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Words Like Colored Glass: The Role of the Press in Taiwan's Democratization Process.

Daniel Berman. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992) 237pp,

At We end of We Second World War, few would have expected that Taiwan would take the fast track to economic prosperity. Japan had occupied the island for several decades, the allies had bombed it heavily during the war and the corrupt and incompetent Chinese Nationalist regime retreated there from the mainland after losing the civil war to the Communists. Taiwan had virtually no natural resources or foreign exchange reserves. In just 40 years, however, it amassed the world's largest foreign exchange reserves and achieved one of the highest savings rates. By the late 1980s, Taiwan had reached a level of economic development that had required centuries to evolve in Europe and North America.

Words Like Colored Glass celebrates Taiwan's triumph by examining its social and political development through the lens of print media that, according to author Daniel Berman, have been at the "cutting edge of reform." The author examines the Kuomintang's (KMT) competing goals of pursuing a vigorous market economy and retaining tight control over information and the news media. Several political magazines successfully maneuvered between tight regulatory constraints and a dynamic political environment to become vehicles for launching opposition political parties in the 1980s. As a result, the ruling KMT regime was forced to adopt gradual democratic reforms. Now in the 1990s, the news media remain a critical component of that ongoing reform process.

The book's aptly chosen title is borrowed from Tzu Ssu, a grandson of Confucius, who said: "Words are like colored glass. What they do not illuminate, they serve to obscure." That saying is especially true in the world of Chinese-language journalism. According to some readers, the only way to understand a newspaper in China or Taiwan is to hold it up to a mirror: What the government says it will do, it won't. What the government said it didn't do, it did.

Unfortunately, Berman does not analyze this critical aspect of the print media in Taiwan. Compelling as it is, the book would have been more effective had it offered some insight into the way in which readers of Taiwanese newspapers and political magazines look through the colored glass to find some truth in the government-controlled news media. Berman offers few examples of the opaque language used by savvy editors and writers to convey messages to their readers that would have otherwise landed them in jail. There are also few illustrations of how readers have decoded such messages.

The second significant problem with this book is structural. The first half presents a review and critique of various theories of development, communication and politics. This reviewer wondered more than once how and when Berman would reach his stated destination of analysis -- the role of the media in Taiwan. In the second half, the author focuses on the contribution by Taiwan's opposition political magazines to the gradual political liberalization. A tighter synthesis between the two halves would have strengthened the overall impact of the book.

Those two flaws aside, Berman delivers a convincing analysis that is well-reasoned and substantiated by historical evidence and insights into Chinese culture. Though sufficiently deep, the historical and cultural observations are not new to observers of China and Taiwan. Berman, however, offers a fresh approach by linking well-known events with a discussion of three streams of thought: first, Samuel P. Huntington's notion of political institutionalization and development; second, Western concepts of progress and modernization -- including a brief discussion 6f dependency theory and its corollary, media imperialism; and finally, classic communication research that pertains to political development. Collectively, these three theoretical discussions provide the analytical framework for Berman's examination of the Chinese press from the late Ch'ing Dynasty through the Republican era and, eventually, to the rule of the KMT on Taiwan.

Berman cites three remarkable aspects of Taiwan's modernization. First, Taiwan offers a bold challenge to the assumption inherent in all major theories of political economy that industrialization leads to income inequality. Indeed, Taiwan has divided the fruits of its labor more evenly than any other non-communist country in the world, in part, because of a successful land reform program.

The second observation is that Taiwan made its "great leap forward" without significant social or political instability. While this is certainly true, it is not particularly remarkable given that two other Asian tigers -- Singapore and Hong Kong -- have also managed to modernize without any major social or political disruptions.

The legalization of a Leninist political opposition is the third notable aspect of Taiwan's experience. Berman holds up the legalization of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the late 1980s as an exception to the rule that one-party regimes are loathe to surrender power. He also touts Taiwan as a possible political and economic miracle, given that no Chinese polity previously tolerated genuine political opposition. Berman asserts that, by breaking free of the "cultural prison" of oriental despotism, Taiwan has become an inspiration to the People's Republic of China as well as to other East Asian states that share Confucian traditions.

The book eventually discusses the media in Taiwan in terms of the second and third observations. But Berman first lays the foundation for that examination by considering the concepts of modernization and individualism. Though these ideas are themselves interesting, Berman does not clearly link them with the role of the media in Taiwan's development.

