Communication Power and Taiwan's Democratization

William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305
  • Ashley Esarey


In 2010-2011, the "Arab Spring" brought unexpected revolutions to many Middle Eastern and North African countries. Why did these seemingly invincible regimes fall, while China remained durably authoritarian? Many observers credited global media for the political transformations. While the hopes of Arab Spring democracy have proven to be fragile or short-lived, we can effectively explore the relationship between political communication and regime stability by turning our attention to Taiwan’s remarkable democratization, which remains under-appreciated by the international community.

This talk considers political communication in Taiwan from the martial law era to the heady days of democratic activism beginning in the late 1970s and lasting till the 1990s. Professor Esarey argues that the Chiang Ching-kuo administration’s diminishing capacity to control a small but influential opposition (dangwai) media, and even mainstream newspapers, gradually permitted reformers to reframe debates, reset the political agenda, and challenge state narratives and legitimacy claims. 

When viewed in comparative perspective, Taiwan’s successful democratization suggests that seeking regime change is impracticable, and even perilous, without considerable and sustainable media freedom as well as opportunities for the public to advocate, evaluate, and internalize alternative political views. A balance of “communication power” between state and societal actors facilitates a negotiated and peaceful transition from authoritarianism.




Professor Ashley Esarey received his PhD in Political Science from Columbia University and was awarded the An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship by Harvard University. He has held academic appointments at Middlebury College, Whitman College, and the University of Alberta, where he is an instructor in the departments of East Asian Studies and Political Science and a research associate of the China Institute. Esarey has written on democratization and authoritarian resilience, digital media and politics, and information control and propaganda. His recent publications include My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power (with Lu Hsiu-lien) and The Internet in China: Cultural, Political, and Social Dimensions (with Randolph Kluver).


Communication Power and Taiwan's Democratization
Download pdf