STEPHANE CORCUFF - French Center for the Study of Contemporary China in Taipei (CEFC)

Dr. Corcuff is an associate professor of political science at Lyon University, (Institute of Political Studies), researcher at the French Center for the Study of Contemporary China and director of its Taipei office. Specialized on identity politics and the geopolitics of Taiwan, his interests include also Taiwan-China relations over 400 years, interpreting this relation in terms of a “geopolitical liminality”, a concept that encompasses geopolitics, history, ethnicity politics and national identity issues dimensions of the question. He is the author of the two books 風和日暖。臺灣外省人與國家認同的轉變 (Light wind, warm sun. Taiwan’s Mainlanders and the national identity transition, 2004) and 中華鄰國。臺灣閾境性 (Neighbour of China. The liminality of Taiwan, 2011).


Q: As a specialist of Taiwan and more generally the “Greater Chinese-speaking World” (Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taipei), do you believe this region of the Globe is living through a transition and if so, how would you define it?

To answer this question, I first need to specify some important contextual elements.

The very first point is that the Taiwanese and the Chinese societies are distinct and quite different. These two societies are at different stages on different development paths. Productivism is mostly a thing of the past in Taiwan, though not completely over. On the other hand, China is still very much in the middle of that process.

These two societies differ much with regard to their level of openness (in the sense of George Soros’ Open Society notion). There exist a great number of restrictions and taboos in China because of its political regime but also its nationalism and its earlier development stage. This means that China’s productivist and industrial development is an objective shared by many levels of society, from the popular base to the very top of the Party, only questioned by some small environmental organisations.

In Taiwan, the situation is very different. Because of the island’s relatively small size and limited natural resources – there are no mineral resources, no petrol, no radioactive materials to mine, which make the country very energy dependant on other nations - resource management has been an issue for many years now. This can be illustrated by the energy debate in the country. Taiwan has 3 nuclear power plants - one of which has absolutely to close soon - and the opening of a fourth has been suspended following popular pressure, even though the State had already spent huge sums over a 20-year period in preparation for such a project. However, even if environmental concerns are important in Taiwan, the country’s ability to transition to another development model remains slow. What surprises me for instance is that there seem to be no geothermal policy in Taiwan yet (except of a timid attempt just starting in Hualien), while Taiwan, due to its physical geography, is basically sitting on a natural cauldron.

This being said, the civil society in Taiwan is particularly active and benefits from the country’s unrivalled level of IT adoption and use. Through these groups, many proposals for new development models are generated. One interesting example is bamboo. During Taiwan’s history, bamboo was used extensively, in many different ways, from food to construction, for furniture and many everyday products, or to create weapons. The recently established (2013) Taiwan Bamboo Society (社團法人臺灣竹會), an active member of the World Bamboo Organization, is thinking of how to rejuvenate the use of bamboo as a material, and reflects on alternative ways to construct buildings, solid in time of earthquakes and ventilated in a tropic zone. Yet, for legal reasons, it is forbidden in modern Taiwan as a construction material for security reasons. The key would be to convince politicians, but that is where the developmental macrostructure remains influential:  bridges and stadiums made of concrete are far more significant where local politicians seeking re-election show their achievements in office than a museum or a school constructed ecologically in bamboo would be… and they enable far more financial dealings.

On the other side, it is virtually impossible in today’s Taiwan for any new large development project to not be scrutinised for its environmental impact. The island is too small and most of its useable space has already been transformed for human use. NGOs are everywhere and it is increasingly difficult to build polluting industries in Taiwan.

It is a recurrent point in electoral debates but, as of yet, the dream of a Green Silicon Valley has not (yet) truly materialized.

Q: Within this context, industrial jobs still represent a third of Taiwanese GDP and as you mentioned, the country has a strong proclivity for technology. Is the automation of jobs and the potential short term increase in unemployment discussed at all within the country?

Not in the slightest. Taiwan counts 23M inhabitants of which 9,4M are corporate employees. If you take into account their families, you realise that most of the population is highly dependent on a traditional form of work. From what I know, I do not see automation and its implications in terms of employment as being part of the national debate yet, which as you can see could be a real issue for the country.


Q: You were talking previously about an environmental consciousness in Taiwan. I may be bias because of the area I have chosen to stay in within Taipei[1], but I get the feeling that consumerism is still very present in East Asia (China and Hong Kong included), in particular among young people, and have not seen many signs of the minimal or simple living trends that are starting in the West. Am I right to believe this?

