A Democratic and Peaceful Existence: On Jonathan Sullivan and Lev Nachman’s “Taiwan”

By Catherine Lila ChouApril 18, 2024

A Democratic and Peaceful Existence: On Jonathan Sullivan and Lev Nachman’s “Taiwan”

Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat by Lev Nachman and Jonathan Sullivan

WRITING A BOOK on Taiwan meant for a general audience is a deceptively difficult task. According to the logic—or illogic—of contemporary geopolitics, Taiwan is a subject of both great and troubling interest. It seems to contain within it the potential for war or peace, making it taboo to discuss squarely, for fear that doing so might trigger global conflict. To write a book that aims to introduce Taiwan to as broad an audience as possible is thus to declare that Taiwan should not be off-limits. It can be analyzed using many of the same empirical tools that are brought to bear on other places in the world. And that concern about what the “Taiwan issue” might lead to should be informed by a clear understanding of the place itself and the people who call it home.

This is the spirit that animates Jonathan Sullivan and Lev Nachman’s recently published Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat. Not even five years ago, someone wanting to pick up a general interest book in English about why Taiwan matters had few options. There were but a handful of dated works. One of the only such books to cover the period after the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president, was Kerry Brown and Kalley Wu Tzu Hui’s The Trouble with Taiwan: History, the United States and a Rising China (2019). Now we are on the cusp of what is shaping up to be a mini boom in accessible works that introduce Taiwan to international audiences. Notable examples from last year are Clarissa Wei’s best-selling cookbook Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation, which opens with an essay on Taiwanese history written in consultation with historian James Lin of University of Washington, and the documentary Invisible Nation, directed by Vanessa Hope, which was shown at festivals internationally. I’ll be contributing to this outpouring myself with a book co-authored with Mark Harrison on the making of Taiwanese nationhood, Revolutionary Taiwan: Making Nationhood in a Changing World Order, out later this year with Cambria Press. Other books expected to release soon include Chris Horton’s Ghost Nation and Neal E. Robbins’s Plucky Island: Taiwan in Limbo.

In their preface, Sullivan and Nachman acknowledge the information gap that Western readers face when it comes to Taiwan. This gap has generated a litany of questions from those interested, curious, and brave enough to ask:

Is Taiwan part of China? Why is Taiwan such a controversial issue? How did Taiwan become democratic? How important is the Taiwanese tech industry? Could China and the US really go to war over Taiwan? […] Where does one begin to learn about Taiwan with all its bewildering complexities and nuances?

For Sullivan and Nachman, political scientists at Britain’s University of Nottingham and Taipei’s National Chengchi University, respectively, the starting point to understanding Taiwan is the fact that it democratized in the late 20th century. Although they include an early chapter on “Taiwan’s many histories,” beginning with the arrival of Indigenous peoples more than 4,000 years ago (far predating the large-scale settlement of people from China in the 17th and 18th centuries), the focus of their book is on present-day Taiwan. Their overriding concern is how and why democratization has shaped the form that the “Taiwan issue” takes today.

One of the central insights of the book is that the need to appeal to a pragmatic voting base led to an unexpected convergence of the major political parties on preserving Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. Taiwan’s two largest political parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), evolved in very different contexts. The KMT originated in reform movements that gained a foothold in mainland China towards the end of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century. After losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party in 1949 (the year that the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, was founded), the KMT fled to Taiwan with its army and reestablished the Republic of China (ROC)—the country created by the 1911 Revolution, which had toppled the Qing—on the island as a one-party dictatorship. The six million people already living in Taiwan did not have a choice in accepting the arrival of the KMT or the ROC. For decades, the KMT, as a government-in-exile, maintained a thoroughly implausible goal of “retaking the mainland” and expropriated Taiwanese natural and human resources to that effect. The DPP was founded illegally in 1986 outside Taiwan’s party-state system. Its founders and earliest supporters were victims of KMT political persecution who espoused a proud local and Taiwanese identity in contrast to the version of Chinese identity imposed by the governments of Chiang Kai-shek and his successor son, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Despite these different origin stories, Taiwan’s democratic system itself has incentivized a degree of overlap in how the two parties deal with the unification demands of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the PRC. Democratization and the flourishing of a Taiwan-centric identity coincided with the “inversion of China and Taiwan’s economic and geopolitical position,” to borrow a phrase from a 2014 essay historian Albert Wu published with Los Angeles Review of Books. Today, it is the CCP that loudly proclaims its (perhaps plausible) goal of “retaking Taiwan,” an island it has never ruled and whose residents, in repeated surveys, have rejected annexation and political union with China. Today, it is the PRC that is the world’s second largest economy. (Taiwan is at present the world’s 22nd largest.) Today, it is the PRC that requires countries to choose between recognizing the government in Beijing or the one in Taipei as sovereign entities in a zero-sum game intended to squeeze Taiwan’s available avenues for participation in the international sphere.

