Democratization in Taiwan: A short introduction and bibliography

In the second half of the 20th Century, Taiwan evolved from a colonial backwater under one-party rule to become an exemplar of equal economic development and peaceful democratization. During the past thirty years elections have constituted important milestones and strongly contested political competition to control resources, implement policy agendas and set the ideological tone. In January 2016, Taiwan will hold its latest set of presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan is a polity where core issues like “who are we” and “where are we going” have yet to be decided. Befitting such a polity, Taiwan 2016 will be fiercely contested and the outcomes will have major implications beyond the Taiwanese political scene. In anticipation of these elections, and drawing on work I have done separately for the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies project, I will be posting a number of annotated reading lists on various aspects of Taiwanese democracy, the first being democratization.

Democratization processes in Taiwan proceeded incrementally over a prolonged period punctuated by electoral milestones. Although generally peaceful, political liberalization required significant effort on the part of activists and the opposition movement to pressure the ruling KMT into adopting reforms. Concessions by the KMT were soon followed by further demands from the opposition, generating momentum towards democratization that eventually overwhelmed conservative elements within the party. In 1986, opposition activists with disparate concerns and interests came together to form the Democratic Progressive Party, the first organized opposition party. To do so was technically illegal under Martial Law, but the DPP was allowed to field candidates in the 1986 Legislative election and Martial Law was rescinded a year later. Following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 Lee Teng-hui was selected by the KMT to be interim President. He was officially elected to the Presidency, not by universal suffrage but by the rubber-stamp National Assembly in 1990, the final time that the ROC President would fail to be chosen by universal suffrage.

After a protracted struggle between relatively conservative and reform-minded factions within the KMT, which resulted in the formation of the breakaway Chinese New Party (NP), President Lee accelerated both the indigenization of the KMT and democratic reform, including bowing to widespread demands, the Wild Lily student movement for instance, for the President to be chosen by direct election. Lee himself later became the first ROC president to be elected by popular vote in 1996. A DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the presidency in 2000, marking the first change in ruling parties. Political competition in democratic Taiwan is intense. Major parties are well organized and highly motivated. By the standards of many consolidated democracies, the electorate in Taiwan is highly engaged. The media environment is well developed and relatively free, and civil society actors are politically involved. Support for democracy remains strong and widespread at the individual level. In short, on several salient indicators, Taiwan’s democracy is a success story, despite continuing concerns about corruption, media ownership and inequalities and inefficiencies within the political system. In the existing scholarship on Taiwan’s democratic transition and democratic practice, debates continue around the extent to which democratization was led by top-down or bottom up processes, the extent to which Taiwan’s democracy “works” or whether it is uniquely susceptible to political crises, and the issue of how to enjoy the fruits of democratization in the shadow of a complex relationship with China.

There are several valuable accounts that put the democratization period in historical perspective. Bruce Jacobs (2012)provides a concise but authoritative analytical account of the democratization processes from the origins of Taiwanese resistance to the Japanese colonialists to Ma Ying-jeou’s first term. Linda Chao and Ramon Myers (1998) is a similarly careful historical study of the Martial Law period and analysis of the initiation and development of democratization processes. The treatment of the emergence of the opposition movement and movements within the KMT which in combination created pressures for reform is particularly strong. Denny Roy’s (2003) Political History provides a concise and useful (albeit less sophisticated) chronological account of Taiwan’s political development. Mikael Mattlin (2011) is a close examination of the political reform process in which the ruling KMT attempted to lock-in certain institutional advantages that would serve it after the transition and ensure continued social politicization. If you have access to a university library, the four volumes of The Politics of Modern Taiwan (2008), a collection of seminal papers on various topics relating to Taiwanese politics, are the closest thing the field has to a dedicated Handbook.

The processes that constituted and advanced democratization in Taiwan took place over a prolonged period of time and involved bottom-up, top-down and external forces. The contribution of bottom-up “democratic forces” is well covered in Cheng (1989), an influential article that went beyond then-prevailing explanations of Taiwan’s democratization rooted in economic modernization theory. Winckler (1984) on the other hand surveys debates and developments within the ruling KMT as it faced external challenges and domestic pressures. It is an excellent analysis of manoeuvres and preferences within the KMT and the pressures and resistance to political liberalization among the “gerontocratic-authoritarian” regime. Tien (1975) provides a detailed contemporaneous account of KMT thought and strategy on political liberalization at a time of crisis for the regime. The collection edited by Cheng and Haggard (1992) has good coverage of the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ authoritarianism. Most chapters focus on political developments in the 1980s and provide then-pioneering empirical detail and theoretical work on regime change.

Chu 1992, a landmark examination of political liberalization in the early democratization era, provides sophisticated reflections on the nature of political reforms undertaken by the KMT. Chu Yun-han is probably Taiwan’s pre-eminent political scientist, and he combines rich empirical detail with sophisticated explication of a number of theoretical frameworks. Chu and Lin (2001) examine the close, perhaps inextricable, links between democratization and national identity. This important article establishes the continuities between the two “émigré regimes”, the Japanese and the KMT, that dominated Twentieth Century Taiwan, providing a compelling explanation for the evolution of each. The edited volume Feldman and Nathan (1991) presents the views of numerous DPP and KMT politicians on the nature of political reforms particularly in the 1980s. The analysis of Taiwanese society, and attempt to explain both the high and equitable growth rates and socio-political stability that characterized the ‘economic miracle’, presented in Gold 1986 is the essential backdrop to developments on the political scene (for more on the rapid growth era, see also Wade 1990).

By the start of the 1990s, much progress had been made towards democratization. The KMT had (willingly or because it had little choice) loosened its grip on civil society and the media, allowed opposition political parties to form and contest a growing range of public offices put to electoral competition. Chao and Myers (1994) investigate the KMT’s reform policies which led to the progressive opening up of political space and electoral offices from the mid- 1980s onwards. Tien and Chu (1996) similarly focus on the KMT, particularly the run up and implications of the first full legislative election in 1992. A stylized version of the KMT’s own liberalization narrative, for domestic and external consumption, was that enlightened leaders Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui were committed to democratic reforms. Leng and Lin (1993)provide an early challenge to the KMT’s top-down liberalization narrative, noting the contribution of opposition activism in pressuring the ruling party. This article is an adept study of the complexities of identifying the causes of democratization.

Noble (1999) provides a detailed and incisive analysis of the important revisions made to the constitution under Lee Teng-hui’s presidency in the mid-1990s, focusing on the need for and consequences of the new arrangements. The machinations over constitutional reforms in 1997 suggest that common political concerns, such as strategy and self-interest, were dominant motivations. Rigger (2001) demonstrates that elections weren’t just symbols of progress, but were crucial mechanisms for coalescing and concentrating support for democratization within society, and inculcating the attitudes and norms that provided the momentum for Taiwan to consolidate its transition. Finally, Lin et al (1996) investigate how elections changed the nature of inter- and intra-party political competition, and in particular the effect this had on how the national identity cleavage would affect political competition after democratization.

The next instalment will focus on the presidency.


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