restricted access Democratizing Taiwan by J. Bruce Jacobs (review)
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Democratizing Taiwan, by J. Bruce Jacobs. Leiden: Brill, 2012. viii + 305 pp. €75 (Hardcover). ISSN 9789004221543. US $103 (e-book). ISBN 9789004225909.

One welcomes the increasing attention being paid to contemporary Taiwanese politics. Since Chu Yun-han’s 1992 pioneering work Crafting Democracy in Taiwan, there have been a number of specialized studies, such as Shelly Rigger’s political-culture-oriented Taiwan’s Rising Rationalism (2006). Now we have an excellent new comprehensive work by a close observer of the island’s politics, who not only updates the subject but also gives us an incisive, though sometimes controversial, historical perspective.

Bruce Jacobs sees both the period of Japanese rule (1895–1945) and the period of pre-1990 Kuomintang rule as similar in that both were dictatorial colonial regimes. While this reviewer does not disagree with that characterization of the KMT, it should be pointed out that the party perceived itself as just the opposite—a nationalistic, revolutionary movement on behalf of Chinese—including Taiwanese. Such myths (especially that of the greater “Republic of China”) were the basis of much injustice, and the author believes Taiwan would now benefit from a South Africa–style truth and reconciliation commission.

The lion’s share of credit for Taiwan’s democratization is attributed to the opposition (in the 1970s the Dangwai 黨外, and after 1986 the Democratic Progressive Party [民進黨 Minjin Dang]), but Jacobs acknowledges that it was President Lee Teng-hui 李登輝, then of the Kuomintang, who made it happen. With democratization came Taiwanization (i.e., loss of Chinese identity), which has continued even under the Ma Ying-Jeou 馬英九 administration. Still, “Taiwan today has a deeply divided polity” on these issues (p. 270).

Jacobs points out how clumsy Beijing has often been in addressing Taiwanese public opinion. For example, during one election, and after a particularly brutal crackdown in Tibet, Premier Wen Jiabao 温家寶 seemed to equate the two situations—hardly a good way to persuade voters to back China’s preferred candidates (p. 236). Jacobs expects the [End Page 165] Chinese to continue to threaten Taiwan militarily (p. 274). How far we have come from the time of the Kang Xi emperor 康熙帝, who in 1683 said dismissively, “Taiwan is a small pellet of land. There would be nothing gained by taking it, and no loss in not taking it!” (p. 20)

The author has done an excellent job of conveying the rough-and-tumble of Taiwanese politics—a story that gives the lie to the once-common claim that East Asians are inherently unsuited to democracy. Jacobs himself has occasionally been involved in the events about which he writes. He tends to be critical of the Kuomintang, but I do not think is ever unfair. It is certainly true, for example, that President Ma Yingjeou has a (well-deserved) reputation for saying different things to different audiences (pp. 229, 235). Jacobs is rightly critical of partisan-ship in the judiciary. Regarding the corruption trial of former officials including President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, he is scathing. Since the publication of the book, some of the defendants (but not Chen) have been found innocent, which may be due in part to the international uproar over it all—for which Jacobs deserves some of the credit.

The book has a huge amount of information, and it is reasonably balanced. There is not much analysis until the conclusion, which contains an interesting comparison of Taiwan’s and South Korea’s democratizations. He finds many similarities, but three differences: on the eve of democratization Taiwan had some liberals in top leadership positions, a nonviolent democratic opposition, and civil society associations. These alleged differences (from Korea) may be slightly overstated, but the observations are certainly correct as far as Taiwan is concerned.

One weak area is the two separate discussions of the Senkaku islands 尖閣諸島 (pp. 44–46, 239–242). It seems to be taken for granted that Japan has little legitimate claim to them. Although a couple of factoids might seem to support the Chinese/Taiwan bids for what they call the Diaoyu Tais 釣魚台, historically only Japanese resided on these islets. China did not even claim them until it appeared possible that the area had petroleum potential...