Taiwan has gone through many ups and downs over the past decades. It always helps to keep the latest cycle in perspective by taking a longer view of history.
“Taiwan is doomed. We’d be better off asking the Chinese Communist Party to take us over.” These were the words of the taxi driver who took me into Taichung from the High Speed Rail Station a few weeks ago. One of the things that struck me on this latest return to Taiwan was how many of the people I met spoke about Taiwan in quite pessimistic tones. My taxi driver’s comments were admittedly at the extreme end of the spectrum, but there you go: I have your attention now.
Since I am an academic rather than a journalist, I try not to get too caught up in the news of the day or even the week. Instead my task is to try to take a longer and sometimes comparative perspective on developments. I lived in Taiwan under many guises — as student, a marketing executive, DJ, and researcher from the 1980s into the early 2000s and now still spend about a month of the year on fieldwork. Reflecting back on these years it strikes me that Taiwan has gone through cycles of optimism and pessimism.
One cause of pessimism this time was concerns about the increasing numbers of young Taiwanese moving to China for employment. When we look at this trend from a longer-term perspective, the picture looks rather different. Taiwan has faced the challenge of brain drains for many decades. During martial law (1949-1987), most overseas Taiwanese students did not return after graduation due to economic or political factors. There were also emigration waves caused by concerns over Taiwan’s loss of U.S. recognition in 1979 and heightened periods of cross-Strait tensions in the 1990s. We should also remember that there have also been significant reverse migration trends caused by Taiwan’s economic and then political miracle. Like South Korea and Japan, Taiwan has become a country that can attract migrants. One of the best examples of this has been recent trends in migration from Hong Kong to Taiwan.
On this visit, others complained about the constant protests and resulting instability. I felt like I had gone back in time to my first time in Taiwan in the late 1980s and heard taxi drivers complaining about how the traffic jams caused by protest were affecting their livelihood. Here it is important to point out that Taiwan’s civil society is one of the most treasured components of its democracy. Without protest we would not have seen the success of the 1990 Wild Lily movement that helped push Taiwan closer to a blueprint for genuine democracy. When I tell the story of Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement to their counterparts in the U.K., they are envious of Taiwan’s success. After over two decades of struggle not only was the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Station mothballed, older plants are being phased out and the idea of new plants is unimaginable. In contrast, in the U.K. we are moving toward a new generation of nuclear plants with minimal protest and political debate. The Sunflower Movement showed how protest could derail what had appeared to be an unstoppable trend toward political integration with authoritarian China. Similarly, it has taken long-term activism by Taiwan’s feminist and LGBT groups to push the country to be on the verge of being one of the first Asian states to legalize same-sex marriage. Taiwan’s civil society and protest culture has actually become one of its most powerful soft power assets. In fact, in a forthcoming study U.S. academic Shelley Rigger argues that when we look at Taiwan’s democracy comparatively it tends to perform very well.
Looking back at Taiwan’s post-martial law history, it is clear that Taiwan has performed remarkably well in a range of areas such as gender equality, social welfare, political corruption and even China-Taiwan relations.
I have also observed fluctuations in opinion about the state of Taiwan’s democracy. When I first left Taiwan in the autumn of 1990 there were fears about a return to authoritarian rule under the premiership of the former general Hau Pei-tsun. In contrast, when I returned in the summer of 1992 to stay through until the late 1990s, the mood had changed radically. Instead I witnessed the sense of optimism and pride in how Taiwan had democratized peacefully, introduced universal health insurance and survived the Asian financial crisis. Overseas scholars also talked of Taiwan as a model of democracy. This sense of domestic and international optimism was apparent when I again returned to witness Taiwan’s first change of ruling parties in 2000. I first sensed more widespread pessimism when I did my PhD fieldwork in 2001. Taiwan was experiencing its first taste of divided government where one party controlled the presidency and the other the parliament, often leading to parliamentary stalemate. Another variable was the economic recession and advent of record levels of unemployment for Taiwan. At this point we did see more critical appraisals about the state of Taiwan’s democracy beginning to emerge from overseas academic studies as well. Nevertheless, Taiwan was able to again recover to successfully survive the SARS crisis and return to respectable economic growth rates for most of the Chen Shui-bian presidency.
Toward the latter part of the second Chen presidency, a renewed sense of pessimism emerged. This was largely fuelled by the corruption allegations against Chen and his associates that was the motivation behind the 2006 Red Shirt anti corruption movement. I recall the daily appearances of the politician Chiu Yi on talk shows with a seemingly limitless supply of revelations against Chen. This would then be followed by another wave of optimism in the run up and aftermath of Ma Ying-jeou’s landslide election victory in 2008. His vision was that with renewed cross-Strait détente, Taiwan could enjoy both economic dividends as well as expanded international space. This project would also run out of steam as voters became increasingly concerned with the perception that Taiwan was moving too fast toward political integration with China and that agreements with China ran the risk of undermining Taiwan’s freedom and democracy. This would then be followed by a new wave of optimism caused by the success of Taiwan’s civil society and the rise of the Tsai government to power in 2016.
One of the most admirable features of Taiwan’s democracy appears to have been its ability to steer through multiple crises.
I often tell my students that one of the best ways we can test the quality of a democracy is whether it can deal with the most pressing social and political problems facing a country. Looking back at Taiwan’s post-martial law history, it is clear that Taiwan has performed remarkably well in a range of areas such as gender equality, social welfare, political corruption and even China-Taiwan relations. The way Taiwan’s politics works, there is genuine policy debate during and between elections. If Taiwan’s politicians break their campaign promises, perform poorly or move too far from public opinion, they will be challenged by civil society and punished in the next round of elections. Authoritarian states do not have such checks and balances.
Given the many pessimistic comments that I heard during my last visit to Taiwan, I was delighted to meet a good friend who, after living in the U.K. for many years, had decided to move back to Taiwan.
“Of course Taiwan has a future,” my friend said.
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