The Covid-19 death toll in the United States exceeds 148,000; in Taiwan this statistic is seven. Taiwan has done a better job of fighting the pandemic than South Korea, Japan, or New Zealand. Taiwan adjusted the teaching protocol for schools but never closed them. Restaurants lost business but largely remained open. Taiwan’s economy has continued to grow, as other nations face the sinking prospect of a recession.
Taiwan is having its global moment, but few can tell the tale of how this island country arrived where it is. This is unfortunate but unsurprising: Taiwan is seldom mentioned in global media reports beyond articles about its disputed sovereignty, or histrionic outbursts from Chinese diplomats seeking to bar Taiwan from observer status in the World Health Organization and other international bodies.
During five decades of Japanese colonial rule (1895–1945), Taiwan began to experience what we call the “twin transformations” of nation building and democratization. Nation building commenced during Japanese rule, when Taiwanese were united by their common culture yet marginalized as second-class citizens in their homeland. Democratization, including early forays into local electoral politics under Japan, gradually introduced new rights and freedoms for Taiwanese to campaign in local and national elections.
Nation building and democratization became interrelated concerns as Taiwan emerged in the 1980s from four decades of one-party rule under martial law. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, founded in 1986 in defiance of a ban on opposition parties, would eventually become one of two main political parties that have alternated in power since the first direct presidential election in 1996. Nation building and democratization changed the way Taiwanese saw their society, leading to overwhelming support for democratic life and broad recognition that their nation was Taiwan, not China.
One important reason for Taiwan’s resilience during the current pandemic is that Taiwan’s twin transformations did not occur in isolation. They proceeded alongside a public hunger for broader reforms in a range of related areas, including women’s rights, freedom of speech and association, indigenous rights, environmental justice, animal rights, abolition of the death penalty, and gay marriage, to mention but a few examples.
All of these movements involved increasingly sophisticated activism amid growing trust in government as a willing and capable partner in reshaping the country’s course. This was in part due to the pivotal leadership of recently deceased President Lee Teng-hui, who pardoned political prisoners and worked to forge consensus over reforms that converted a political system designed to rule China in the 1940s into a democratic system suited to govern Taiwan.
Over time, Taiwanese society experienced what might be called a “normalization” of non-violent contestation that touched nearly every corner of society. Consider, for example, the 2014 occupation of parliament by students opposing a Taiwan-China free trade pact. The movement won widespread public support, prompted the tabling of the agreement, and elevated the fortunes of the Democratic Progressive Party, which had supported the demonstration. In Hong Kong, by comparison, pro-democracy demonstrators have been treated as criminals, traitors, and repressed by the police. Taiwanese “Sunflower activists” were cleared of criminal charges after occupying the national legislature for over three weeks. In her May 2020 inaugural address, President Tsai Ing-wen underscored the role of Taiwan’s “mobilization culture”: She noted that “people’s dissatisfaction provides motivation for reform” and that Taiwan’s ability to overcome its many challenges wasn’t because of “one or two heroes” but because of “nameless heroes” who together “turned the great wheel of history.”
Ironically, such views of Taiwanese society seem entirely foreign in China. Politicians and military figures in Beijing ignore Tsai Ing-wen’s soaring approval ratings and belittle her political record: they have accused her government of “unilaterally” destabilizing relations by failing to express commitment to unification; urged Taiwanese to refrain from commenting on national security legislation for Hong Kong; and warned that Taiwan independence is “a road of death.”
Our book Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization traces how this remarkable country emerged as a resilient democratic nation, despite the absence of widespread agreement on sovereignty or democratic norms after World War II and within a political system designed to govern a different place (China). The contributors to the volume, many of them Taiwan-based academics, consider several dimensions of Taiwan’s experience of nation building and democratization, including constitutional reform, grassroots elections and social movements, and defense spending and national security.
Speaking to her compatriots at her inauguration in 2020, President Tsai argued that Taiwan’s story “pertains to everyone and requires everyone.” Taiwan in Dynamic Transition helps readers to understand the background to Taiwan’s extraordinary success during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the future security of Taiwan is uncertain, not due to internal failings but the threat of a Chinese invasion. During these uncertain and dangerous times, perhaps Tsai’s words are also true for all who respect freedom and human dignity and wish to see them flourish?
Ryan Dunch is professor of history at the University of Alberta. Ashley Esarey is assistant professor of political science at the University of Alberta. Their book Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization is available now.