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.
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.
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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.
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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.