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 politicians across the Taiwan Strait.

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

Cuicui was part of a group of eight women I followed last week in Taiwan ahead of the January 13 elections. Their tour was called “Details of a Democracy” and was organized 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 elections firsthand.

Women attended election rallies and spoke to politicians and voters, as well as homeless people and other disadvantaged groups. They attended a comedy show by a man from China, now living in Taiwan, whose comedy addressed taboo topics in his home country.

It was an emotional journey full of envy, admiration, tears and revelations.

The group made several stops at sites that demonstrated the repression of the “White Terror” that swept through Taiwan 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 imprisoned political prisoners. For them, it was a history lesson about Taiwan’s journey from authoritarianism to democracy, a path they believe is increasingly unattainable in China.

“Although for people in Taiwan it may seem like a trip back in time, for us it is the present,” said Yamei, a Chinese journalist in her 20s who now lives outside China.

The group’s members came from Japan, Southeast Asia and the United States, from anywhere but China. Both China and Taiwan have made it difficult for Chinese to visit the island, as tensions between them have risen over Beijing’s increasingly assertive claim to the island. They ranged in age from 20 to 70 years old. Some were activists like Cuicui, who recently left the country, while others were professionals and businessmen who had lived abroad for years and did not necessarily have a political perspective.

Angela Chen, a real estate agent in Portland, Oregon, joined the tour to take her mother on vacation. Ms. Chen is a naturalized U.S. citizen who culturally identifies as Chinese. The trip was eye-opening, she said. She was shocked to learn how tragic and fierce Taiwan’s democratization process had been. Her father, like many Chinese parents, told her not to get involved in politics. She now felt that everyone had to contribute to advancing society.

Until a decade ago, visiting Taiwan to witness its elections was a popular activity for mainland Chinese interested in exploring the possibilities of democratization.

Is easy to see why. Most Taiwanese speak Mandarin and share a cultural heritage with China as Han Chinese. As mainlanders searched for an alternative Chinese society, they naturally turned to Taiwan for answers.

I traveled to Taiwan in 2012 to report on that group, which included more than a dozen prominent Chinese intellectuals, businessmen and investors. At the time, debates about the pros and cons of democracy, republicanism, and constitutionalism were common on Chinese social media.

Opinion leaders wondered whether China would ever have a leader like Chiang Ching-kuo, the Taiwanese president who gradually distanced himself from the dictatorial rule of his father, Chiang Kai-shek, in the 1980s.

That seems like a lifetime ago. Shortly after, Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader and has taken the country in the opposite direction. Civil society has been driven underground and debates about democracy have been banned.

Last week’s group visited Taiwan under very different circumstances. Most of them wanted to remain anonymous and agreed to speak to me only if I identified them by name, because simply applauding Taiwan’s democracy is politically sensitive.

At Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, the former prison, it was easy for the group to imagine how people had spent their time in crowded, damp, dilapidated cells and washing their clothes in the bathrooms.

“Many people thought Taiwan’s democracy had fallen from the sky,” Antonio Chiang, a former journalist, dissident and adviser to outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, told the group over lunch after his prison visit. “It was the result of the efforts of many people,” he said.

Mr Chiang added: “It will be a long time before China becomes a democracy.”

Everyone knew that was true. Still, it was heartbreaking for them to hear. But his despair did not last long.

They heard from the daughter of Cheng Nan-jung, a publisher and pro-democracy activist who set himself on fire to protest the lack of freedom of expression in 1989. At the site of his self-immolation, his comments resonated with Chinese visitors. : “The situation of a country can only be resolved by the people of that country.”

They then went to the show of the comedian, who was from Xinjiang, the western region of China where more than a million Muslims were sent to re-education centers. Everyone cried. It was both heartbreaking and cathartic for them to hear someone use words like “Uyghurs,” “reeducation camps,” and “confinements,” which are considered too sensitive to be discussed in a public place in China.

“If everyone does what they can, does it well and with a little more courage, our society will be better,” said the comedian, who asked not to be identified.

For the group, the most enriching part of the tour was seeing citizens organize and cast their votes. As visitors gathered at the island’s presidential palace, Yamei, the journalist, was surprised to see that the entrance was painted peach pink.

“It was not an institution surrounded by absolute solemnity or high walls that intimidated you,” he said. The contrast with Zhongnanhai, the complex of top Chinese leaders in Beijing, “was quite striking.”

After watching a documentary about bar hostesses who had organized a union, they learned that the women had drafted legislation to protect their rights. This would be unimaginable for anyone in China.

While homeless people are largely invisible in Chinese cities (because authorities don’t allow them to be visible), the group learned that many organizations in Taiwan provide homeless people with meals, places to shower, and other support.

At election rallies, they watched voters—young and old, and parents with strollers—fill squares and stadiums to hear the candidates make their presentations.

In the days before the election, they had heard from many Taiwanese who had not yet decided which of the three presidential candidates they would vote for. However, election day turnout in Taiwan was 72 percent, higher than the 66 percent in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the higher participation in an American vote since 1900.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, Lai Ching-te, won with 40 percent of the vote, which was not a satisfactory result even for some of the party’s supporters. But still the people chose who would be their leader.

At a rally in the southern city of Tainan, amid the sounds of drums, gongs and fireworks, Lin Lizhen, a jewelry store owner, proudly told the group of tourists: “This is democracy.”

Then he said: “I know that continentals also like freedom. “They just don’t have the power to defend themselves.”