Taiwan’s New Communist Party

On the eve of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Taiwan has taken a curious political step that would likely cause the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to turn in his grave ‑ allowing the foundation of a communist party six decades after he banned the ideology.

The new party, officially approved on July 20, astonished people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Those on the island could not believe anyone would want to establish a party based on an ideology discredited across the world since the collapse of Soviet Union. Those on the mainland could not believe that, even in its democratic fever, Taiwan would allow a party that advocates the ideology the Nationalist Chinese ran away from in 1949.

The reality is just as hard to believe. The founder is Wang Laoyang, a 61-year-old farmer in the county of Tainan, a stronghold of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): he joined the DPP as its 25th member but left after the faction he belonged to lost out in a power struggle.

A primary school graduate, Wang has not read any works of Karl Marx and is uncertain of the importance of “class struggle.” Since he began to organize the party in 1988, he has lost 47 of his 50 mu (one mu equals 0.0667 hectares) of land and his wife has left him.

He first applied to register the party in 1993, with 36 members, and received the first of 13 rejections under a law banning communism. That year, when he and other believers paraded a cake in honor of the birthday of Deng Xiaoping, they were fined NT$6,000 for holding an illegal meeting.

Wang and his associates continued to hold meetings, with a police car usually parked nearby watching for any sign of contact or support from the mainland. The members say that they have no such contact and are independent of Beijing.

The last Communist Party to meet openly in Taiwan was in 1947, before it was crushed ruthlessly by Chiang, who later declared martial law and outlawed communism. That party’s most prominent member was Lee Teng-hui, who soon gave up communism to join the Kuomintang and eventually was elected the island’s president.

Only in June this year was the law changed, allowing the party to be formally registered. "After 20 years of effort, this is no easy achievement," Wang told reporters. "I am very happy." A deputy department chief of the local Ministry of the Interior attended the opening congress with 74 members, including workers, farmers, teachers and social workers.

It elected a 20-member central committee with Wang as chairman. The party plans to publish a newspaper and charge members an annual fee of NT$2,400 ‑ which some consider too high. Its members will march in Taipei on October 10 to protest worsening economic conditions.

"Our main activities will be to stir the mass of people to utilize the welfare they are entitled to and to help the weak," Wang said.

In the cacophony of Taiwan politics, the party will struggle to get a hearing. Since the abolition of martial law in 1987, more than 180 political parties have been set up, including the Betel Nut Party, named after the pungent root beloved by lorry drivers and factory workers and berated by doctors, who say it causes cancer of the mouth.

Taiwan people greeted the news of the party’s foundation with laughter and astonishment as an indication of how far the country has come on the road of democratization.

In recent decades, Beijing has shown no interest in promoting a Communist Party in Taiwan, preferring to court the Kuomintang and those who support unification.

Of course the great irony is that the mainland these days is communist in name only as it follows a policy of primal capitalism in which the interests of farmers and workers are usually subservient to domestic and foreign business and large state companies.

Certainly Beijing appears to have no intention to follow Taiwan into multiparty democracy. Since 1989, two attempts have been made to set up an opposition party. Both were ruthlessly suppressed. The China Freedom and Democracy Party was founded by 16 people in 1992: its members received prison terms of two to 20 years. The China Democratic Party was set up in 1998: its leaders were sentenced to between seven and 13 years.