his statement was made against his will and Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director for Amnesty International, described it as "a crude, cruel and callous political show."


Image from flickr.

Shared heritage, but pulled apart by history

It serves to put the scenes in Taiwan's parliament into clear context. They were unfortunate, unnecessary, and a flagrant attempt by the KMT to stop the DPP budget proposals from being heard. But they were also an example of democracy in action, albeit by fairly confrontational and violent methods.

But it is incomparable to the situation in China, where anyone who speaks out against the Communist Party regime faces arrest, imprisonment, and the prospect of ruining the prospects of their entire family.

It is remarkable to think that many of the people of Taiwan and China share the same heritage and that as recently as 30 years ago, both endured the same oppressive political systems.

But while Taiwan succeeded in breaking the shackles of military oppression in 1987, China's big opportunity, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, went the opposite way.

Today, the opposition in Taiwan is free to criticize and protest against, and even throw chairs at the government. Meanwhile, in China, all opposition is cracked down on in the strongest terms as Liu Xiaobao learned to his cost.

While Taiwan is held up as a beacon for press freedom and freedom of speech, with the Reporters without Borders organization even choosing it as the location for their regional office, all news in China has to be approved by the regime before publication. Any news which deviates from the narrative of the Communist regime, including that about Liu Xiaobo, is censored.

While Taiwan is legalizing gay marriage, China is banning portrayals of homosexual relationships in the media, describing them as "abnormal."

The political systems and indeed the values of Taiwan and China could scarcely be further apart, just thirty years after they were broadly in alignment.

Responding to the death of Liu Xiaobao, President Tsai urged China to realize his dream of a democratic nation. China's response to the condolences sent from around the world was to tell countries to stop meddling in their "domestic affairs."

Which just about says it all and shows why, imperfect though it may be, Taiwan must be so grateful for their hard-earned democracy, and why the 30th anniversary of the end of martial law should be such a proud moment for the whole country.