New trends in Taiwan politics research

Under the guidance of Professor Gunter Schubert and his team, in the space of six years or so the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan at the University of Tubingen has become one of the major centres of excellence for Taiwan Studies in Europe (disclaimer: I am an ERCCT Fellow). The ERCCT recently celebrated the solidification of its relationship with the Taiwan-based Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation, officially becoming the CCKF’s fourth overseas centre. This development provides a strong foundation for the ERCCT to continue developing the scope and scale of its activities and to solidify its status as a centre of excellence.

On July 14, the day after Germany became football world champions bathing the country in euphoria, the great and good of European Taiwan Studies (plus several scholars from the US and Taiwan) congregated in Tubingen to celebrate the signing of the new ERCCT-CCKF agreement. The celebration took the form of a symposium on the state of various aspects of the Taiwan Studies field. So, for instance, UC Berkeley’s Tom Gold presented an overview of the sociology field, Francoise Mengin of Sciences Po looked at cross-Strait relations, Gudrun Wacker of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs looked at European perspectives on Taiwan, Gary Rawnsley of Aberyswyth covered Taiwan’s public diplomacy etc. I was asked to present on the topic of “New trends in Taiwan’s domestic politics research.”

The health of the Taiwan studies field is something that I have been interested in for several years. As a PhD student I attended the European Association of Taiwan Studies conference in Madrid in 2009, where the eminent Taiwan scholar Murray Rubinstein from NYU gave a keynote entitled “Taiwan Studies is Dead”. For someone like me, desirous of an academic career and coming to the end of writing a thesis about Taiwan, Murray’s talk and the discussion afterwards were an enlightening experience, suggesting that Taiwan’s marginal position in international society was also mirrored in academia. However, for all its problems of political recognition, Taiwan is a powerhouse global economy, liberal democracy and globally respected for its achievements in technology. Similarly, despite the alleged reluctance of editors, funders, journals and universities to publish, fund and hire people working on Taiwan, the amount and range of academic research being done on Taiwan is hugely and increasingly abundant. In 2011 I published a paper in The China Quarterlyentitled “Is Taiwan Studies in Decline?” The answer to my own question, using a diverse range of metrics, was a resounding “No”. Despite facing a number of issues, some of them shared by all disciplines and thee Higher Education sector generally, Taiwan Studies (at least in the Anglophone west which I analysed) is buoyant and generating greater academic interest than ever before.

Asked to talk specifically about “new trends in political research”, I took Shelley Rigger’s 2002/3 paper published in Issues and Studies as my reference point. Excluding TJ Cheng and Andrew Marble’s 2004 piece in the same journal on Taiwan Studies and the broader social sciences, Shelley’s is the last state of the field survey of Taiwan politics research. Additionally, given the slow pace of the academic research and publishing processes, a decade is just about enough time for “new trends” to become apparent. The empirical basis for my talk is all academic journal articles published on the subject of Taiwan (the “superset”) and Taiwanese politics in the last decade (2004-14). My research assistant and I collected, read and coded hundreds of articles published in English language disciplinary and area specific journals. At this point I should acknowledge and thank the Taiwan Studies Program (administered by the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham) for financial assistance for this ongoing research. (In passing I should also note how excited I am that the ERCCT and the TSP/CPI have agreed to increase the scope and scale of our existing collaboration).

In her earlier paper, Shelley Rigger described Taiwan studies as “marginal but healthy,” and several data sources suggest this still pertains. Consider for instance that across 17 China/East Asia studies journals in the last decade close to 12% of all papers dealt with Taiwan. In some journals, notably (Taiwan-based) Issues and Studies and the American Journal of Chinese Studies, Taiwan research papers accounted for almost half of all published output. Yet the publication outlets where Taiwan research most frequently appears (the two noted above plus East Asia: An International Quarterly and Taiwan Journal of Democracy), are, in terms of impact factor and reputation, relatively marginal within the field. In the higher impact journals (The China Quarterly and China Journal for instance), the proportion of Taiwan articles decreases to around 5%. Another feature that Shelley identified was that the venues for publishing on Taiwanese politics were “sprawling and diverse”. That observation remains an accurate reflection of the field. But while research on Taiwanese politics has been published in an astonishing range of journals covering many cognate (and seemingly far distant) disciplines, these journals tend to be lower impact ones within the respective field.

