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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties
Bruce J. Dickson

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)
276 pp. Index.bibl. Hb.: 37.50; ISBN 0-19-829269-4



Can the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) democratize as Taiwan's Nationalist Party (Kuomintang - KMT) has done in the past decade? Bruce Dickson's excellent book explains why it can not. Dickson demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party is trapped in the classic dilemma of reform. '[S]hould the CCP signal its willingness to adapt, it is likely to be overwhelmed by the a popular upsurge. As was the norm for most other communist parties, attempts by the CCP to undertake responsive adaptation will likely lead not to the transformation of the regime but to its collapse.' (p. 14) The CCP is unable to democratize because of its own institutional practices and personnel. Its leaders have never trusted democracy and have always responded with repression to any domestic threats, and presumably are unable to act very differently in the future.

In contrast Taiwan had a special relationship with the United States meant that a large portion of the KMT's leadership received higher education in the United States and grew familiar with democracy. Because the KMT's roots were in China's mainland, it was quite repressive and unpopular in Taiwan, even if it provided rapid economic growth. Particularly in the 1970s when the United States switched diplomatic recognition to China, the KMT desperately needed to consolidate its legitimacy with both the domestic population and the United States. A transition to democracy satisfied both needs.

While the book does not deal directly with ethnic differences, it does deal with regional differences and the implications in Taiwan when a political party based in one part of a country ends up ruling a small island province. In this case there was a lot of friction for decades until intermarriage reduced the sense of disparate identities. The KMT ultimately chose to democratize and essentially convert itself from a mainlanders' party to a new party that could compete for Taiwanese votes. Whether it will succeed in this striking transition remains to be seen.

Dickson's conclusions are based on a meticulous review of the CCP and KMT's institutional history, with citations to the key literature of decades of China studies. The book also provides an excellent (and still all too rare) bridge between Chinese area studies and general literature on organizational and political change. It is an excellent book for graduate students and scholars of both China and political change.


Benedict Stavis
Temple University




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