Few young people seem aware of the implication of their consumer-driven way of life on the sustainability of the planet’s development. There is little discussion on the topic or initiatives against this reality. The number of organic shops is growing fast but I feel that has much more to do with health and food concerns (after a series of scandals) than a support for a sustainable development. This, I feel, is true across all of Asia. But is it so different in Europe?

On the production side, organic farmers seem to have a different mind-set. Their thinking is very much driven by ecological, moral and ethical considerations. At least, that is how I see it in the farms (tea, poultry, rice etc.) that I have been able to visit.


Q: There seems to be streak of populism and maybe isolationism in the West, maybe even an erosion of our democratic processes. Taiwan and Hong Kong (where I was last week) seem to be living through an opposite pro-democracy current. What is your opinion of these differences?

I don’t believe the West is closing in on itself. I have lived back and forth between Asia and Europe for the last 25 years and I would argue against the idea that Europe is living through a period of xenophobic withdrawal on the global stage. Europe still sticks to its values of openness, but struggles with the figures its has to deal with, and the radical difference it has to face. On the contrary, no East Asian society is truly an immigration society yet, and cases of racism, obvious or discreet, popular or institutional, are everywhere. Cultural and ethnic difference is much more accepted in Europe than in Asia. There seems no place in Asia where a white or a black man can become accepted as a national by people. Even though he fulfils the legal requirement to become a citizen, speaks the language perfectly, has married a local, and settled there, the skin colour will still be, at this stage in Asia, a real barrier. On the contrary in Europe, racism is receding over the last century. Some racist people exist all around, but it is not conceptually impossible for people to accept the idea that a Black or an Asian, after integrating, can become a real citizen.

Europe has been open to the rest of the world for a very long time and for three major reasons. First of all, for its own economic development. Let’s be honest, Europe needed a strong labour force that would not come solely from its population. Secondly, to atone for its colonial past. And thirdly, Europeans have strong Judaeo-Christian morals which if not commiseration, forces them to have some empathy with those who are trying to immigrate there. Even when immigrants are not treated well in European countries, at least, it leads to public debate, which is not the case everywhere else in the world.

Since the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust however, European nations - chief among them France - have considered very sensitive any discussion on national identity. It is an anomaly in a healthy democratic debate within a Nation State, since every Nation State needs to decide on its borders, on who are its citizens, on what it is its commonalities among them – factors of collective identification. Borders are healthy institutions when they are conceived and practiced as borders of contacts and exchange, and not as walls of course, as a border is not a way to close a country off from the exterior. Borders define tax bases, among others, and taxes are what make public services possible. The paradox is that many who criticize borders (on disputable philosophical premises such as “humanity is one and should not be divided by borders”) are often the same who ask for larger state intervention. But how could a nation-state organize itself without defining borders for its national community?

By refusing this debate, when a crisis arises - such as the current refugee crisis from the Middle East - these countries find themselves intellectually destitute. What we are seeing today in Europe is not isolationism. It is an emotional and unprepared reaction because of decades of intellectual vacuity on the topic of nationality.

Furthermore, as Tocqueville noted, Populism might be inherent to Democracy. Since our democracies no longer have their initial ideological vigour given to them by the despotic powers they were fighting, they have become monotonous and more prone to populism. Our representative democracies were created in a way to be shielded from populism by taking away real power from eligible voters. One of the main difference between popular sovereignty and national sovereignty is here: the second operates a shift away from the people, but still qualifies as different from the former king’s sovereignty by the introduction of popular vote.

Unfortunately, our democracies, confronted from the very beginning to complex issues, have almost always failed in educating people enough to the complexity of decisions on which they have to select candidates, such as the economy, the constitutional form of power, military issues, and so many. Democratic people mostly have not yet been, and will probably never be been given enough intellectual means to hold well-informed and balanced discussions about complex decisions. In consequence, the response is chosen with affects, party alignment, ideology.

So yes, democracy today is threatened by populism: as any issue has become terribly technical and complex, and as people’s attention drifts away from boring issues, attracted by the entertainment society, populism is now bubbling up to the surface.

As for Hong Kong, the democratic movement is also a proto-national movement, as it seeks to protect Hong Kong from China’s encroachment. It is true that actual militants of HK’s independence are few, yet most people in Hong Kong do believe that they constitute a different polity and society from China’s, and, for most, that is why they came, or why their parents came. So, in a way, a pro-democracy and a national movement are converging there.

