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Taiwan’s Politicized Society

The China Quarterly recently asked me to review Mikael Mattlin’s book Politicized Society: The long shadow of Taiwan’s one-party legacy (2011, Copenhagen: NIAS). I’m glad they did, because it is terrific. I have excerpted the more relevant bits of the review below. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ll want to get hold of this book. It is highly recommended (and available as a relatively inexpensive paperback).

As I write this review, Taiwan is in the throes of a typically vibrant campaign, the first combined election for the presidency and parliament. Candidates have put forward their platforms, and attacked and defended their opponents’ and their own policies in election ads, at rallies and in televised debates. The opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen has mobilized dissatisfaction with incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou’s performance and put forward an alternative vision for Taiwan’s economic development and relationship with China. That she and her DPP party have become viable challengers to the current regime is a sure sign of the competitiveness and health of Taiwan’s democracy. Given this scenario, it may seem an incongruous moment to note that all is not well with democracy in Taiwan.

In this carefully reasoned and strongly argued book (which avoids regressing into polemics despite the major thrust and substantive implications of its theories), Mikael Mattlin provides the most cogent argument yet that many aspects of Taiwan’s democratic consolidation remain incomplete. Despite voting for the fifth time for their president, and the genuine prospect of a third change of party-in-power, this book explicitly articulates what many Taiwan scholars have long intimated. Namely, Taiwan possesses the veneer of democracy, but many formal and informal political structures (including those that fall under the rubric of political culture) are essentially unchanged since the one party era.

Breaking with the conventional wisdom that invokes national identity cleavages as an explanation for political polarization, Mattlin argues that incremental liberalization led by an authoritarian party state allowed it to maintain its power, by carefully choosing what would change (and what would not) and modifying its behaviour accordingly. In the absence of a complete break from the ancien regime, the KMT was able to shape the form that post-democratic political and social structures would take, and ensured that it would continue to benefit from them. At the same time, because it allowed ostensibly free and fair elections and other trappings of democracy, it was able to satisfy the majority of citizens’ desire for “democracy,” while stealthily ensuring its grip on power.

This is not a polemical text, but it doesn’t shirk from laying blame at the KMT’s door for refusing to embrace the deep seated democratic reforms that Taiwan needed to make a full transition from the one party era. This refusal is most seriously manifest in its continuing cultivation of patronage networks at all levels of society. And more obviously in the party’s essential refusal to cede power following presidential elections in 2000 and 2004. Never fully accepting that it was no longer the “in-party”, the KMT obstructed Chen Shui-bian at every turn, responding to his appointment of a KMT Premier by trying to impeach him. Pan-blue obstructionism in the Legislative Yuan brought it to a virtual standstill. And then, despite losing again in 2004, a result that the party tried its best to annul, Lien Chan visited the PRC in 2005 as if he was an elected head of state.

Clearly there is no quick fix to the serious problems that Mattlin carefully documents, and the book will not convince you that a Ma or Tsai victory in 2012 will facilitate the requisite reforms. Indeed, there is evidence in these pages that elections only serve to exacerbate politicization and ensure the continuation of a long held winner-takes-all mentality. Because Taiwan’s political culture has not developed beyond a zero sum conception of democratic competition, parties are essentially engaged in permanent mobilization efforts, hindering both governance and further democratic reform. Because underlying structural conditions that have not changed since the one party era, the procedural aspects of democracy are a thin veneer under which non-democratic behaviours persist.

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Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012


  1. I suspect that Lee made the same deal with the wealthy that got Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain in trouble during their transition to democracy from fascism: no taxes for wealthholders who got rich sucking at the teat of the KMT party-state. This decision is reflected in the election this time around, and in such issues as Taiwan’s poor tax base, the inability of local governments to collect tax revenues on land, and need to revamp the National Health Insurance System, and crazy housing prices which could be solved with higher taxes. The incomplete transition to social justice mirrors the incomplete transition to democratic justice.


    • Brenden Chen Brenden Chen

      For someone like me with no political savvy, I was wondering if there is any democracy in the world that during their transition from what they were before to democracy, no deal was made with the wealthy. I suspect that throughout different times and different cultures, the wealthy by definition should always have the most resources for everything. As such, unless we are to talk about a blood-shed type of revolution for such a transition, it is hard for me to imagine how a democracy can be formed with no deal made with the wealthy.


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