Monday, July 24, 2006

Book: Taiwan: Struggles of a Democracy

Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy
Jerome F. Keating
Available through the Southern Materials Center (
or at Page One, Eslite, and Caves bookstores

Jerome Keating, wry, courtly, energetic, and passionate, has compiled his essays into a wonderfully informative work on the political history of Taiwan entitled Taiwan: Struggles of a Democracy (with a beautiful cover designed by his wife). Ranging across a century and a half of history in China, Japan, and Taiwan, Keating offers a panoramic view of the long struggle of Taiwan to achieve democracy in the face of Chinese and Japanese colonialism.

"I have lived and worked in Taiwan for over 18 years," Keating writes in an early essay, "from a post-Martial Law era, when even foreigners were cautious about what they said in public, to a full-fledged democracy, where the press allows all opinions regardless of validity." It is clear from Keating's writing that for each and every one of those eighteen years, he has been considering the problem of democratization in Taiwan from a wide variety of perspectives and a deep love of the Beautiful Island.

Keating takes us back to the days before the rule of the Kuomintang, noting that Taiwan's struggle for self-rule long predates both the KMT and US involvement with the island, and that Japan was in some ways a positive influence on the nascent home rule movement. Observing the brief period of liberalization during the Taisho reign prior to the assumption of Hirohito to the Throne, Keating writes:

"By 1921, a lot was happening in Taiwan also. The special powers granted to the colonial administrators were taken back and Taiwan fell under the rule of the Diet. The people of Taiwan immediately petitioned for the right to participate in democracy and elect their own representatives to that Diet.

The magazine Taiwanese Youth promoting Taiwanese consciousness and awareness would be published in Japan. While officially banned in Taiwan, it and the ideas discussed at the universities were filtering back to the colony. In 1925, the people witnessed that universal suffrage was granted to all males in Japan, to commoners as well as to the wealthy and the property owners. This raised the question: why not here in Taiwan?"

Keating also notes that both candidates in the 1996 Taiwan presidential election, Lee Teng-hui, and Peng Ming-min, had been in Japan in the pre- and post-war period. Keating never romanticizes the harshness of Japanese rule over Taiwan, but he does point out that the even greater brutality of the KMT, and its manifest corruption and incompetence, cast the Japanese "harsh but fair" experience in a very positive light for the people of Taiwan.

The rise of the democracy movement is covered in a multi-part series of essays. The story of the decline and failure of Republic of China rule on Taiwan is also told, and there are many references to US and Chinese history.

In addition to recovering history and providing interesting points of view on the development of the island's political consciousness, Keating also provides information-packed snapshots of the island's major and minor political figures. One of my favorite sections of the book is entitled Taiwan Politics: Fatalities of the Limelight, covering the ill-fated careers of turncoats Hsu Hsin-liang and Sisy Chen, as well as two-time presidential loser Lien Chan. Once the editor of New Tide, the magazine of the political opposition, Sisy Chen evolved into the shrill spokeswoman of the modern KMT hoohah:

"Sisy Chen's most defining moment was forever captured on television footage on March 19, 2004, the election eve of Taiwan's third presidential race. A bare eight hours after an assassination attempt had been made on President Chen Shui-bian and before any voting had taken place, in true hired gun fashion the 'independent' Sisy Chen was crying foul and shooting from the hip. Surrounded by the leaders of the pan-blue alliance of KMT and PFP she railed against this seeming injustice and how the assassination attempt was nothing but a staged political machination."

Investigation would show, sure enough, that a pan-Blue supporter had taken a shot at Chen, though the pan-Blues continue to live in a bizarre alternate universe where Chen Shui-bian arranged his own shooting in front of an audience of thousands with the help of hundreds of conspirators, without leaving a whit of evidence. Meanwhile Sisy Chen would later protest that she had only been saying "what the KMT/PFP leaders had fed her."

Though Taiwan has produced many like Sisy Chen, who change colors faster than a chameleon flung through a paint store, it has also produced people great in every sense of the word, like the historian and activist Su Beng, the Taiwanese Che Guevara, who fought in China in WWII and in the Civil War, grew up under colonial rule, and at 88, can still be found protesting for democracy. Keating offers a loving profile of him. Also profiled is Lee Teng-hui, the man of many parts, all of them tough and competent.

One unusual feature of this book is that each essay ends with questions designed stimulate the reader to think through some of the issues the history of Taiwan presents. For example, after the essay on Lee Teng-hui, he asks: "Who would you judge has contributed the most to Taiwan's democracy?" as if to say "Who, if not Lee?"

Taiwan: Struggles of a Democracy is a story with many facets, told by someone who knows the participants personally, in an informal and accessible style that is at once erudite, folksy, wry, and sentimental. Readers will find this book a useful and pleasing introduction to the story of Taiwan in the twentieth century.


bizofknowledge said...

This looks like an interesting book, particularly as it is written by an expat. I wonder if it will become widely available in the West? Thank you for the information!

Kerim Friedman said...

"the even greater brutality of the KMT"

That can only be true if you discount the genocidal war waged by the Japanese against the Mountain Aborigines during the first decades of their rule. We have no statistics for how many Aborigines were killed, but thousands of Japanese (with superior arms) were killed or injured. One can only guess at the toll on the Aborigines.

As brutal as the White Terror was, it pales in comparison.

Anonymous said...

Good point. I'll keep it in mind for future reference.


liujiyu said...

"Keating offers a panoramic view of the long struggle of Taiwan to achieve democracy in the face of Chinese and Japanese colonialism"

What does "Chinese colonialism" mean in the Taiwanese context? The self-identified "Taiwanese" are descendants of Chinese settlers from 4 or 5 hundred years ago. I would bet their understanding of "Chinese colonialism" is quite different from the perspective of native aboriginal communities on the island. Not that identities can't change of course, but just something to keep in mind.

Michael Turton said...

The aborigines struggled against Chinese colonialism, to be sure -- something I've said many times on this blog. I'm sure colonialism looks different to different people, too.


Jerome said...

The aboriginese question needs its own historian; as I stated in my first work,"Island in the Stream," in 1500, the aboriginese made up 98 % of the population of Taiwan and the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans etc. 2%; by 2000, it was a complete reversal, the aboriginese made up less than 2%, while the Chinese (primarily) made up 98%. The plains Pingpu tribes were extinct or assimilated and all that remained were the mountain dwellers.
The diversity of the many tribes who also competed with each other (it must be remembered that the Japanese were often aided by various aboriginese in exterminating their enemies) plus the fact that theirs is more an oral tradition than a written one, make this a difficult task for historians.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the book! Funny story about that, I was on the MRT in Taipei reading the book and Jerome walked in and sat directly across from us. I told my girlfriend, "that's the guy who wrote the book I'm reading" and she probably stared at him for about 15 minutes until we got off.

Its a great book. Although I noticed that there are quite a few spelling mistakes that didn't get picked up by the editor.