Party delegate Lu Chung-Yen defied the leaders of the ruling Kuomintang's 13th congress with a bold gesture. As most of the 1,200 delegates rose Friday to perfunctorily affirm President Lee Teng-hui as party chairman, Mr. Lu and a few other protesters remained seated. For a party that has exercised strict authoritarian rule over its lower cadres and all of Taiwan for nearly four decades, such passive dissent by liberal members represents sharp activism.
The ruling party's rapid, peaceful progress toward democratic reforms will falter unless it democratizes its own ranks, say Western observers and liberal Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) delegates.
Lu and his fellow activists support Mr. Lee as chairman, but say the party must elect its leader by secret ballot, not by a mass acclamation which intimidates would-be dissenters. ``The party needs to respect the personal opinion of delegates more - it must bring more fairness and democracy into practice,'' Lu says.
Protest organizer Jaw Shau-Kong says that the rejection of his proposal for secret balloting shows that the leadership will limit intra-party democracy despite its persistent pledge to advance liberal reform.
Mr. Jaw says activists plan to continue testing the boundaries of free speech during the congress. But they confront formidable obstacles.
Since Soviet adviser Michael Borodin helped write the party's 1924 Constitution, the Nationalists have strengthened a rigid Leninist structure that concentrates power at the top. Confucian tradition stressing harmony and respect for elders further stymies opposition.
``President Lee would have supported a secret ballot vote, but he wanted to become chairman and he knows that if he backed such a change, he would defy Chinese tradition and bother powerful, elder conservatives'' in the party, Lu says.
Lee has, however, tried to encourage lively ferment at the lower party levels. And yesterday, he advanced his key aim of elevating younger reformers to the party's powerful Central Standing Committee and Central Committee. The average age of candidates Lee nominated Sunday to the Central Commitee is 10 years less than that of the current committee. Lee plans to allow delegates to determine half of the nominees for the Central Committee, formerly comprised of appointed nominees.
At the congress sessions, delegates have often heatedly voiced their views on the treatment of native Taiwanese, mainland policy, and other sensitive topics.
``The atmosphere and the way people make their points all shows that this is different from past congresses: People are free to make their points,'' says deputy party chairman Ma Ying-Jeou.
The party has catered to its lower ranks to meet the challenge of two recently legalized opposition parties. Leaders know, Jaw says, that if the party fails to reach out, it will lose support to these progressive rivals.