One area where Taiwan is increasing its visibility is in the presence of Taiwan politics research in the top political science and IR journals. In the top 50 political science and IR journals (as measured by 5 year impact factor) over the past three decades, Taiwan is increasingly represented; from 35 articles in the 1980s, to 87 in the nineties and 117 in the noughties. Although there are periodic spikes of interest coinciding with presidential election years, there is consistently greater interest post-2000, the year that Chen Shui-bian won the presidency. I believe that this interest can be explained by the fact that many observers identified this juncture as the moment that Taiwan became a consolidated democracy, and thus became integrated into cross-national and comparative work on various features of democracy (parties, voting, institutions). Fairly or not, Chen Shui-bian’s rule was also characterized as being pro-independence and the cause of tensions with China (My China Quarterly paper with Will Lowe, “Chen Shui-bian: On Independence” disputes this claim), demanding greater attention from the American security crowd. As a result, the greater representation of Taiwan politics research in top disciplinary journals is driven by journals focusing on democracy (Journal of Democracy, Electoral Studies) and security/foreign policy (Foreign Affairs, International Affairs, International Security, Washington Quarterly, Survival). In the top generalist (APSR, AJPS, JOP, BJPS) and comparative (CPS, CP, WP) journals, Taiwan is as seldom featured as always (although it is increasingly likely to be included as a case in large-n comparative studies).

Within Taiwan Studies, certainly as judged by research output published in area studies journals, politics is the dominant discipline. In the last decade around one third of papers were on politics, increasing to around two thirds if we include IR and security in our definition of politics. Within that, the major focus of interest is institutions (including political parties), followed by public opinion/ elections/voting and public policy. Coding the content of Taiwan politics research papers published in disciplinary journals in the past decade, I found that institutions were the central focus of one third of articles and the subsidiary concern for a further 26%.  Public opinion/ elections/voting was the main focus of 21% of articles and secondary focus in a further 20%. Contrary to the period covered by Shelley in her earlier survey, national identity and democratization are no longer the most salient focal points of research on Taiwanese politics, combining for the focal point of around one fifth of papers.

In terms of “new trends”, research on Taiwanese politics is becoming more plural. First, as intimated above, there is huge diversity in disciplinary approaches applied to Taiwan’s politics, not just from cognate fields like economics and sociology, but anthropology, geography, linguistics and other fields further away from political science. The application, borrowing and modification of concepts and methods from these diverse fields is a positive development, and may help to explain the opening up of research interests away from the previous hegemonic national identity and democratization. The field is also more pluralistic in terms of the subjects that are now acknowledged to be sites of political expression or competition, e.g. baseball, dramas, use of language, religious pilgrimage, urban planning, curriculum, waste plants, migration, economic agreements etc.  Similarly, there is greater inclusivity in ‘who does politics’, and the dramatis personae in politics research now includes Taishang, guest-workers, mainland brides, housewives, disabled people, gravel extractors, ngos etc. This move beyond traditional elites, particularly party politicians, is especially visible in last few years as social movements have expanded both on the ground in the pages of academic journals.

It is nearly two decades since Lee Teng-hui became the first directly elected President in ROC history. This longer time frame has enabled researchers to take a longer-term view on political developments, manifest in a move away from “crisis studies” and stronger historical contextualization of the Lee and Chen Shui-bian presidencies. Most studies have now moved on from “this is uniquely crisis-like” to “This is how Taiwanese politics is”. Because Taiwan has now enjoyed most features of a liberal democracy for almost 20 years, these additional “data points” have encouraged longitudinal studies on a wide range of institutional and individual behaviours. The Chen administrations’ commitment to e-government and other moves designed to increase transparency have created huge amounts of data (which I report on in my China Quarterly paper “Electronic resources in the study of elite political behaviour in Taiwan”). In particular, there have been advances at the sub-national level which have encouraged researchers to look within-case to expand their studies on a variety of different types of political behaviour from budgets to divided government to election campaigning. As a result, we know more about politics at the local level, and these insights have fed into analyses at the national level.

