Reviews

Bringing Political Science to the Taiwanese Masses5 min read

Lev Nachman talks to Yen Wei-ting, founder and contributor to the blog and book, “Who Governs?”

菜市場政治學 – literally “Food Market Political Science,” or its official English name “Who Governs?” is a blog and a book that translates ivory-tower political science concepts into easy, understandable language for a Taiwanese audience. Originally, the blog was started by professor Yen Wei-Ting who, at the time of the blogs’ founding, was a graduate student. 

“At traditional markets, you learn what is supplied by all the different vendors, but you also learn how to demand; you learn to haggle. After a lot of haggling you eventually reach a price. The process of negotiating for products and settling on a price – that’s politics. Obviously, you can just go buy a good without knowing how it happened, but it doesn’t hurt to know how the haggling process works. Personally, I’d rather know how so that I can have a say in how much I pay. I think the whole purpose of democracy is to open up that process so people can contribute, or at least understand how to contribute. Its every citizens right to choose whether or not to engage, but you are going to be impacted by the process regardless.” 

Yen’s desire to start such a blog was inspired by the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the largest social movement in Taiwan’s history. After years of growing discontent with the then ruling party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), thousands protested around the island over a controversial trade bill with China the KMT passed through dubious means. “During the Sunflower Movement so many of us Taiwanese students abroad wanted to help, or at least feel like we were contributing, but really we could only do so much. I was frustrated, both by being in America and by what the movement was facing. I wrote two blog posts that tried to use political science tools to analyze what was happening – who the activists were, why Taiwan and China were in contention with each other, what a politically charged trade bill means, etc. I published the two pieces on my blog and was surprised at the reception – people actually read them! I realized that there was an actual demand for analytical writing on contemporary politics, but there was not really an outlet to publish such pieces. In English you have Monkey Cage at the Washington Post, but in Taiwan we had nothing – so I started a page.” 

Since its inception, the blog has grown to become an incredibly popular website for Taiwanese to learn about political puzzles and social science, explained to them in accessible language. “The whole project is about promoting political science knowledge in plain language. To promote political science we want to facilitate more evidence-based discussion in society, so we don’t publish opinion pieces, all the pieces published in “Who Governs?” have to be based on empirical evidence. Our target audience is high school and college students – people who are still forming their political ideals. Our most popular piece is actually a recent post about fake news and how prevalent it is in Taiwan. According to our analytics it was shared 4,500 times and reached over 500,000 people.” 

The blog staff has fluctuated over the years, but today is run by nine people, seven Taiwanese political scientists and two Taiwanese NGO workers. “We all have our specialties, but we try to recruit more people based off what we do not have. For example we wanted someone who could write on transitional justice, something none of us happen to specialize in. We are always looking for more people interested in contributing.”  

As the 2018 midterm election approached, the team was approached about a book deal. “The other social science blogs, such as “Guava Anthropology” (芭樂人類學) or “Street Corner Sociology” (港仔口社會學) had been published and seeing their positive experience we were excited about the opportunity. Most of the pieces in the book are blog posts with a few new additions. The goal was to write a book specifically about elections and democratic institutions, which was easy for us to do.”  

菜市場政治學:選舉專號

The book itself reads like a more accessible political science textbook. Seven sections are broken up by subjects often taught in the political science subfield of comparative politics. Each section is made up of short chapters, some ranging from 5-10 pages depending on the subject. For example, one section covers electoral systems and is made up of eight short chapters ranging from different electoral rules to gender equality in elections. Other sections include political parties, public opinion, political participation, and a final section on the “China Factor” (中國因素). In line with their mission, the short chapters are about blog post length in order to make these complex subjects easily understandable. Some subjects do require a bit more jargon than others, for example some chapters in the require some discussion of how to read statistics and understand independent and dependent variables.  

“Who Governs?” is a valuable book to read for anyone who follows Taiwanese politics, not just because we could all use a refresher on political science 101, but because we can learn and relearn these concepts from a Taiwanese perspective. Although Taiwanese politics in English speaking media relies sometimes too heavily on non-Taiwanese voices, its important to remember that there is an entire world of political commentary and discourse created by Taiwanese social scientists – its just written in Mandarin. 菜市場政治學 and the other social science blogs show Taiwan has a high demand for social science knowledge and these scholars are all working hard to fill demand. We could all benefit from spending more time reading how politics is discussed in a Taiwanese context by looking to “Who Governs” both as a resource for gaining new knowledge and for contextualizing Taiwan into our existing knowledge. 

Lev Nachmann

Lev Nachman is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the relationship between social movements and political parties, with a special regional interest in Taiwan and Hong Kong.