VOTE 2016: Foreign Students Get a Taste of Taiwan’s DemocracyThrough their firsthand experience with Taiwan’s democracy, foreign students began revisiting their assumptions about their own political system
My colleague Yufen Chang and I recently completed a faculty-led study abroad trip to Taiwan for three weeks, a program which focused on Taiwan’s democratization and the 2016 election. Most of the students had some background in Chinese language (ranging from one semester to four years), but few had been to Taiwan before. One student had never been on a plane before this trip. Similarly, a few possessed some background in Taiwanese politics from my East Asian Politics course, but for most students this was their first introduction into the politics of the island-nation. Based on their comments, many students were particularly intrigued by the legacy of the authoritarian era as well as the dynamics of multiparty competition.
Most students were vaguely aware that Taiwan was a younger democracy, but their knowledge of the authoritarian era remained limited. I intentionally chose readings (here and here) that captured the diversity of perceptions of the era. Students were surprised by the brutality of that period in Taiwan’s history, highlighted particularly by trips to the 228 Museum and the Jingmei Human Rights Park, but also the continued reverence among many to leaders of that era, as evident inside Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. This led to several discussions as to how, despite this authoritarian past, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) remained competitive after democratization, including the party’s own disputed role in democratization.
A particularly distressing issue for many students was the continued use of the KMT party symbol on the national (Republic of China) flag and other offices of the state. While many understood the ramifications of changing the flag in terms of domestic and cross-strait politics, the continued blurring of the party logo and national imagery bothered many students. Similarly, the use of KMT logo embedded within Taiwan’s police logo irked several students, further bothered when police and Taiwanese on the street nearby did not view the inclusion as a reflection of the KMT.
In addition, for most of the students, U.S.-style two-party dominant elections remained their only frame of reference for democratic competition. The number of parties running for office in Taiwan fascinated many students. Although most were quick to point out that the U.S. also has many small parties (although their influence is largely negligible), students acknowledged what appears to be a much larger role for smaller parties in Taiwan. Most attributed this to the mixed member legislative system that combines single member districts like those used in the U.S. House of Representatives with party list seats allocated by proportional representation. Students were also particularly intrigued by a three-person presidential race, as the last comparable U.S. third party race with support similar to that of James Soong’s (宋楚瑜) People First Party (PFP) was before any of the students were born (Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996).
More broadly, students learned about the distinctions in the parties not only by meeting with representatives of the KMT, PFP, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and New Power Party (NPP) and attending their rallies, but also by conducting their own informal surveys as part of a class assignment. By asking Taiwanese about their party preferences and vote intentions, students gained an appreciation for the diversity of opinions in Taiwan, moving beyond simply seeing people as “blue” or “green.” With rare exceptions (usually due to being too busy), most Taiwanese were willing to answer questions from foreign strangers about electoral politics, a surprise to many who would not have been so comfortable if the roles had been reversed. Similarly, meeting with Taiwanese students not only helped our students understand Taiwanese politics, but shed light on the assumptions many Taiwanese had about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election (e.g. public support for Donald Trump).
Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that, “what the United States does best is understand itself. What it does worst is understand others.” However, as a comparativist by training, I question how much one knows about their own country until they are confronted by experiences from another. Viewing Taiwan’s democracy firsthand, students began to question not only what they saw in Taiwan, but the potential lessons both Taiwan and the U.S. may have for each other.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems. His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.