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  • Taiwan Gets It Right
  • Lucian W. Pye (bio)
The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan. By Linda Chao and Ramon H. Myers. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 392 pp.

The standard Taiwan story is that economic success produced democracy. Taiwan seems to prove the theory that economic growth, even under the guidance of an authoritarian government, will indeed bring about democracy. After Taiwan’s transition, what had started as social-science theorizing about the economic prerequisites for democ-racy became an ideological dictum. The progression from economic success to democracy could now be seen as an automatic process, operating like the invisible hand of the market without the need for any human agency. Economic statistics tell the whole story.

The story that Linda Chao and Ramon Myers tell, however, is quite a different one, filled with named individuals engaged in intense political interactions. Their account is dominated by a trio of bigger-than-life heroes—Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, and Lee Teng-hui—and a host of energetic politicians of both the dominant Kuomintang (KMT) party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Although Taiwan’s leadership was steadfast and farsighted, there were many zigs and zags in the road and numerous crisis points when things could have easily gone wrong. In Chao and Myers’s telling, there was nothing foreordained about Taiwan’s transition to democracy.

Chao and Myers make a strong case that a key prerequisite for a successful democratic transition is a skilled and dedicated political leadership. If one were to make a universal generalization from their [End Page 166] case study, it would be that wise “Founding Fathers” are absolutely essential for creating democracies. Such leaders are truly worthy of being honored by history. Moreover, in their analysis there is no need to make any references to economic trends. Politics is clearly sovereign.

According to Chao and Myers, the trio of heroes each advanced Taiwan’s development in critical ways. Chiang Kai-shek was able to transform a demoralized KMT, after its debacle on the mainland, into a party that had faith in itself and its ability to bring progress to the island. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, carried out some truly exceptional political maneuvers and directed the implementation of bold and farsighted policies. First, he transformed the KMT’s membership to match Taiwan’s demographics so that 85 percent of its members were native Taiwanese (as contrasted to mainland Chinese, who initially had made up 100 percent of the party). Second, he tolerated the legitimization of an opposition, first as individuals and then, after he successfully fought to eliminate martial law, as an organized party.

It was Chiang Ching-kuo’s acceptance of native Taiwanese into the KMT that made it possible for his vice president and successor to be the Taiwanese Lee Teng-hui. Lee’s great contribution to Taiwan’s democ-racy was skillfully managing a series of political crises that could have resulted in mobs taking over the streets. He was able to keep order while allowing for the expression of political differences. Resisting the auto-cratic tendencies of some elements of the KMT, he encouraged the emergence of a genuine political process in which an opposition party could fully participate.

Chao and Myers concentrate so intensively on elite political maneuvering that they ignore not only the island’s economic successes but also the acute social tensions between mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan with Chiang’s defeated armies and the local Taiwanese. Surprisingly, the authors barely acknowledge that there were such tensions almost from the beginning, as the KMT military authorities suspected the loyalties of the Taiwanese, and the latter saw the KMT as new oppressors. These tensions exploded into tragic violence on 28 February 1948, when Nationalist Army soldiers killed a large number of protesting Taiwanese. The “2/28/48 Incident” created divisions in society that would have made democracy impossible without a significant degree of reconciliation. The KMT under Chiang Ching-kuo officially acknowledged its awful mistake and achieved reconciliation. The contrast with the Beijing authorities’ persistent denial of responsi-bility for the Tiananmen massacre graphically explains Taiwan’s success...