- Taiwan’s Unique Challenges
On 23 March 1996, the 14 million voters of the Republic of China on Taiwan went to the polls to cast ballots in their first-ever popular presidential election. At the same time, 150,000 troops belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were massed less than two hundred miles away across the Formosa Strait, preparing for live-ammunition maneuvers—including missile tests. With the world’s attention focused on the troubled strait, the vote in Taiwan suddenly took on a new level of global significance. Yet neither the flash of PLA shells nor the vapor trails of missiles should be allowed to obscure the remarkable features of Taiwan’s democratic transition or the serious obstacles that Taiwan faces in seeking to consolidate its new democracy.
Although it occurred at approximately the same time as a global crisis of authoritarianism and concurrent movement toward democracy, Taiwan’s democratic transition is distinctive in at least five respects. First, regime transition in Taiwan has meant not redemocratization but democratization “from scratch.” Taiwan is a society with no prior democratic experience. Its history has been one of imperial control, colonial administration, and one-party authoritarian rule. 1 It has lacked the institutions—a free press, an independent judiciary, autonomous civic associations—required for liberal democracy. Hardly any members of the three national representative bodies had to face reelection for three decades. Martial law was in effect for almost four decades. The Kuomintang (KMT) party-state maintained a corporatist grip on society. Therefore, from the very beginning, the opposition faced grave difficulties in building support for its reform programs, and in creating [End Page 69] constituent organizations or linking up with grassroots groups or other secondary associations.
Second, Taiwan’s transition was not from a military regime but from the rule of a single party, in power for 40 years and possessing a well-deserved reputation for resiliency and stability. 2 While a military regime can “return to barracks” when its authoritarian rule is no longer sustainable, a ruling party whose organization and personnel have blended into the state over decades has no such fallback position. In Taiwan, KMT control of the mass media, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy had been institutionalized, creating twin challenges for democratization. First, the state had to be separated from the party, as in postcommunist Eastern Europe. Second, the military and state-security apparatus had to be depoliticized, a challenge that also posed a serious obstacle to democratization in some Latin American countries.
Third, unlike in most of Latin America and Eastern Europe, Taiwan’s political opening was neither triggered by any major socioeconomic crisis or external market shocks, nor accompanied by popular demands for major socioeconomic reforms. Support for the old regime’s development program was much more broadly based than in many Latin American countries with comparable levels of industrialization. Indeed, the very effectiveness of Taiwan’s development program has meant that ties to the old regime are not entirely a liability for the incumbent elite. Nor was the political coalition behind this development program one whose cohesion could be easily disrupted; democratization failed to spark mass defections from the ruling party. This cohesion deprived the opposition of political leverage, giving the incumbent elite a fairly free hand in limiting the scope and speed of democratic reform and crafting new political institutions.
Fourth, the ethnic cleavage between mainlanders (the original followers of Chiang Kai-shek who came to Taiwan in 1949 and their immediate descendants) and “native” Taiwanese made Taiwan’s democratic transition both easier and more complicated. Easier, because democratization promised to shift power from a comparatively small mainlander elite to the more numerous native Taiwanese. More complicated, because the KMT power structure had for some time included many native Taiwanese who credited their gradual rise in national politics to KMT-sponsored reform and feared radical change. Thus the further “Taiwanization” of the KMT party-state did not necessarily go hand in hand with regime democratization.
Finally, the transition in Taiwan called into question not only the legitimacy of the regime but the legitimacy of the state itself—its claims...