Understanding the struggle for democracy

cover of taiwan the struggles of a democracy

Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy
by Jerome F. Keating
SMC Publishing, Taipei, 2006
ISBN: 9574137708

Many people marvel at Taiwan's miraculous transformation from an authoritarian single party state to a multi-party democracy. Taiwan is often hailed as the world's first Chinese democracy. Jerome Keating looks at democracy in Taiwan from a different perspective. Instead of asking why did Taiwan become a democracy, he asks why did it take so long?

He compares the situation of Japan, Germany and Taiwan after World War Two. Japan and Germany made relatively rapid transitions from martial law to democracy while in Taiwan it took more than 40 years. 

It is the KMT, with its belief in entitlement to privilege and power, which has been the biggest obstacle to democracy in Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwanese identity has been shaped under successive occupiers who used the island for their own purposes without considering the desires of the native Taiwanese. 

Keating recognises that the roots of democracy extend much further back in Taiwan's history than is commonly thought. The first expression of common Taiwanese identity and desire for self determination was the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Formosa in 1895. The Republic came to an end after the Japanese arrived on Taiwan in the same year.  However, it was during the Japanese era that ideas about democracy in Taiwan firmly took root. Many Taiwanese had the opportunity to be educated in Japan and while there observed the development of parliamentary democracy. They began petitioning for Taiwanese participation in the Japanese Diet.

Taiwanese finally won the right to select two Senators and five MPs in 1945. Six months later the Japanese lost the war and the KMT moved onto Taiwan. The Taiwanese struggle for democracy was once again back to square one.  

The book includes several articles about the individuals who have made the greatest contribution to the development of democracy in Taiwan. Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) is recognised as the person who contributed the most to democracy in Taiwan. Other lesser known figures such as Su Beng (史明) and Kuo Yu-hsin (郭雨新) are also noted as men who have continually lived by their principles and tireless believed in the rights of the Taiwanese people to enjoy democracy free from oppression by the KMT or the PRC.  

These people are compared with Hsu Hsin-liang (許新良) and Sisy Chen (陳文茜), once key figures in the dangwai (黨外) movement and DPP, who later abandoned their ideals in favour of their own personal ambitions. 

The book also analyses voting patterns in Taiwan's recent elections. There has been a huge loss of votes for the KMT in the Presidential elections with the DPP making similarly big gains. The elections for the Legislative Yuan have been hampered by a "one vote, multiple member" system. This allows many candidates to be elected with only a relative small number of votes. This will change with the 2007 elections which will adopt a "single-member district, two-vote system". This should favour the two major parties and improve the quality of candidates elected to the legislature. 

Keating's book serves as an excellent introduction to the politics of Taiwan. It offers many insights into the reasons why Taiwanese politics is the way it is today. It also offers both hope and caution for the future.

3 thoughts on “Understanding the struggle for democracy

  1. I was actually disappointed with the book. It suffers the same problem as many of the blogs here: a lack of objectivity. Rather than an even-handed analysis of Taiwan’s continuing development into a modern democracy, it borders on diatribe (when writing of the KMT) and hagiography (when writing about the DPP).

    He makes numerous claims and assertions, but provides no cites to back them up. There is no index or bibliography either.

    I guess having lived in Taiwan as long as he has, Dr. Keating is very passionate about Taiwan. That’s fine for an editorial, but problematic for a history.

  2. Any kind of history is going to have some kind of biases whether they are deliberate or not. When you have a topic like Taiwan where there are polarised points of view objectivity is difficult to come by.

    I think the lack of objectivity you complain about in Taiwan\’s blogs is to some extent a response to the biases elsewhere and an attempt to correct some of them. Nobody may be accurately portraying the real truth, but that is better than simply having one version of the truth that is distorted.

    Jerome Keating certainly wears his political colors on his sleeve. I thought looking at Taiwan\’s history from the point of view of democracy provided a very interesting perspective. It certainly showed that Taiwanese consciousness and the roots of democracy in Taiwan are not just a result of 228 or the Kaohsiung Incident. Indeed they pre-date the presence of the KMT on Taiwan.

    At least I can agree that a bibliography and index would be an improvement to the book.

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