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  • Democratizing Taiwan by J. Bruce Jacobs
  • Steven Phillips (bio)
J. Bruce Jacobs. Democratizing Taiwan. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012. 305 pp. Hardcover $103.00, isbn 978-90-04-22154-3.

For the past three decades, academics and politicians have debated the motivation, course, and results of Taiwan’s political transformation. Why did Taiwan democratize, and who deserves credit for the expansion of the rights enjoyed by the people on the island and the creation of a competitive political system that allows for orderly handovers of power based on elections? How did this relatively peaceful transformation proceed? Has democracy on Taiwan been consolidated?

Taiwan’s two main political parties offer their own narratives of the island’s development. Discussion of the origins of political reform have become a zerosum game, where any contribution of the Chinese Nationalists (the party that fled to the island under Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s) to democratization seems to diminish the role of the opposition (mainly the Democratic Progressive Party created in the mid-1980s) and vice versa. One side—either mainland-born followers of Sun Yat-sen or island-born dissidents—is portrayed as the crucial force for change.

A diverse range of political scientists, including Shelley Rigger, Andrew Nathan, Daffyd Fell, and Tun-jen Cheng, add nuance to these debates. Many, such as Nathan, look at the complicated interaction between Nationalist leaders and those demanding reform, and the larger geopolitical environment, in order to explain the island’s relatively peaceful process of democratization. Tun-jen Cheng describes how economic and social change spurred the democratization of the quasi-Leninist regime led by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo. Others, such as Rigger, focus on how laws and regulations governing elections shaped the development of democracy. Some, like Fell, investigate how changes made during the early stages of democratization created new problems and how the political system responded to those challenges. Frequently, these experts place the island’s experience into the larger context of a third wave of democratization described most famously by the late Samuel P. Huntington.

In Democratizing Taiwan, Bruce Jacobs, a scholar with decades of experience in Taiwan studies, has distilled his knowledge into a volume that examines political change from the 1970s to 2011. Jacobs focuses more on constructing a narrative than discussing models of political development. This makes for a clearly written volume from which nonspecialists can learn much. This account reviews Taiwan under Japanese and Nationalist rule and then introduces some of the factors that contributed to democratization. The volume devotes most of its attention to the presidencies of Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma Ying-jeou. Democratizing Taiwan is rich with detail on polling data and election competition at both the island-wide and local levels.

Jacobs’s analysis tends to be critical of mainland-born Nationalists and supportive of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) perspective. For example, [End Page 605] Jacobs portrays Japanese and Nationalist rule as colonial in nature, a theme he follows throughout the book. The brutality of the Nationalist authoritarian rule of Taiwan is undeniable, and certainly some Taiwanese (those of Chinese descent born on the island prior to 1945) saw similarities between the Japanese and the Nationalists. Perhaps Taiwan could be considered an internal colony of China along the model of Michael Hechter, but there are too many differences between the Japanese and Nationalist regimes to paint them with a single brush. For example, even in the 1950s, the Nationalists allowed greater Taiwanese participation in the state than the Japanese ever did. The sense of racial superiority that justified Japanese rule was absent among the Nationalists. During the Cold War, Chiang and the mainlanders claimed that Taiwan represented the last vestige of the true China—untainted by Communism—rather than a colony. If Nationalist rule truly was colonial in nature, then, perhaps, this volume should have devoted more attention to the Taiwan independence movement and the rise of Taiwanese nationalism as a factor spurring reform.

The author credits Chiang Ching-kuo (who served as president from 1978 to 1988) for liberalization rather than democratization. The former is defined as loosening restrictions, such as...


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