Explaining the Taiwan miracle

By John J. Metzler

The following is an excerpt from “Taiwan’s Transformation: 1895 to the Present,” the new book by longtime China Post commentator John J. Metzler. It is the perfect explainer on Taiwan, tracking the island’s socioeconomic transformation from a Japanese colony to a thriving East Asian mini-state. Click here to get the full book.

Today’s Taiwan is usually described in superlatives: dynamic, entrepreneurial, prosperous, vibrant and, most of all, the enduring East Asian Miracle. But it was not always that way. Miracles don’t just happen — they need to be visualized, nurtured and encouraged. Politicians need to govern, not to rule. Business needs incentives and encouragement, but especially freedom. Societies need security, both military and social. Stability then follows. Since the 1980s, Taiwan has primarily been viewed as a thriving economic model. Though certainly true, this assessment belies the amazing social and political success story for 23 million people on a small New Hampshire-sized island just off the Chinese coast. Taiwan’s legendary socioeconomic miracle has created, inadvertently or not, the island’s thriving democracy. Taiwan’s freedom emerged in part because its people were better educated, more prosperous and part of a peaceful revolution of expectations. Using the broad-brush strokes of a Chinese calligrapher, one could almost describe the island’s political evolution as a reflection of Seymour Martin Lipset’s modernization theory through which economic development and industrialization nurture democracy. Indeed, democracy is reinforced by an entrenched middle class. Taiwan remains a place of glaring contrasts too. The superlative National Palace Museum remains a proud repository of 5,000 years of Chinese history, and the Taipei 101 skyscraper offers futuristic architecture and stands as one of the world’s tallest buildings. Taiwan has its own terminology too, a lexicon of Chinese studies which I try to keep to a rhetorical minimum. The government’s official nomenclature, changing and evolving since 1949, is reflected in the actual chapter titles from the formal Republic of China to Taiwan (Republic of China) of the Democratic Progressive Party era to the current Taiwan/Republic of China. Yet, in almost direct proportion to Taiwan’s marked success has been mainland China’s expanding economy, its more assertive military postures and indeed the island’s still unresolved status as a “renegade” province to be returned to the Chinese “motherland.” Taiwan has been less threatened by Beijing in recent years as much as being overshadowed and possibly absorbed by it. Add a healthy dose of Beijing soft power diplomacy, and Taiwan’s noteworthy narrative is gradually being airbrushed out of the picture.