On Dec. 6, lawmakers in Taiwan voted to rid the island of a prominent symbol of the country’s past. They approved a law requiring the removal of public statues honoring Chiang Kai-shek, a dictator who governed from the late 1940s until his death in 1975. In addition, Chiang’s name will be replaced on many schools and roads.
The law, coming 30 years after Taiwan moved toward democracy, shows how far a people will go to free themselves from a cultural legacy that may hinder progress in individual rights and equality before the law. The measure said that authoritarian rule should be “stripped of legitimacy.”
Chiang’s harsh rule of Taiwan was based on Confucian-style autocracy, or a belief that only a natural social hierarchy with a strong ruler can bring stability. That ancient tradition saw rights as granted only by the state and not inherent in everyone.
Today, Taiwan is a thriving democracy noted for its media freedom and lively politics. And unlike a previous generation that identified as Chinese, most of its 23 million people now see themselves as Taiwanese, defined in large part by their embrace of the values of democracy and freedom.
Chiang and his Nationalist Party fled to the island after losing China’s civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. He brought with him some 600,000 troops and more than 1 million loyalists from the mainland, hoping someday to retake China. Today most Taiwanese, including many descendants of the mainlanders, now happily proclaim the island’s independence – and not only as a separate country.
By contrast, in China, the ruling Communist Party has become more explicit in justifying its one-party rule as rooted in Confucian doctrines and the notion that the people are not sufficiently advanced in their thinking to pick their leaders. The party’s leading political theorist, Wang Huning, has said that Chinese political culture is pervaded by a reverence for authority. In October, he was elevated into the powerful Politburo Standing Committee and often travels with President Xi Jinping.
Taiwan’s very public act of removing landmarks commemorating Chiang is not only a symbolic shift for its people but a statement to the world that outdated ways of thinking can be let go. The move also sends a strong signal across the Taiwan Strait to China that real stability lies in honoring individual rights, not the presumed right of a few to rule.