Taiwan’s Democracy Draws Envy and Tears for Visiting Chinese

At the Taipei train station, a Chinese human rights activist named Cuicui watched with envy as six young Taiwanese politicians campaigned for the city’s legislative seats. A decade ago, they had been involved in parallel democratic protest movements — she in China, and the politicians on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait.

“We came of age as activists around the same time. Now they’re running as legislators while my peers and I are in exile,” said Cuicui, who fled China for Southeast Asia last year over security concerns.

Cuicui was one in a group of eight women I followed last week in Taiwan before the Jan. 13 election. Their tour was called “Details of a Democracy” and was put together by Annie Jieping Zhang, a mainland-born journalist who worked in Hong Kong for two decades before moving to Taiwan during the pandemic. Her goal is to help mainland Chinese see Taiwan’s election firsthand.

The women went to election rallies and talked to politicians and voters, as well as homeless people and other disadvantaged groups. They attended a stand-up comedy show by a man from China, now living in Taiwan, whose humor addressed topics that are taboo in his home country.

It was an emotional trip filled with envy, admiration, tears and revelations.

The group made several stops at sites that demonstrated the “White Terror” repression Taiwan went though between 1947 and 1987, when tens of thousands of people were imprisoned and at least 1,000 were executed after being accused of spying for China. They visited a former prison that had jailed political prisoners. For them, it was a history lesson in Taiwan’s journey from authoritarianism to democracy, a path they believe is increasingly unattainable in China.

“Although it may seem like traveling backward in time for people in Taiwan, for us, it’s the present,” said Yamei, a Chinese journalist in her 20s now living outside China.

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