Princeton University Library Catalog

Peaceful Revolution or Piecemeal Revision? Maturing Democracy in Taiwan

de La Bruyère, Emily [Browse]
Senior thesis
Katz, Stanley [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year:
94 pages
Summary note:
Taiwan’s democratic transition is, at once, miraculous and unsure. The process has been peaceful and calm and has replaced an authoritarian party-state with a free, multi-party democracy: the first Chinese democracy in 5,000 years. That is miraculous. At the same time, the interests of the authoritarian incumbents who initiated — and, therefore, controlled — Taiwan’s reform handicapped the process. Democratization in Taiwan is best described as a series of settlements among establishment and opposition elites in which consensus yielded breakthrough, compromise piecemeal change, and disagreement nothing at all. While that process has certainly installed liberal democracy on Taiwan, it has also established a patchwork, and often-resented system that encourages partisanship, polarization, gridlock and, with them, what threatens to be a shallow democracy. I examine the relationship between the nature of change in Taiwan and democratic advancement. Can compromise build deep democracy? I focus on a 2005 constitutional amendment that raised the threshold for future revision, thus making it all but impossible formally to change the imperfect system. What does the fact that bargaining built flaws into the government structure — and then, in 2005, cemented that imperfect structure — mean for Taiwan’s democracy? In addressing that question, I rely on a Robert Dahl-derived spectrum of democracy that distinguishes between polyarchy (a minimal form) and advanced democracy. I analyze the scholarly literature on Taiwan’s transition, as well as recent developments on the island, including four rounds of historic elections and a wave of student-led protests in 2014. Using interviews, personal experience, and text-based research I examine bargained democratization in Taiwan, the systemic flaws that compromise has permitted, and the island’s current political situation. I look in particular on the 2005 amendment and constitutional ossification. I argue that while the process of elite-driven compromise has produced a deeply flawed system, it has also established a strong political consciousness and allowed political society to flourish. Grassroots political engagement gives citizens the ability to express themselves. Increasingly, they can (and do) use that voice to compensate for the Constitution’s imperfections, forcing accountability, and therefore encouraging transparency and good governance. I call that development democratic maturation: citizens engage in political society, and their engagement encourages responsive government. Change takes place informally and becomes part of, rather than antithetical to, the state system. That optimistic conclusion suggests not only that Taiwan’s government will continue to mature even without major constitutional reform, but also that incremental, elite-led reform can bring about the conditions from which deep democracy is born.