Berman cites Robert Nisbet, author of History of the Idea of Progress, who considered the notion of progress to be Western civilization's most important idea. Berman then draws on the work of historian John M. Roberts to argue that individualism is also at the center of the Western view of history. Progress, according to Roberts, is based on three propositions: it continues to occur; it is inevitable; and it means greater human happiness and thus should be pursued by government. This Western view of progress sharply contrasts with the Chinese way of thinking, which has often longed for a return to a golden age when the middle kingdom stood at the height of civilization.

Berman argues that the West cherishes Roberts's second element of progress -- individualism -- because it unleashes creative energies in liberal systems of government. Berman again demonstrates that the Chinese perspective differs from that of the West in that the former views individualism as decadent and lacking in a sense of moral duty. In turn, Chinese society views journalism as reinforcing decadence by exalting both the personalities of newsworthy people and the writers themselves. Consequently, the Chinese view has considered journalism to be a questionable activity.

After drawing these theoretical distinctions between the West and China, Berman tours the history of the Chinese press from the late nineteenth century. The origins of the modern Chinese press are usually traced to China's defeat by Japan in 1895, a painful indication that China had declined as a great power and a sign that the nation needed a new order. The Chinese media took this cue: Inspired by the Western model of the media as a vehicle for reform and the exchange of ideas, reformists began to view the media as a means to cultivate political support for an initiative to reverse China's political and economic decline.

K'ang Yu-wei and Liang Ch'i-ch'ao were two reformists who established a model of dissent that would be followed by later generations of Chinese journalists on the mainland and Taiwan. Their publication, the Journal of Current Affairs, was banned by imperial edict in 1898. From Japan, K'ang and Liang then established the Journal of Dispassionate Opinion and other publications that were highly critical of the Ch'ing regime. These periodicals generally dominated the market for reformist and radical thought until Sun Yat-sen's People's Journal appeared in 1905. Echoing the ideas of noted historian Andrew Nathan, Berman contends that Liang's journals were a significant catalyst in the reforms that ultimately brought down the Ch'ing Dynasty in 1911.

The use of the media as a medium of opposition to an existing status quo was continued in Taiwan. According to Berman, a period of total freedom of the media and freedom of expression existed for a short time after the war. During and after a military crackdown in 1947, the government closed half of Taiwan's 20 newspapers and "effectively liquidated" the indigenous Taiwanese social and intellectual elite. For the next 40 years the mainstream media avoided political discussions that overtly clashed with the official position of the KMT.

The KMT established censorship techniques, such as the creation of a state monopoly on newsprint, strict controls on the size of newspapers and mandated ownership of newspapers by loyalists. Berman convincingly argues that over time, despite these strictures, the market-oriented economy fostered a business climate that enabled the press to act as an agent for political change:

It was due to the fact that business goals frequently run counter to

political interests that Taiwan's newspapers maintained a degree

of independence not found in many other authoritarian systems.

The economic interests in a capitalist system may sometimes be the

only force powerful enough to override authoritarian political


The book concludes with a look at Taiwanese opposition magazines which, like similar publications in Europe, became the basis for political movements and organizations that ultimately brought about significant change. Berman illustrates the role of these magazines in affecting the political reforms initiated by Chiang Ching-kuo in 1985. The seminal opposition journal was Free China, originally established by the KMT to serve its own political agenda. Over the years, it became more critical and, by 1960, was the basis of a failed effort to create the China Democratic Party. Similar opposition magazines also played an instrumental part in the 1986 establishment of the Democratic Progressive Party, which was finally legalized in May 1989.

The legal formation of the DPP was a veritable landmark in the political development of Taiwan. In the opinion of this reviewer full democracy will not emerge until the DPP and KMT can compete for votes on an equal basis. An important obstacle to fair elections is KMT control of the electronic media. While political opinion magazines were instrumental in the formation of the DPP, only the electronic media have the ability to reach nearly every Taiwanese household. As in the West, the electronic media are much more immediate and accessible to the general population. KMT control of radio and television gives its candidates an edge during elections and offers the party a tool for dispensing the political patronage that is associated with voting in Taiwan. A pro-KMT bias in the media also impairs the ability of the DPP to advance its agenda in the legislature, since its ideas and proposals are not well-known to the public.

What does the future hold for the role of the media in Taiwan's development? Berman concludes that the inevitable loosening of restrictions on television and radio -- which are more tightly controlled because they are cannot be censored as easily as newspapers -- will certainly bring changes even more profound than those instigated by the print media. If that scenario holds true, Berman's examination of Taiwan's political change through the lens of the media will prove an even more useful framework for description and analysis in the years to come.
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Author:Dalton, Greg
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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