Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

Substantial academic interest in Taiwan has coalesced around the diverse set of norms and behaviours captured by the rubric political culture. The role of patronage, personal networks and guanxi represent a perennial scholarly preoccupation. There is no better starting point for investigating the effects of these phenomena than Bosco 1992, a pioneering study on local factions. This classic article provides a compelling analysis of the workings and connections between the central institutions of state and agents at the local level, with a particular focus on the centrality of personal relationships in facilitating political behaviours. Another ground-breaking study on the importance of personal connections and feelings, based on ethnographic fieldwork, is Jacobs 1979, which made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the contours and dynamics of political relationships in Taiwan. These dynamics and relationships are openly manifest in the campaign practices of local campaigns, as shown by Mattlin 2004, a fine grained study based on extensive fieldwork of party organization and mobilization structures and behaviours during election campaigns.

As Gobel 2012 shows, alliances and factions are also moulded by exogenous conditions, such as changes in the way that resources can be accessed via electoral competition. “Political” relationships are not restricted to alliances between politicians or between candidates and voters. Indeed, as the classic work represented in Chin 2003 shows, Taiwanese politics throughout the democratization period, particularly under Lee Teng-hui, were shaped by a complex interdependence between the KMT, business and organized crime. Indeed the “politics, business and crime nexus”, established under KMT one party rule as a means of propagating its control over society, became even more salient as the KMT prepared itself to face democratic competition. Refocusing the analytic lens, Ling and Shi 1998 examine the effects of Taiwan’s Confucian cultural heritage on democratic attitudes. The collection presented in Paolino and Meernik 2008 focuses on support for democracy, public trust and other attitudes at the individual level using large-scale survey data. This edited volume is also a useful introduction to the kind of empirical work being done with the aid of national data collection projects like the Taiwan Election and Democratization Survey (TEDS) which allow the contributors to probe voting behaviour, democratic attitudes and national identity.

A different dimension of political culture, Taiwanese cultural nationalism, is comprehensively dissected by Hsiau 2000, the classic study of Taiwanese identity and nationalism from the Japanese colonial period through one party rule to the democratization era, with a focus on the roles of language, literature and history in constructions of Taiwanese and Chineseness. Hsiau 2010 examines the cultural transformation of Taiwanese society, which exerted a powerful influence on the nascent opposition movement, tracing it back to intellectuals in the 1970s who themselves looked back in time to the Japanese colonial period to seek understandings of Taiwaneseness.

With the gradual opening of civil society space, activists and ordinary citizens had the opportunity to get their voices heard and fight for their interests. In the early stages of democratization, much of this energy went into the fight for democratic reform and other issues relating to national identity, as Tu 1996 demonstrates. There is also a long history of social movements in various other sectors, which is described in Ho 2010, a careful analysis of the different phases that social movement organization went through in the previous two decades, up to and including the recent resurgence of civic protest movements under Ma Ying-jeou. The earlier work of Hsiao 1990 focuses on the emergence of the conditions that allowed social movements to emerge in the 1980s. In later work, Hsiao 2002 focuses on the political and cultural “paradigm shifts” that transformed values, attitudes and expectations of Taiwanese citizens.

Among the more important social movements are the ones pertaining to the environment and the anti-nuclear movement and described by Ho 2003. The close connections between democratization and environmentalism (the ambiguities of the environmental movement long being tied to the DPP), and the challenge that both presented to the ruling KMT, are analysed in Tang and Tang 1997. The article focuses on the response of the KMT, as the sponsor of polluting industries, to the local politicians and civic groups that coalesced around the environmental movement and provides a convincing explanation of the success and failure of co-optation at various locales in Taiwan. Perhaps no other sector so aptly symbolizes the local effects of globalization, which is encapsulated in the analysis of environmental activism in Kaohsiung presented in Lee 2007. During Taiwan’s rapid economic growth phase, Kaohsiung, one of the world’s busiest ports, was a byword for environmental pollution and degradation. Now it is routinely held up as a success story for placing the environment at the centre of urban politics. Tang 2003 is a study of urban politics in the context of the northern wetlands, examining the relationship between local political actors, pressures from civil society actors and policies that tend towards promoting growth or environmental protection.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor at the University of Nottingham. He tweets @jonlsullivan.


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