Research on Taiwanese politics is now more comparative than it was when Shelley wrote her piece. One of the calls that Shelley made in that paper was for greater use of Taiwan as a case study and greater connections between Taiwan specialists and comparative scholars. Both of these have happened. Having become a fully-fledged democracy has gained Taiwan entry into long term cross-national studies such as the World Values Survey, Asia Barometer and various Comparative Election studies. Taiwan has also become an attractive case for scholars interested in “Confucian heritage” democracies (Korea, Japan), “small advanced economies” (Ireland, Israel) and Chinese societies (PRC, Hong Kong, Singapore). The developmental trajectories and experiences of Taiwan and Korea share many features in common, and comparison with Korea has emerged as a major research area, with particular focus on political institutions, voting behaviour, political attitudes and foreign policy behaviour under strong constraints.

Shelley commented in 2002/3 that several areas that dominated in the study of Taiwan (the developmental state, democratization, national identity) were losing their attractiveness, or even coming to the end of their life cycles. Good news for the Taiwanese politics field is that there has been renewal and the emergence of new areas of interest. Moving away from democratization processes, much research is now concerned with the “quality” and performance of Taiwan’s democracy (and looks much like studies of the US and other advanced democratic polities). However, while the data and methods have increased in reliability and sophistication, the over-exploitation of opinion data like the Taiwan Election and Democratization Study, especially by Taiwan-based scholars, has led to incremental progress at best, and transparent “fishing expeditions” and pointless modelling at worst. Increasing sophistication has been accompanied by a lack of innovation, and opportunities afforded by excellent quality data have not been fully leveraged (e.g. in terms of data linking). In consequence, there is a distinct lack of conceptual progress, especially among quantitative researchers. Much work involves theory testing (i.e. choosing some theory from another context, usually the US, and applying it to the Taiwan case without much thought to what such studies actually tell us) rather than theory building, and yet more work stays away from theory altogether. In general, compared to the previous decade, contributions in the noughties have been less impressive, despite better and more abundant data.

While a segment of the field remains fixated on national identity, the saturation of this area and the apparent emergence of inequality as an overriding economic cleavage have dampened enthusiasm and opened up the field to investigations in a greater variety of areas. Gender, migration, social movements have greatly increased in visibility. Research on the latter, for instance by Ho Ming-sho at National Taiwan University, accounts for, in my opinion, some of the most significant research in the past decade. The emergence and popularization of the social web during the past decade as a potential influence on a variety of political behaviours at the elite and mass levels is well represented, as are approaches rooted in queer theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism and multiculturalism.

Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. China of course continues to loom large in research on Taiwan, and on Taiwanese politics. Distinct from the preoccupation of many scholars on cross-Strait relations, many analyses of Taiwanese domestic politics appear motivated by a concern for how the behaviour and attitudes of elites and masses in Taiwan will affect relations between Taiwan and China, China and the US and the broader security environment in the Asia-Pacific. I remain ambivalent about this: on one hand, it ensures that Taiwan will not disappear from sight despite the intellectual and professional attractions of China. On the other hand, analysing Taiwanese domestic politics through the lens of cross- or international relations can be counterproductive and lead to distortions. Finally, today as in the nineties, the field remains riven by multiple divisions. Collaboration between scholars based in Taiwan and those outside of Taiwan remains low (as measured by co-authored publications). This is a curious, since Taiwanese scholars are welcoming and many of them trained in the US. And my survey of Taiwan scholars published in Issues and Studies in 2011 suggests that professional goals are shared across continents (manifest for example in reading and targeting the same journals).  There are also synergies that could usefully underpin collaboration—which for some reason are not being exploited. Perhaps the division is explained by academic upbringing: many Taiwanese scholars trained in American political science programs and tend to the quantitative, while western scholars are more likely to have entered Taiwan Studies through Chinese language and area studies departments).