 The democratic movement is hard-pressed to succeed against China, but had it remained solely democratic, as it has been since 20 years, it might not have got a broader base of support. With the Umbrella movement, the emergence of a Hong Kong national dimension has been clear, and might add stimulus to the movement. What I believe is that Hong Kong could show Europe that democracies can embrace the national debate and reinforce by the same token the reform of democracy and the invention of new democratic tools for the national polity.

I would like now to return to an idea I believe it is useful to consider, and to debate, since it is only a proposition: Europe might have never been democratic yet, not to mention in some other parts of the world where the culture of public debate is not as important as in Europe.

Various democratic models that exist are procedural democracies, ensuring the fairness of selection of candidates to power and of the elections, the definition of the electorate, how powers are organized and limited by responsibilities and recall, how to implement a due process of law and the regular extension of civil and human rights etc. Yet, unfortunately, democracies stopped short of educating all citizens beyond writing, counting plus a professional training, and it is all but normal that it is hard for all to be able to think and decide about complex national issues: there are many, they are urgent, they are terribly technical, their moral or value-based stakes are considerable. We always quote the education project of the Third Republic in France, yet it was already dealing with immensely complex issues (colonialism, the separation between the Church-State, the 20s economical and social crisis, …) which a normal citizen cannot understand easily. However, we have to vote, and we mandate our representatives, whom we all know are extremely busy, to understand such issues and make the right decisions for us. How we can simply trust them is one issue and how we can blame them all the time, while it is actually so comfortable to just not to do the job by ourselves, is another one.

We could recognize that we live in procedural democracies, that would be honest, and we’d go further deepening our democratic systems. But most of the time, we don’t, and therefore, we fail to face the real problems of democracies. I do not believe the corruption of politicians is the most important factor that produces low voting rates, I believe it is the unsubstantiated power attached to the ballot. This paves the way for other forms of mobilization, which are detrimental to the democratic polity.

Populism, often presented as being exemplified by the Brexit, the election of Trump, the rise of right-wing parties (but rarely presented as equally exemplified by leftist populism) may not herald the end of democracies, and on the contrary, may announce, if we seize this opportunity of democratic crisis, the beginning of a new phase of democracy, with the help of a better civic education and the new technologies of information and communication, a phase in which public debates will have be returned to citizens who will question experts and not need to go through representatives for each issue. But the challenge is immense, as we could also see a process of fragmentation of political decisions, made by and based on emotions, which the NTICs are also well-known to channel.


Q: Would you say that with such movements and tools as or vTaiwan, Taiwan can be a model for western democracies?

Some in Taiwan start to make use of NTICs as media for public debate. However, the Kuomintang (KMT) in power virtually continuously for 70 years, left a tragic situation in the country which may hinder this development. Because of the party’s monopoly of power and thought, there has been very little public debate and an impossibility to propose alternatives on all sorts of issues, from energy to labour unions and national education, etc. Taiwan’s civil society – much more so than the conservative Middle Class – got sick of this, and helped the public realize that it was urgent to vote the KMT out of power, but this explains why the new President, Tsai Ing-wen, was so popular on her inauguration day – almost 70% of support – and why her popularity declined sharply and steadily during the following months while she spared no time on urgent and courageous reforms.

Many observers still confusingly imagine that Tsai Ing-wen was elected because people agreed with her values, but I believe that she was elected first and foremost, because people were sick of the Chinese KMT’s rule on Taiwan. People finally realized to what extent that party’s nepotism, corruption, non-democratic practices and pro-China stance were detrimental to Taiwan. But once Tsai started to deconstruct what the Chinese KMT had done, as an everyday-populism to win votes and compensate its historical lack of legitimacy on Taiwan, the first reaction of most people were shock and anger, having difficulties to realize the real face of the KMT’s day-to-day populism, hidden in the details.

In transiting toward a new model of democracy, reinforcing the public debate through democracy, Taiwan is hindered by the fact that the techno-savvy youth, is too impatient to use the old media (printed or the TV), which are in their eyes all too conservative and unable to provide with balanced and fair information, which is true in great part, but in great part only. Staying on platforms and apps slows the process of what could otherwise be a democratic reform by the youth, and there needs to be bridges between generations separated by two models of democracy and two models of communication.

Still, if the transition to a new model seems still far away, many initiatives are launched, news apps tested, and in this realm Taiwan is very connected to alike movements elsewhere in the world, movements who congressed last year in Taiwan to discuss e-gov, citizen watching (popular monitoring), civic hacking and so on.


Q: Your description of the global state of Democracy is not very optimistic: The West has an incomplete democratic system which is reinforcing populism and the East which is doing interesting new things doesn’t have the maturity or necessary practice of democracy to pull it off. It is all pretty bleak, no?

