Taiwan's State and Social Movements under the DPP Government, 2000-2004

By Ho, Ming-sho | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Taiwan's State and Social Movements under the DPP Government, 2000-2004


Ho, Ming-sho, Journal of East Asian Studies


This article explores the evolution of social movement politics under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government (2000-2004) by using the perspective of political opportunity structure. Recent "contentious politics" in Taiwan is analyzed in terms of four changing dimensions of the opportunity structure. First, the DPP government opens some policy channels, and social movement activists are given chances to work within the institution. Yet other features of the political landscape are less favorable to movement activists. Incumbent elites' political orientation shifts. As the economic recession sets in, there is a conservative policy turn. Political instability incurs widespread countermoblization to limit reform. Last, the Pan-Blue camp, now in opposition, devises its own social movement strategy. Some social movement issues gain political salience as a consequence of the intervention of the opposition parties, but its excessive opportunism also encourages the revolt of antireform forces. As a result of these countervailing factors, social movements have made only limited gains from the recent turnover of power.

KEYWORDS: social movement, democratization, political opportunity, Taiwan, Democratic Progressive Party

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The rise of social movements has been an integral dimension of democratization in Taiwan. Social protests of various issues emerged as early as the time when the political opposition coalesced into the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986. Disadvantaged sectors such as farmers, workers, and marginalized ethnic minorities made use of the liberalized political atmosphere to launch collective actions. A commentator characterized this proliferation of social protest as "a demanding society." (1) As a powerful force, social movements changed the political landscape. Antipollution protest helped to erode the local clientelism of the Kuomintang (KMT), while the labor movement undermined the party-state infrastructure in the factory. The political activism of the urban middle class was channeled into effective education reform and antinuclear movements. At the same time, the DPP sought to incorporate these reform demands into its political agenda. Social movements became politicized and came to have a vital stake in party politics.

After a fiercely competitive presidential election in March 2000, the DPP ousted the incumbent KMT, which had ruled Taiwan for fifty-five years. The assumption of power by an opposition political party produced a favorable environment for social movements. Given the DPP's previous alliance with movement sectors, it was expected that relations between the government and social movements would improve. The DPP advocated a broad series of political reforms, which were largely welcomed by the social movement circle. The fact the DPP did not possess the personnel to take over the reins of national government opened up the prospect that movement leaders might be invited to share power and thus have the opportunity to introduce significant policy changes. However, post-KMT political developments proved unexpected for movement activists. At best, social movements made only limited gains during the first term of Chen Shui-bian (2000-2004). The DPP government was crippled from the very beginning by not possessing a parliamentary majority. When it sought to promote those reforms desired by social movements, opposition parties were often able to block their initiatives. In addition, the DPP hesitated on certain reform pledges and then took a more conservative turn as the economic situation worsened in 2001. The political imperative to boost economic performance made the DPP elites less willing to respond to the interests of social movements. Further, a new wave of popular protests began to target reforms that the social movement sector had achieved. With the rise of these countermovements, reform advocates faced an uphill battle in widening the reform agenda.

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