Political Development in the Republic of China on Taiwan, 1985-1992: An Insider's View

By Soong, James Chul-Yul | World Affairs, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview
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Political Development in the Republic of China on Taiwan, 1985-1992: An Insider's View

Soong, James Chul-Yul, World Affairs

The basic facts are beyond dispute. Since the beginning of its export-oriented economic growth in the mid-1960s, the real gross national product of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan grew at an average rate of nearly 9 percent a year. In fact, Taiwan has successfully transformed its socioeconomic structure from pre-dominantly rural and agrarian to one of urban and industrial. More impressively, this growth has been accompanied by a favorable pattern of income distribution, low unemployment, universal literacy, and the near elimination of poverty that usually alienates the poorest social strata in other less developed countries (LDCs). It is little wonder that scholars of development often speak of the "economic miracle" in Taiwan (Gold, 1986).

Following its impressive economic growth, there has been increasing demand in Taiwan for more political openness (Scalapino, 1987:77). Rules upon which social and political activities were sanctioned can no longer address the population's near-feverish demand for political participation. Overseeing the society's rapid transformation and the appropriate management of this new-found vitality and enthusiasm is a matter of critical importance for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Simply stated, the KMT's goal is to institutionalize political processes and to strengthen the rule of law operating under a democratic, constitutional framework.

In analyzing the relationship between socioeconomic growth and political development, the most commonly assumed paradigm is that the likelihood of political democracy increases as the level of socioeconomic development improves (Lipset, 1959). Indeed, Taiwan's rapid socioeconomic progress has brought democratic inclinations and has produced an environment conducive to full democracy. Mass education, urbanization, and internationalization have all contributed to the emergence of a democratic political system in Taiwan. However, because democracy is a foreign import and it needs to operate under Taiwan's Chinese socio-cultural traditions, there are inevitable contradictions and tensions that would affect its structural underpinnings and effectiveness.


In spite of ethnic and religious diversity, there is a background culture that binds people together in Taiwan, a culture deeply rooted in Confucianism. Unlike others, Confucianism is a code of ethics and standard of conduct, developed to guide the relationships between people (Han, 1984). It emphasizes mutual respect and common acknowledgement of mutual obligations. Within these relationships, a common understanding of what is mutually expected reduces the need for much forthright, direct communication.

In politics, Confucianism views government as an extended family, with individuals knowing their place and responsibility (Hicks and Redding, 1984). As Lucian Pye explains, "Just as the Confucian concept of the ideal government was an extension of the ideal family, so the prime tasks of government were the same as those of the family: to provide security, continuity, cohesion, and solidarity" (1985:63).

Against such an inherent cultural backdrop, the notion of a participatory pluralist society where an actively involved citizenry compete for favorable policy outcomes by open, frequently hostile confrontation appears peculiar to most Chinese on Taiwan. In particular, Confucian emphasis on group harmony rather than individualism sets the socio-political context in stark contrast with many of the early-industrialized, parliamentarian democracies in Western Europe and North America. Using the United States as a case in contrast, Samuel Huntington explains the difference succinctly:

In such a society, the critical need is to avoid

competition and disharmony, and hence elaborate

consultation within the group is required

before a decision can be reached. Americans,

on the other hand, are comfortable with open

conflict, majority votes, and a more individualistic,

"lone ranger" style of leadership [Huntington,


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