Some thoughts on Ai Weiwei

I published some thoughts here on the artist/activist Ai Weiwei and the circus that surrounds him.

…one of the problems with Ai’s garrulousness (and the insatiable demand of western media and assorted intellectuals and hangers on to get their moment of reflected glory), is that everything merges together—Ai’s different sayings, the same sayings at different times, your memory of the same sayings in a different context or different sayings in the same context…

… I’m no art critic, but a lot of what I’ve seen of Ai’s strikes me as clever and interesting. I don’t always agree with his confrontational and crude modus operandi, but there is no doubting his pugnacity or the strength of his convictions. A lot of what he says about the Party and the country’s political system is undeniably accurate. He is a very important intellectual and activist.

However, the Ai brand, the marketing machine, the construction of Ai as a uniquely heroic individual in the midst of unrelenting Communist beastliness is a source of ambivalence. This is a story about western intellectuals and western projections, but Ai is naturally complicit in it, and with good reason: to a great extent his freedom depends on his celebrity and influence outside of China. At this point it is impossible to separate Ai from the western filmmakers, journalists, critics, curators and collectors, academics and general intellectual flotsam and jetsam that turn up at his studio compound in Caochangdi. Ai has many worthwhile things to say and it isn’t his fault that devotees and dandies relay his every word. But it does dilute his message.

Weiwei-isms is a good example. Presumably the editor had free rein to choose whatever he liked from Ai’s substantial oeuvre (even when limited to 2008-2012), but the book is full of tired  banalities (“everything is art, everything is politics”, “a small act is worth a million thoughts”), recycled moral platitudes (“the world won’t change if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility”) and complex issues reduced to truisms (“China has not established the rule of law and thus there is no justice”, “the internet is uncontrollable [and thus] freedom will win”).

Perhaps it is my own Ai-fatigue (I remember when reading his old Sina blog was a thrilling, almost illicit, experience). Or maybe Ai himself has run out of steam: his underlying message, though pursued with more courage and conviction than I could ever muster, is a simple endorsement of individual freedoms in the face of a controlling regime, and there is a finite number of ways to express that. When you’re asked the same question time and time again, you naturally risk repeating yourself. Understandably, Ai has developed habits of expression. But the interviews and films and feature stories don’t let up…

Labor unrest in China

Samantha Hoffman, a PhD student at the CPI, and I, have a piece in the SCMP today reflecting on the recent strike at Yue Yuen factories in southern China.

One of the world’s largest footwear manufacturers, Yue Yuen, is in many ways typical. A Taiwanese firm listed in Hong Kong, it has numerous factories based in the southern China manufacturing belt, making shoes emblazoned with stripes and swooshes for sale around the world. In recent weeks, it has also faced an increasingly typical problem for companies located in China – an aggrieved and angry workforce… 

Continue reading here

Chinese politics in 2000 words?

I was asked to write a piece for Political Insight magazine, published by the Political Studies Association (the UK’s version of APSA). The remit was to write about recent Chinese political developments in less than 2000 words for an audience that I should assume knew nothing much about China. That remit necessitated some pretty hard thinking over the Christmas break (publishing stuff is a long process folks), and then some fine tuning when the Editor got back in the new year (whatever and wherever you publish, reviewers and editors will require mods or adds). It was a surprisingly tricky assignment; but at least I nailed the word count! Read the piece here.

Is there anything for China to learn from the protests in Taiwan?

I wrote a little piece with Deng Yuwen for the SCMP, in which we look at how events in Taiwan have been received by Chinese intellectuals. While the state media framing has been predictable, there has been some intense debate on Chinese social media, raising “democratic consciousness” and evincing no little respect for the students and envy for Taiwan’s democratic polity. Piece is here.

Unholy union between business and politics

I have a piece in the SCMP today with Deng Yuwen, on what the Liu Han case says about doing business in China. We argue that while there are good reasons for entrepreneurs to team up with political patrons, with big potential payoffs, such alliances come with no guarantees and when the political winds change, business-people tend to take the fall.

