Taiwan is a fascinating polity to study--simultaneously a troubled democracy, an economic powerhouse, and a target for absorption by a rising China. It is impossible to predict confidently what Taiwan's status will be even a decade or two hence. Since the Taiwanese themselves are divided over core questions of national identity, those interested in the island's politics need to come at the topic through its complicated history, starting well before the influx of "mainlanders" following the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s. Only history can explain why 75-80 percent of the population consistently rejects becoming a Special Administrative Region of China, even though most Taiwanese consider their society to be a part of Chinese civilization.

Taiwan: A New History. Edited by Murray A. Rubinstein. M. E. Sharpe, 2006.
Purchase at B&N.com | Purchase at Amazon.com

Scholarly writing on Taiwan's history and politics is relatively sparse but generally of high quality. This volume is a good place to start: with contributions from 13 leading historians, it covers political, cultural, and economic developments on the island from before Chinese settlement and European colonization up through the mid-1990s. It richly analyzes the late Qing period (the nineteenth century) and the emergence of Taiwanese consciousness under Japanese rule (the first half of the twentieth). The book conveys the crucial point that Taiwan was poorly governed under the Qing and poorly integrated into the multiethnic, China-centered Qing empire. The Qing had annexed Taiwan purely as a defensive outpost and evinced little desire to penetrate the island's society and culture until very late in the day. The contributors to Murray Rubinstein's edited collection effectively demonstrate how the lack of significant Chinese consciousness made it easy for the Japanese to dominate and transform Taiwan. As later chapters show, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to let Chiang Kai-shek add Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC) after Japan's defeat led the Taiwanese people to become nostalgic for the Japanese era once Chiang became repressive. They used somewhat romanticized images of the Japanese past as one basis for articulating an essential difference between themselves and the mainlanders who came to dominate them. This perceived difference is critical to understanding the Taiwanese claim to separate nationhood.
At Cross Purposes: U.S.-Taiwan Relations Since 1942. By Richard C. Bush. M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
Purchast at B&N.com | Purchase at Amazon.com

Richard Bush's brilliant study covers some of the same period as Rubinstein's book but focuses on Taiwan's foreign relations. It begins by analyzing Chiang Kai-shek's logic in demanding that Roosevelt accept China's right to Taiwan and Roosevelt's reasoning in accepting Chiang's claims. The book then evolves into an exploration of the nuances in U.S. policy toward Taiwan in the following decades. A central theme is how Washington consistently tried to balance its concern for the humane treatment of Taiwan's people and their possible right to self-determination with its Cold War strategy of supporting almost any government opposed to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union. The book's most compelling chapter may be "Congress Gets Into the Taiwan Human Rights Act," which -- informed by the author's own experience as a congressional staff member in the 1980s -- examines the U.S. political dynamics that would intensify pressure on ROC President Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek's son, to allow democratization in the mid-1980s.

The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan. By Jay Taylor. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Purchase at B&N.com | Purchase at Amazon.com

The controversy surrounding Chiang Ching-kuo's role in democratization is one of many topics expertly covered by Jay Taylor in his biography of the politician. This book is noteworthy not only as an exhaustive treatment of a fascinating historical personage but also because Taylor clearly admires his subject a great deal -- as do many people in Taiwan today. Understanding how Chiang could be constructed as a hero of democratization is crucial to comprehending the mentality of liberal mainlanders -- which is to say most mainlanders, since very few of them would wish to return fully to the authoritarian past or be politically integrated with the PRC. They generally express commitment to democracy but staunchly oppose Taiwan's independence -- even if it were to emerge from democratic processes. Liberal mainlanders reject the Taiwanese discourse that portrays resistance to mainlander domination as the driving force behind Taiwan democratization. Mainlanders say that Chiang wisely bestowed democratization when other, more stubborn Asian dictators opted to fight to the bitter end. This story may well be the dominant one in global discourse. Taylor certainly accepts it, even though he also gives the Taiwanese some due.

From Opposition to Power: Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party. By Shelley Rigger. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.
Purchase at B&N.com | Purchase at Amazon.com

The other side of the democratization story -- really, the complete, balanced story -- is told by Shelley Rigger, the dean of America's Taiwan specialists, in From Opposition to Power. Rigger acknowledges Chiang Ching-kuo's role in liberalizing the ROC but emphasizes that without the opposition, which was generally Taiwan-centric in consciousness, "Taiwan's democratization would not have occurred as early as it did; nor would it have progressed as quickly or as smoothly." "The KMT," Rigger continues, "would have had little incentive to launch the reform process that ultimately destroyed its political monopoly." Rigger aims for the objectivity of a political scientist and, in the process, provides what may be the definitive account of Taiwan's democratization, spanning political change from the 1960s through the historic election of President Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in 2000. She presents the DPP as succeeding in part because it moderated its policy objectives over the years, especially on the question of Taiwan's independence from China. The book has proved paradoxically prescient: as president, Chen became much more radical than Rigger would have foreseen, but in doing so, he discredited the DPP to the point where it seemed on the verge of becoming politically irrelevant. In an effort to reverse its fortunes, since 2008 the party has sought to recover many of the qualities that Rigger identified as keys to its success in the 1990s.

"How Citizens View Taiwan's New Democracy." By Yu-tzung Chang and Yun-han Chu. In: How East Asians View Democracy. Edited by Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, Andrew J. Nathan, and Doh Chull Shin. Columbia University Press, 2008.
Purchase at B&N.com | Purchase at Amazon.com

Chen's presidency was profoundly polarizing, prompting many observers to begin questioning the long-term viability of Taiwan's democratic institutions even if the PRC were to relax its pressures. Mainlanders and Taiwanese disagreed so sharply on the national identity question that observers worried intolerance would destroy the island's democratic culture. This underscores the importance of Yu-tzung Chang and Yun-han Chu's contribution to the recent collection of essays How East Asians View Democracy. Using data collected in July 2001 from the massive East Asia Barometer survey, Chang and Chu find some serious weaknesses in Taiwan citizens' commitment to and satisfaction with democratic politics (attitudes that have been corroborated in other, more recent polls). Respondents were pleased with the obvious improvements in freedom of speech and association. But they were less optimistic about the ability of Taiwan's newly democratized government to reduce crime and corruption, restore a high rate of growth, or reverse the trend of worsening inequality. As Chang and Chu write: "A majority of respondents from Taiwan considered democracy both desirable and suitable. But in both cases the majorities were the smallest among the eight regimes studied." Taiwan's democratic culture was battered during the Chen years, and it has continued to stumble as President Ma Ying-jeou's government has hounded numerous DPP officials with sometimes dubious allegations of illegal behavior. Some of them probably were corrupt, but outside observers gasped when former president Chen was sentenced to life in prison, and new investigations continue to be announced. People familiar with the East Asian Barometer survey and related writings would not be especially surprised by these developments.

  • DANIEL LYNCH is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California.
  • More By Daniel Lynch