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Taiwan's Transformation: 1895 to the Present (Review)

John J. Metzler. 2017.
Taiwan's Transformation: 1895 to the Present
New York: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 9781137574923

Taiwan's Transformation’s author, John Meltzer, is a long-time UN correspondent covering diplomatic relations. What sets the book apart from other accounts of Taiwan’s recent history is its inclusion of diplomatic materials and its coverage of the roles that other states have played in Taiwan's development and transformation. This includes the roles of the United States and Japan in the period from the 1943 Cairo Conference to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference, of various players in the 1950s contestation of whether the Republic of China (ROC) would retain the China seat in the UN and the Security Council or whether it would go to the People's Republic of China (PRC), and of the heavy hand of the PRC itself from the 1980s to the present. However, the author’s concentration on this aspect also gives rise to the problems with the book: its coverage of the various periods comprising the time span promised by the subtitle, 1895 to the Present is very uneven; and, on the basis of what he has written, the author lacks familiarity with important and controversial issues in the past 125 years of Taiwan’s history and politics.

Meltzer credits Chiang Ching-kuo with having democratized Taiwan whereas, in fact, Chiang merely assented to the dangwai (‘outside the party’) forming the Democratic Progressive Party in 1986 – after having jailed its leaders six years before. However, until those Legislative Yuan and National Assembly members elected in the late 1940s in China and who never faced re-election in Taiwan were removed from office three years after Chiang died, fair elections, hence, democratization, was impossible in Taiwan as they gave the Kuomintang huge majorities in both bodies. Second, he accepts the veracity of the 92 Consensus even though its originator, Su Chi, admitted that he had made it up. Third, in his discussion of the 1996 presidential election, the one that completed the transformation to democratization by being based on the popular vote, he neglected any mention of Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University to accept an honorary doctorate and that the tensions caused with the PRC had on the election outcome. Fourth, he wrote that the identity of the gunman responsible for the attempted assassination of Chen Shui-bian or Lu Hsiu-lien was unknown.

The author’s treatment of the Japanese colonial era leads to some misleading statements. He writes that when allowed to elect some local government officials in the 1930s, ‘Formosans began to feel a new sense of civic duty and pride’ (p. 15). However, under the Japanese colonial government, suffrage was granted to no more than 10 per cent of the Taiwanese. He also writes that younger generation Formosans, who had grown up under Japanese rule, ‘largely responded positively to military recruitment’ (p. 16), but, in practice, the Japanese were wary of allowing Taiwanese to join the fighting force, so most who served in the Japanese military were First Peoples.

His interpretation of events of the post-WWII period favors the Kuomintang. He states as sources of Taiwanese discontent toward Governor Chen Yi's administration 1) that three-quarters of the local public servants lost their jobs to émigrés from China and 2) runaway inflation, but he fails to mention the corruption and misrule. He attributes Chen Yi's poor governance to Chiang Kai-shek being distracted by the civil war in China but fails to mention the carpetbagging behavior of many of the émigré officials sent to administer Taiwan or the very negative attitudes Kuomintang officials had toward the Taiwanese, perceiving them as having been tainted by their having been subject to Japanese colonial role for half a century. He credits Taiwan’s being granted World Health Organization observer status in 2009 to Ma’s ‘pragmatic’ approach but overlooks the PRC's far more accommodating behavior toward a Kuomintang president that to the Democratic Progressive Party.

His favoring the Kuomintang over the Democratic Progressive Party is apparent in his selection of secondary sources. Aside from diplomatic materials, his source material is both limited and biased toward pro-Kuomintang or Republic of China sources, e.g. Paul Sih, Wei Yung, and the China Yearbook, a government publication. Although he cites Shelley Rigger, he neglects work by Bruce Jacobs, the most prolific writer on Taiwan, Steven Phillips, Dafydd Fell, C. L. Chiou, or any of the excellent Taiwan scholars, e.g. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, Mau-kuei Chang or Fu-chang Wang. And in his blatantly biased chapter on the Chen Shui-bian presidency he relies on two strongly pro-Kuomintang newspapers, the United Daily News and the China Post.

Finally, the manuscript seems not to have been proofread. There are numerous misspelled or inconsistently spelled place and personal names; verb agreement problems; auto-correct typos (e.g. what appears from context intended to be ‘aspiring’ becomes ‘a spring’); left-out words in the author’s text and in text marked as quotations; and incorrect Romanizations. Sections of flowery prose and tangential detract from its value as a serious book, and frequent lack of transitions from one topic to another make it difficult to follow. Some important topics are dealt with superficially, in 3–4 sentences and then dropped, which makes me suspect that a reader not already familiar with Taiwan's history would not come away with a better understanding of it.

In short, there are far better books on this period of Taiwan history.

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