|In Her New Book, Professor Rigger Presents the Case for "Why Taiwan Matters"
September 27, 2011
By Emily Matras ‘12
Ask political scientists whether the island of Taiwan "matters" and they'll most likely answer with a resounding "Yes." But chances are they'll frame Taiwan's importance in terms of American or Chinese interests.
In her new book, Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, Brown Professor of East Asian Politics Shelley Rigger provides a more nuanced take on the country. "I illustrate how Taiwan is a not a means to an end, but an end in itself," she said.
In the book, Rigger traces Taiwan's political, economic, and social history and highlights how the small island just 80 miles off the Chinese coast has accomplished feats that other countries would love to emulate. "Taiwan had pressure and encouragement to become democratic," said Rigger, "but its democratic transition was accomplished peacefully and with minimal U.S. interference."
This impressive political transition came after the economic miracles of the ‘50s, 60's, and 70's when Taiwan industrialized and became an export powerhouse with relatively little social disruption. As Rigger writes in her book, "Taiwan proves that a determined nation can attain democracy, freedom, and prosperity peacefully."
Why Taiwan Matters is not the first book Rigger has written on the country, but it is the first she's penned for a general audience. "I've written two academic books before and gave copies to my parents," said Rigger. "My mom made it most of the way through the first book, but I'm pretty sure my dad didn't make it through either," she joked. "I approached this project with the intention to write a book that my parents would enjoy."
Rigger kept her mother in mind for the entire writing process. "She's an intelligent person who cares about the world, but she's not a political scientist. That's exactly who I wanted to write for," Rigger said.
Adamant that Americans should be familiar with Taiwanese issues ("Taiwan keeps popping up on the front page of papers," she says), Rigger offers a comprehensive view of the country, covering politics, business, economics, and social life. But she has also kept the book engaging by including colorful descriptions of events and snippets about daily life. It is also peppered with beautiful photographs taken by her husband, David Boraks, including the cover shot of Taiwan's tallest tower, Taipei 101. Boraks, a journalist and photographer, operates Davidsonnews.net, a local news website for the town of Davidson.
Rigger developed the idea for the book six years ago, when she spent a sabbatical semester in Taiwan. Although she was writing about it then for fellow academicians, she realized that she knew enough about the country to articulate its story for general audiences. During the 2008-09 school year, Rigger wrote the introduction and first chapter of Why Taiwan Matters, offering a contemporary picture of Taiwanese society. She sent that introductory material off to a publisher and soon had a contract. She employed a Davidson student as a research assistant for chapters on economics and business, but work on the book slowed during the school year.
Last summer, however, Rigger led the Davidson in Washington summer program in political science, and was able to finish the book during that time. "That summer I lived like a monk," she recalled. "I would get up at seven and write until I had to teach an evening seminar, or until it was time to go to bed. I worked nonstop for those eight weeks."
|Rigger poses with Chen Chu, mayor of Kaohsiung City in Taiwan.
Although she's always had a "perverse childhood fascination" with things Asian, she only discovered the topic that has become the focus of her life as a scholar in an undergraduate classroom at Princeton University, when she was assigned to write a paper on the history of Taiwan. "I was intrigued to find that after 1945, there was no mention of Taiwanese Aboriginal people, who make up about two percent of the island's population," said Rigger. "I wanted to find out what happened to them, so I ended up writing my senior thesis on Taiwanese policy toward the Aboriginal people."
She received a grant from Princeton to visit Taiwan, and the hospitality of the people and beauty of the country left a deep impression.
Fast forward to Rigger's second year of graduate school at Harvard. It was 1989, and the Tiananmen Square crisis splashed across the front page of newspapers worldwide. Rigger realized then that her idea of writing a dissertation on ethnic minorities in China would be difficult to pursue. "Scholars were boycotting China, and no one knew how long that would continue. I needed another dissertation topic," said Rigger.
A professor suggested writing on the recent democratization process in Taiwan. "I already knew the country and had contacts there, so I had a choice to make," said Rigger. "Either I could get my dissertation done fast and tell a happy story, or I could struggle with China for years. I chose the happy story."
Rigger, who has been at Davidson since 1993, frequently offers courses on comparative politics and the rise of new democracies, and has also focused on first-year teaching in the last decade. As Brown Professor of East Asian Politics, however, Rigger often teaches three Asian-focused courses a year, and says that learning about the economic and social side of Taiwan for the book has added texture to her teaching. "Expanding my knowledge of Taiwan has enabled me to speak about Taiwanese politics in a more interesting and comprehensive way," she said.
Why Taiwan Matters is available through the publisher's website, or through amazon.com.
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