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  • Public Opinion in New DemocraciesPolitical Ambivalence in South Korea and Taiwan
  • Doh Chull Shin (bio) and Huoyan Shyu (bio)

The current wave of global democratization first washed the shores of East Asia more than a decade after it began in the Southern Europe of the mid-1970s. Of East Asia’s various authoritarian states, South Korea (hereafter Korea) and Taiwan were the first two to join the wave, embarking almost simultaneously on a series of peaceful democratic reforms. 1 Since 1987, when Korea began to terminate three decades of military rule and Taiwan began dismantling four decades of one-party dictatorship, these two East Asian states have been jointly leading their regional peers in transforming age-old authoritarian political institutions and procedures. As “two of the most promising democratic transitions of the past decade,” moreover, they are also increasingly viewed as “challeng[ing] directly the notion that Confucian societies don’t really want democracy.” 2

The focus here is on the dynamics of cultural democratization in East Asia. To what degree do the Korean and Taiwanese people support democracy as a political ideal as well as a viable political system? How broadly based is this support? Has it been rising or falling? How does it compare with its counterparts in new democracies of other regions? To answer such questions, we examined a series of national-sample surveys conducted separately in Korea and Taiwan over the past six years.

Korea and Taiwan have been called “quintessential outlier states” in the current wave of democratization. 3 What characteristics make them outliers in the club of new democracies? How have these characteristics shaped the dynamics of their cultural democratization, as citizens reorient themselves away from authoritarianism and toward democracy? To [End Page 109] understand the origins of cultural democratization in both countries, one must pay especially close attention to the interplay of three factors: 1) inhibitions imposed by military threats from their respective rival regimes (North Korea and the People’s Republic of China) ruled by communist ideology; 2) the economic legacies of authoritarian capitalism that have molded an attitude of obsessive pragmatism; and 3) the continuing influence of the Confucian tradition.

Of all the countries that have recently undergone change to a democratic regime, Korea and Taiwan remain the only two states that are territorially and ideologically divided nations. They are on constant guard not only against military threats from their rival regimes but also against ideological challenges to their national ethos of liberal democracy. Owing to such ideological polarization and military hostility, anticommunism was officially declared the most crucial characteristic defining democratic political order in these countries. By equating anticommunism with democracy itself, ruling elites sought to forestall challenges to the cultural foundations of what were in practice right-wing dictatorships. 4 Inevitably, citizens were denied opportunities to learn the ideals and values of democratic politics and to nurture its procedural norms.

Under the military regime in Korea and the Leninist (but anticommunist) one-party regime in Taiwan, what had once been small, poverty-stricken colonies of imperial Japan became economic powerhouses envied throughout the world. Yet the authoritarian regimes were digging their own graves, for their economic successes conditioned people to want something more and better in the political sphere.

In Central and Eastern Europe under communism, as in Latin America under assorted military juntas, economic failures had led to democratic shifts. In Korea and Taiwan, by contrast, it was growing prosperity that created pressures for democratic change. Prosperity meant more highly educated publics, enlarged middle classes, and other conditions conducive to the emergence of democratic political systems. These developments, in turn, led the Korean and Taiwanese peoples to demand the end of heavy-handed authoritarian rule. 5

In the wake of the change, however, the legacy of authoritarian-sponsored prosperity has constrained cultural democratization by circumscribing both the meaning and strategy of democratization. For those who fared well under authoritarianism, greater democratization spells political uncertainty and heightens anxiety. In both countries, therefore, the progress of democratic reform has been gradual. No fundamental restructuring of their development-oriented capitalist systems, which in the eyes of ordinary citizens and their leaders have been working well for decades, has been attempted...

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pp. 109-124
Launched on MUSE
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