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New Challenges for Maturing Democracies in Korea and Taiwan

New Challenges for Maturing Democracies in Korea and Taiwan

Jonathan Sullivan30 Jan 2015Leave a comment

Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

Larry Diamond and Gi-Wook Shin (eds.), (2014) New Challenges for Maturing Democracies in Korea and Taiwan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

Taiwan and Korea share similar developmental trajectories and experiences of democratization and within comparative democratization research they have become comparators nonpareil, with particularly strong work on political institutions, voting behaviour and political attitudes. As “Confucian heritage democracies” that have democratized from within, Taiwan and Korea are a living rebuttal to the refusal of authoritarian rulers in other polities with Confucian legacies such as Singapore and China to make the transition.

Taiwan and Korea are two of a small number of third wave democracies that have become consolidated liberal democracies. Others, like fellow middle income polities Argentina, Turkey and Mexico, have failed to do so. By most measures, Korea and Taiwan are extraordinarily successful democracies. In terms of political rights and composite measures of governance, they lag only slightly behind advanced liberal democracies in Europe. And despite fluctuations due to the Asian and Global financial crises in 1997 and 2008 respectively, adopting democracy has not harmed economic growth. This is impressive and important in economies where earlier “miracle growth” saw the heavy participation of the authoritarian state.

Most evidence suggests that in terms of their performance and the challenges they face, Taiwan and Korea are should now be compared to “the richest, healthiest, best educated and most technologically advanced” polities in the world (p. 10). Naturally, they still face challenges, but their challenges are those of advanced democracies. For the first time since democratization both face rapidly growing economic and social inequalities. The working and middle classes, and particularly the young, are experiencing difficulties and frustrations. Generational and social mobility can no longer be taken for granted. Both democracies must confront aging populations and increasing high dependency ratios. Maintaining economic dynamism in an increasingly competitive global economy, while also facing greater and more complicated welfare and distributive requirements, is a new challenge.

Taiwan and Korea also share an unusually perilous regional security environment. It is remarkable, and probably necessary, that both polities are so functional in the shadow of perennially hostile and/or revisionist neighbours. Encouragingly, Taiwanese and Korean citizens continue to maintain high levels of support for democracy and satisfaction with the way it works—despite low levels of trust and confidence in some of their democratic institutions and especially low regard for political parties and politicians. The glass half full interpretation is that this shows a healthy cynicism. Less sanguine, and more realistically, it is symptomatic of a growing disconnect between citizens and their representatives in both polities—again something they share in common with advanced liberal democracies like the US and UK.

Taiwan and Korea are two of the star pupils of the third wave, which is worth keeping in mind when the minutiae of political competition and social discontent tend to exaggerate problems and minimize achievements. Perspective is thus important, although there are instances where the bird’s eye view results in a rather fuzzy resolution. For instance, while the editors laud the contribution that the Economic Common Framework Agreement (ECFA) has made to stabilizing cross-Strait relations, they neglect to mention the “challenges” that it has brought for Taiwan’s democracy in terms of the political process, the functioning of institutions and increasing inequalities. These issues came to a head with the Sunflower student protests against the extension of ECFA, the Cross-Strait Services and Trade Agreement. The specific stimulus for the extraordinary occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March/April 2014 (long after the book was written of course) was President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to railroad the bill through the legislature without due process or oversight, contravening earlier bipartisan agreement to do so. With this sharper resolution the outlook for Taiwan’s democracy looks rather less rosy. To be fair, most chapters strike an admirable balance between the wood and the trees.

This is not really a comparative study in the sense that only Chu Yun-han and Chong-Min Park’s chapter on political culture explicitly compares the two cases. Instead the book is divided into five further thematic sections with one chapter on each democracy allowing the reader to compare the Taiwanese and Korean experience for themselves. The individual chapters are excellent and the parallel presentation works well where the sections are well defined and the authors stick closely to their remits. Shelley Rigger and Jiyoon Kim’s respective papers in the section on identity politics and political competition are good examples of this. The coverage in all of the chapters is contemporary and unlike some conference volumes it feels fresh and coherent. All in all, this is a high quality collection with much to offer area specialists and comparative scholars.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. He originally reviewed this book for China Quarterly.

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