The difficulties are everywhere the same regardless of the democratic country: direct and universal democracy is impossible but representative democracy has its own issues as I explained. The two questions are:

·         How to channel people’s will to the governing group?

·         How to inform people of issues, including difficult decisions that need to be made?

The only truly democratic country we know might be Switzerland and its “votation” system, with no centralized power. Nobody can tell you “in Switzerland, Mr or Ms. X is in power”, as we would say with other countries, T. May is Britain’s PM, Xi Jinping rose to supreme power in 2013, Hollande decided to not run for a second mandate, etc. The Swiss system isn’t perfect, but it seems closer to true democracy.

As important as experiments on Basic/Universal Income or on new sustainable economic models, what we urgently need are experimentations in new forms of public governance, with the help of new technologies and civic hackers who are entering the public governance arena with democratic values. As Taiwan’s illustrious Audrey Tang states it, technology without morals can be evil, and civic hacking can help rejuvenate the democratic system.


Q: Direct Democracy has become a new buzz-word in recent years, but do you think it is because we now have the technology to maybe make it a reality or is there another deeper reason?

People in Europe, started talking about the end of democracies or the post-democracies before these technologies existed. Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet, a French constitutional expert, raised in 2005 the issue of “post-democracy”. The idea, hence, is not new, but 12 years ago, nobody could imagine using algorithms to redesign democracy. So historically, there is an answer to your question but really both aspect – ideas on one side and technology on the other – are driving each other on this topic.

To make this debate further complex, I would like to link democracies and authoritarianism, such as the very non-appealing Chinese political system. Let me be very clear, to avoid misunderstanding: I consider this form of regime as despicable, whether we see it from the angle of human dignity, Chinese culture, environmental protection, the Tibetan nation (and so many others within PRC boundaries), and so on and so forth.  Yet, both their system and ours, though extremely different, converge on several points, occasionally or in niches of power structuration. If our system is democratic, elected officials, state propaganda, bureaucracies, all lie regularly to the people and feed the press with information that is prepared by spin doctors. The horrendous technicalities behind almost any issue today makes it impossible for democratically elected administrations to be fully transparent and efficient at the same time. On the other side, the Chinese system might have, or used to have, small elements of democracy, with the election, for instance, of community leaders on a local urban scale. The Chinese political elite, higher CCP officials, is divided into various factions within it. This certainly doesn’t account for democratic party changes, and these cliques are not opposed to each other only on how to manage the country, but also along the lines of alignments on mentors. Regular power change within the party has been institutionalized now (every ten year). This is different from our situation in the West, yet we should compare this with party change made, over the long term of two or three decades, among the same political clique?

In the end, I admit it easily, elements in the Chinese system of what we call “democracy” are extremely rare and can be discussed case-by-case. But when we realize that we have elements of undemocratic procedures in ours, it helps us to reform our system. In the end, what makes the real difference is perhaps the democratic values: whether we all (elected officials, eligible voters) believe in democracy or not. In China, it is absolutely clear that CPP officials, from top to bottom, are convinced that power isn’t to be shared, because it’s too delicate and complex to put it into popular hands.

Another interesting parallel is that the Chinese system seems to be at its breaking point, and nobody can find a way to reform it without everything going to pieces; yet it remains virtually unchanged, compared to the sea changes experienced by the society, the economy, the environment, the Chinese culture, etc. Europe has a similar issue. Everyone knows that our democracies need to change but nobody knows how to do so. Totalitarianism and Democracies have one similar piece of DNA : they both prevent the system to imagine a system beyond it. Is there something after democracy? How do we enter into this unknown world? The techno-savvy civic society in Taiwan and different parts of the world is exploring interesting paths.


Q: So, our representative democracies are stuck because they do not allow to think beyond that system of governance and that is the main issue blocking the true democracy you describe. If we do somehow, won’t your True Democracy be the same? Won’t it stop us from moving forward to the next model of governance? What comes after True Democracy? A perfectly educated Anarchy?

I am not in favour of anarchy and will probably never be, but yes, I see your point. I believe we were morally right to think Democracy was the final and ultimate system of governance. What we have failed to see is that what we call Democracy isn’t good enough. We need to continue to move towards a deepened democracy that is still capable of efficiency and of taking the right decisions, how hard they are, when they need to be taken.


[1] Ximending has been called the "Harajuku of Taipei" and the "Shibuya of Taipei”. This area is in the northeastern part of Wanhua District in Taipei and it is also the most important consumer district in the Western District of Taipei.