chapter  7
16 Pages

Democratization and recognition of difference in a Chinese society: the Taiwanese experience


This chapter explores the institutional factors that made it possible to avoid violent inter-ethnic conflict during Taiwan’s2 democratic transition. Violence was a real possibility considering the nature of the previous authoritarian regime, which excluded the ethnic majority from the higher echelons of power. Taiwan thus represents an interesting case of “the dog that did not bark”: a transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime in which the previously dominant ethnic minority faced the risk of suffering violent retribution from the ethnic majority, yet such violence did not occur. Taiwan’s rapid economic growth and relative socio-economic equality can only partly explain this outcome. Instead, this chapter focuses on institutional factors that facilitated generally peaceful inter-ethnic relations during the process of democratization. I argue that even before the creation of a minimal procedural democracy, informal inter-ethnic alliances were established to diminish the adverse effects of ethnic minority domination. This factor was crucial in alleviating the potential for violence once democratization began. The ethnic cleavage in Taiwan has pitted immigrants from Mainland China (hereafter “Mainlanders”) against people born in Taiwan before 1945. That year, the ruling political party, the Nationalist Party of China (or Kuomintang, hereafter KMT)3 put in place a government excluding native Taiwanese,4 thereby imposing minority domination. Yet, at the time of democratization, the same political party realized that it could not govern on a narrow ethnic base and, instead, had to encourage the formation of informal inter-ethnic alliances and find supporters in the Taiwanese ethnic majority. The process of democratization would later institutionalize some of these informal alliances, and entrench them in ways that could later transcend political affiliations. The KMT, controlled by the Mainlander minority, incorporated or gave some form of influence and clout to two groups: the Hakka and the aboriginal people of Taiwan, which considered themselves ethnic minorities within the native Taiwanese majority. Both groups had histories of grievances with the Hoklos, the largest ethnic group within the native Taiwanese population (Lamley 1981). As opposition to the KMT grew in the 1970s, however, informal alliances with these groups did not suffice to ensure its hegemony in Taiwan. The ruling party also had to cultivate good relations with key constituencies within the Hoklo

population. Some of the most visible and powerful of these were defined by religious affiliations. The scope and the endurance of these informal alliances help explain why the KMT could later successfully engineer a democratic transition without losing power in the process. These alliances were developed as early as in the 1950s, when the KMT realized that it could not recover Mainland China, and had to rely on support from the local population (Domes 1993: 119). The recruitment of members of the ethnic majority did not translate into majority group political empowerment for decades, but a process was set in motion which would ensure that the transition towards democracy could proceed smoothly and that the previously excluded ethnic majority would consider it legitimate.