In the chapter titled “Decided by the Taiwanese People,” Sullivan and Nachman write that “one of the most difficult aspects of Taiwan’s contested status” is that, while “relatively few Taiwanese people identify as Chinese, let alone identify with the PRC, all Taiwanese people have to make political decisions with China’s claims in mind.” This means that “[m]ost Taiwanese pragmatically support options that will allow them to continue enjoying a democratic and peaceful existence, even if their ideal preference might be for something else,” such as a de jure Republic of Taiwan. As such, “both main political parties converged on this [status quo] position.” The mainstream of the DPP now holds that “Taiwan, in the guise of the ROC, [is] already an independent sovereign nation and thus another hypothetical form of ‘Taiwan independence’ [is] superfluous.” The KMT, the once-ruling group that has spent years now as an opposition one, has not relinquished the dream of “one China,” but even it has conceded that unification holds little appeal for the people of Taiwan, which leaves open the question of what form this hypothetical cross-strait nation would take at some unknown point in the future.

Sullivan and Nachman detail some implications of the current state of play in their fourth chapter, “Taiwan and the ROC.” In recent years, they note, the KMT has suffered significant backlash for pursuing policies perceived as conceding too much control over Taiwan’s democracy and economy to China, such as a failed 2014 trade bill known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. The KMT’s determination to pass the bill “catalyzed a response from civil society that no one had anticipated,” the authors explain. Protesters staged a dramatic 23-day occupation of the legislature in what became known as the Sunflower Movement, an event whose 10th anniversary occurred just weeks after this January’s elections. (Its name comes from the flowers that the crowds of supporters held to symbolize their desire for more transparency and openness in politics, a floral form of nomenclature that for some steeped in Taiwan history will bring to mind a student-led campaign for democracy in 1990 called the Wild Lily Movement.) Protesters “were not just opposed” to the trade agreement but were also “explicitly anti-KMT, anti-unification and pro-Taiwanese self-determination.” For a decade afterwards, until they lost heavily in this year’s elections, activists who cut their political teeth during the Sunflower Movement channeled their energies into running for political office, often serving as city councilors and legislative representatives.

Sullivan and Nachman show that Taiwanese will and agency—consisting of a normally fractious society’s determination to retain its hard-won democracy—is perhaps the crucial factor in why the “Taiwan issue” remains open. Their book’s fifth chapter, “Sacred and Inviolable,” lays out why PRC officials have closed themselves off to this very insight about the Taiwanese people, preferring instead to blame so-called “separatists” for fomenting division between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the United States for selling arms to Taiwan and enabling the division to persist. “Given the definitive quality of unification—Taiwan is either under PRC control or not—the CCP has set a tangible marker for its own performance legitimacy,” the authors continue. “Having explicitly established the stakes, and convinced the Chinese people it will do everything in its power to prevail, the party cannot afford to soften its hardline positions on Taiwan.” Although the DPP and the KMT are often coded as “anti-China” and “pro-China”—and Beijing openly signals its preference for the latter over the former—the authors explain that in the era of Xi Jinping, PRC militarization across the strait proceeds apace regardless of whether a DPP or KMT presidential administration is in place. The “reality” is, they write, “that no ROC president will be able to deliver what the PRC wants, i.e. a political resolution resulting in unification on the PRC’s terms.”

This leads to another key thesis of the book: in the 2020s, Taiwan has entered a particularly treacherous phase of its history. This January’s election of William Lai (Lai Ching-te) of the DPP to the presidency, the first time the DPP has won the presidency three terms in a row, will likely prompt Beijing to ratchet up its policy of economic, military, diplomatic, and cognitive coercion towards Taiwan. However, the election of one of his competitors—Hou Yu-ih of the KMT, or third-party challenger Ko Wen-je of the recently founded Taiwan People’s Party, which has proved to be the most successful new political party in decades—would not necessarily induce the PRC to reduce the rate or totality of its military buildup. “Given the stakes, and the failure of the PRC’s proposal for unification to gain any traction in Taiwan at the elite or mass level,” the authors note, “it is not surprising that the PRC’s policy towards Taiwan has hardened.”

Moreover, Taiwan is in the unenviable position of being both the most contentious issue in PRC-US relations and the party with the most to lose from war between Beijing and Washington. As political scientist Syaru Shirley Lin observed in a preelection op-ed in The New York Times, “Taiwan’s accomplishments were made possible in part by decades of stability between China and the United States.” As Lin explains, “Steps being taken by both sides in that deteriorating relationship are threatening Taiwan’s resilience, its ability to innovate and, importantly, the ability of our people to stay united amid this challenge.” The CCP’s policies pose an existential threat to a democratic, self-governing Taiwan. But the United States has also made its own demands on Taiwan, such as asking for help setting up semiconductor-manufacturing facilities on American soil. Doing so likely weakens Taiwan’s advantage in perhaps the key product in today’s global economy and dents what outgoing president Tsai has called its “silicon shield.”

Sullivan and Nachman end their book on an anxious note. As is still all too rare in global discourse about Taiwan, their concern is for the people of Taiwan and their long-standing aspirations for self-determination. Yet, despite the anxious tone, the authors convey a sense of open-endedness, claiming that Taiwan might still live on as “one of the freest societies in East Asia,” despite it all. It is this open-endedness that contrasts the narratives of inevitable annexation or permanent purgatory through which so many readers will have encountered Taiwan before.

LARB Contributor

Catherine Lila Chou is an assistant professor of premodern European history at Grinnell College, and the co-author, with Mark Harrison of the University of Tasmania, of the forthcoming Revolutionary Taiwan: Making Nationhood in a Changing World Order (Cambria Press, 2024).


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