…enjoying political patronage does not mean entrepreneurs can rest on their laurels. Officials can easily employ the machinery of the state to force commercial partners to toe the line, or break the law. And when, for whatever reason, the relationship sours, it is inevitably the entrepreneur who is sacrificed. Bo’s crime crackdown was the perfect example of officials turning on their former corporate allies due to a change in the political wind.

Many entrepreneurs seek out political patrons because, in the process of accumulating a fortune, most of them also accumulate some dirt. But as Liu Han’s case demonstrates, the politics-business alliance is unreliable. Ultimately, it is unreliable because it is dishonest and illegal.

In order to provide security for entrepreneurs, China must quickly complete the transition from a chaotic market economy to one that is bounded by the rule of law, where fair and open competition replaces the opaque contortions that still prevail at the moment. Read more..

The sustainability of Taiwanese autonomy

I had an op-ed in the New York Times this week in which I argued that the prospects for Taiwan’s continued autonomy in the mid-long term are not good. I had in mind the squeeze that China is putting on across the board, the KMT’s manoeuvring to prosper from a hypothetical change in Taiwan’s status (as it did prior to democratization), and the DPP’s inability to provide a coherent alternative vision (I accept that the party is in a very difficult position, but it doesn’t help itself). The only effective deterrent to stealthy absorption, inexorable annexation, or however you want to frame it, is popular opinion, which is unequivocal in its opposition to unification. Against a determined, implacable and increasingly powerful China, with the spectre of the dominant political player in Taiwan (KMT) colluding to ensure it retains whatever power Beijing will permit, and an impotent and conflicted DPP, multiplied by economic and military trends, can popular opinion alone resist all of these pressures in the mid to long term? And despite the assurances that any changes of a political nature must be put to the vote, I am pessimistic about the long term influence of Chinese money and KMT machinations and machinery on the integrity of Taiwan’s political process. I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong.

I notice today that John Mearsheimer delivered a talk/paper at a conference in December in Taipei entitled “Taiwan in the Shadow of a Rising China”. He argues that Taiwan’s autonomy will not continue beyond a certain point where the military balance is such that it is unfeasible that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid (“Taiwan is not Japan or even South Korea”-ouch) because to do so would require use of non-conventional (nuclear) force. Currently, argues Mearsheimer, the US’ military primacy constrains Beijing’s actions, and underpins Taiwan’s resolve to hold out. But iff China’s economy continues to grow and the PLA continues to modernize and enhance its capacities, it will be less constrained. At that point Taiwan should strive for as much autonomy as possible within the parameters of the political solution Beijing is offering. The conundrum is that the more powerful China becomes, the less room for manoeuvre Taiwan will have and the less incentive Beijing will have to make concessions. Taipei should, following Mearsheimer’s logic, begin negotiations sooner rather than later, on the basis that it can secure a better deal and extract more concessions while Beijing is relatively weak and constrained. But of course there is no public support, or mainstream political will, to do so. (Ben Goren has written a reply to Mearsheimer, subtitled “Fatalism, Appeasement, & Capitulation”)

Talking with the deputy director of the TAO in 2012, he dismissed the point I raised about ‘one country two systems’ being unsellable to the Taiwanese electorate, saying that a demonstration of “sincerity” (code for Taiwan accepting Chinese sovereignty) would open the door to numerous different solutions. He went on to pledge that in terms of its functional autonomy, Beijing would seek a solution that would “hardly make a difference” to everyday life in Taiwan, including maintenance of  the democratic system. One can debate the sincerity or otherwise of such statements, but the point is that the attitude of Beijing in 2012 will, if current trends continue, appear conciliatory next to the Beijing of 2022. Of course there is no guarantee that a hypothetical solution agreed at a time of relative weakness would not be reneged on at a later time of relative strength (ask Hong Kongers about that). And there is no guarantee that Chinese revisionism would stop at gaining Taiwan. In short there are good reasons for Taiwan to hold out as long as possible. But Taiwan’s autonomy is precarious, and for those who would preserve it, it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.