On Wednesday, June 11, 2012, ICLP students had the pleasure of not only getting a free lunch of delicious 炸醬麵, but also of listening to Professor Shelley Rigger, Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, and a renowned specialist in the field of Taiwan-U.S. relations. Dr. Rigger's interests in East Asia began during her college years at Princeton University, where she chose to study Chinese, and continued to grow during her graduate school years studying Taiwanese democratization at Harvard University's Department of Government. Unsurprisingly, Professor Rigger has a wealth of first-hand experience in Taiwan upon which to base her expertise. We had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her own background and experiences, as well as her observations on Taiwanese politics, news media, and the Taiwanese diaspora.
Originally intending to research Chinese politics and Chinese Islamic minorities, Rigger found her way back to Taiwan thanks to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the subsequent academic and political fallout. As the government clamped down on her sensitive topic, research became "next to impossible" and Western scholars began to leave China en masse. The situation would eventually improve, "but at that critical moment for me, it seemed like China was closed," she explained. Fortunately for Professor Rigger, she had already spent time in Taiwan, and upon the advice of her colleagues and advisors, she returned to the island to study its recent democratization.
Rigger noted that things changed dramatically between when she first visited Taiwan during her undergraduate years and when she returned for her dissertation research. Past limits on freedom of information broke down as Taiwan democratized, a new political culture sprouted in the aftermath, and she was able to see the difference. "Things changed radically between my first visit [to Taiwan] in 1982 and my dissertation research in 1991. In the summer of 1987 martial law was lifted...everything just kind of fell down at once in '87, and it snowballed from there. By the time I came back in 1991, the political atmosphere was more pluralistic than it is even today. People were saying more radical, more interesting things than they are now...they actually had people campaigning for Taiwan independence in the National Assembly in '91," Rigger said.
The changes have continued - Rigger mentioned that Taiwanese people care much less about politics today than they used to. Living in Taiwan means that she's witnessed first-hand that political science is not necessarily the same as politics on the ground. "Most [Taiwanese] people don't have time to be obsessed with the details of their own political system, so one thing that I am constantly reminded of when I am here is that most of the time, most people are thinking about something else," she explained. "You have to be a little bit humble when making political arguments here because you have to remember that political arguments are contained within a relatively limited sphere of life. "
As Taiwan's political climate underwent a dramatic transformation, media coverage transformed along with it. Rigger had this to say about Taiwanese media's tendency to sidestep important international coverage in favor of localized fluff stories: "It's not so much a strategy as it is laziness and extreme competitiveness. In 1986 there were three TV stations...in 1987, when they lifted martial law, all of those [media restrictions] just kind of came off all at once, and everyone just rushed in, so you had this huge media marketplace...I think what we are seeing going on is a sort of oversaturation of media, and everyone doing kind of the cheapest thing in order to be able to make money."
This tendency to avoid rigorous international coverage surprises Professor Rigger, who feels that a lack of international news may have a negative impact on Taiwanese society, especially in politics. "It has allowed a kind of dangerous trend in politics, which is a kind of unrealistic way of looking at things. People will say, ‘The Americans think this,' but on what basis? It's because they wish that's what Americans thought," Rigger notes. "I think this used to be the case [regarding] mainland China, that people thought they didn't have to worry about the PRC because it's no big deal, and the PRC has remade itself, and inserted itself into life here in Taiwan in a way that can't be ignored." In the final analysis, it appears that the average Taiwanese person may be under-informed, or worse, misinformed about politics - and that these days, he or she really couldn't care less.
So if the average Taiwanese may not care about politics, do overseas Taiwanese care? Does exposure to different media sources and separation from daily life in Taiwan have an impact on the diaspora's view of Taiwanese politics, and if so, what impact? Professor Rigger believes that the diaspora has taken on a curiously divided and polarized character, especially thanks to the information they receive from non-Taiwanese media outlets. "In a weird way, they have more information but they understand things less because they're not here [in Taiwan], so I think the diaspora tends to be really polarized. Those folks have a lot of information but they get it all within their own networks, so they tend to be shocked when they come here by the things people say...but their information is even more skewed than the information people get here in Taiwan."
Despite the skewed information and pervasive polarization, Professor Rigger still believes the Taiwanese diaspora has a significant impact upon Taiwanese politics for several reasons. "One [reason] is that the number of people that come back to vote, while not enough to sway an election, still matters...another is that they donate a lot of money to candidates, and that makes a difference...and a third is that they influence foreign governments." Taken in combination with increasing polarization amongst the diaspora, the last point proves especially tricky for both American policymakers and Taiwan at large. "Taiwanese-Americans have stopped speaking with one voice, so American policymakers have a hard time knowing who to listen to...the Taiwanese-American community used to be a lot more unified, especially during the democratization period, " explains Professor Rigger.
Academic and political changes notwithstanding, it is clear that Professor Rigger's insights are rooted not merely in intellectual research, but also in extensive first-hand understanding of Taiwan and its particular culture and politics. Her research is conducted in Mandarin, and she also speaks some Taiwanese - both of which are skills that allow her a much more thorough and nuanced view of Taiwan itself - so in the end it's to be expected that her expertise is both broad and deep, and that she'll likely have more to say about Taiwan as the island continues to change with the passage of time.
Professor Shelley Rigger has written several books about Taiwan and has spent considerable time living in both China and Taiwan. Her current research studies the effects of cross-strait economic interactions on Taiwan people's perceptions of mainland China.