Urban Taiwan’s State-Structured Neighborhood Governance: Deepening Democracy, Partisan Civic Engagement, Inverted Class Bias
Benjamin L. Read- Associate Professor of Politics at University of California, Santa Cruz
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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.