Taiwan's system of neighborhood-level governance has origins in institutions of local control employed by both the Republican-era Kuomintang and the Japanese colonizers. In more recent times, the neighborhood wardens (lizhang, 里長) have come to play a complex set of roles, including state agent, political party operative, and community representative. Wardens of a new generation, with more women in their ranks than ever before, have adopted new practices and built different relationships with their communities, parties, and city governments compared to those of the older, often clan-based bosses.
Focusing on Taipei with glances at other locales, this paper draws on ethnographic research, interviews, surveys, public records, and other sources. It explores the particular kind of political and civic engagement that the neighborhood governance system elicits. It is statist; though independent in many respects, wardens have government-mandated duties and work closely with city and district officials. Community development associations (shequ fazhan xiehui), as well as other neighborhood groups and wardens themselves, compete for and receive government funding. Warden elections are also deeply democratic in ways that, in global perspective, are unusual for such ultra-local urban offices. Over the past 25 years, elections have become hotly contested, voter turnout has risen to remarkably high rates, and KMT dominance has partially given way to political pluralization. Citizens’ participation in this setting, like others, often shows deep divisions along partisan lines, with wardens and local associations split by party loyalties. Finally, civic engagement with the neighborhood system shows an inverted class bias. Residents with less education, for example, are more likely to know their wardens and vote in warden elections. Politics in Taiwan’s li thus has evolved substantially over time, and also contrasts in multiple ways with Western images of neighborhood politics.
Benjamin L. Read is an Associate Professor of Politics at UC Santa Cruz. His book, Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei (Stanford University Press, 2012) uses surveys, interviews, and participant observation to compare the ways in which constituents perceive and interact with the urban administrative structures found in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in the region. He edited Local Organizations and Urban Governance in East and Southeast Asia: Straddling State and Society (Routledge, 2009), also on the role of state-sponsored organizations, and has published research on civil society groups as well, particularly China's nascent homeowner associations. Read's next book, Field Research in Political Science: Practices and Principles, co-authored with Diana Kapiszewski and Lauren Morris MacLean, will be published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Comparative Political Studies, the China Journal, the China Quarterly, the Washington Quarterly, and several edited books. He earned his Ph.D. in Government at Harvard University in 2003.