On behalf of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region and its National Security Task Force the Hoover Institution invites you to Narratives of Civic Duty and Taiwan’s Democratic Trajectory on Thursday, January 26, 2023 from 12:30 - 1:45 pm PT. To attend, register at the event page.
In her newly-published book Narratives of Civic Duty: How National Stories Shape Democracy in Asia, Aram Hur investigates the impulse behind a sense of civic duty in democracies. Why do some citizens feel a responsibility to vote, pay taxes, or take up arms for one's country? Civic duty is typically seen as the result of culture or character. Rather, Hur finds that it emerges from a force long seen as detrimental to democracy: strong national attachments. National stories—the folklore of the national people—embed relational legacies with the state that can harness, stunt, or even subvert the nation’s powerful pull toward civic duty. The talk focuses on the case of Taiwan and how its diverse national stories have shaped its democratic past and future.
Aram Hur is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on nationalism and democracy in East Asia, with special attention to issues of identity change, integration, and democratic support in the Korean peninsula and Taiwan. She is the 2021 Korea Society Sherman Emerging Scholar and a 2018-19 CSIS U.S.-Korea NextGen Scholar. She is the author of Narratives of Civic Duty: How National Stories Shape Democracy in Asia(Cornell University Press, 2022). She holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton University, MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School, and BA with honors from Stanford University.
In an editorial that came out on December 9 in Taiwan's United Daily News, former President Ma Ying-jeou called Taiwan an "illiberal democracy," blamed President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP for taking actions that undermine freedom and the rule of law, and laid out a long list of complaints. (English version here).
Before I get into the rest of this, let me just say up front: no, Taiwan is not an illiberal democracy. It's as liberal, robust, and resilient as any of the Third Wave cases, and it's made major strides over the last 20 years in addressing some of its remaining democratic shortcomings, from strengthening the rights of criminal defendants to reducing the prevalence of vote-buying in elections. Ma has been hammering away at this theme for at least three years now (for instance, see here, here, here, and here), but his evidence of a DPP turn toward illiberalism in Taiwan has always been exceptionally weak, and until now I've considered this claim to be partisan political rhetoric intended solely for a domestic audience and not worth taking seriously.
Taiwan at the Summit for Democracy
But this time is different. The Biden administration just hosted its Summit for Democracy, which has helped intensify an international debate about what democracy is, how it should be strengthened, and which countries are falling short of the democratic ideal. Taiwan got invited to the summit, and a Taiwan official, Audrey Tang, was given a prime speaking slot to talk about digital democracy. (Beijing of course did not get invited and is pretty salty about the whole thing.) The timing of this op-ed, and the fact that Ma's office has translated it into English, suggests he really does want to tap into this debate and attract the attention of a foreign audience.
In that context, Ma's latest piece really sticks in my craw. He's asserting that the DPP government has "abandoned 'democracy' in favor of 'illiberal democracy'" and isn't a "worthy participant" in the Summit for Democracy. And yet, by most comparative measures, Taiwan's democracy is at or near the best shape it ever has been in. It has a freewheeling media ecosystem with many outlets that are highly critical of the government, frequent public demonstrations, broad protection for academic freedom and speech, and a judiciary that is far more independent of partisan politics than those in Korea, Malaysia, or Singapore. The Tsai Ing-wen administration's behavior in office is worlds apart from the illiberal tendencies of governments in Hungary or Turkey or the Philippines: nobody in Taiwan is shutting down universities or imprisoning journalists or murdering civil society activists, and that's something to celebrate, not pick at.
I have a lot of respect for former president Ma, and I think a lot of what he accomplished during his presidency is undervalued or under-appreciated. He was certainly subject to a lot of accusations that he was destroying democracy in Taiwan, too--also mostly unwarranted. But I think he's pretty off base here. And it's rather disappointing that he's chosen to stay involved in partisan politics like this after leaving office, rather than playing a post-partisan, elder statesman role.
For those interested in a more detailed rebuttal, hit the jump.
I am a political scientist with research interests in democratization, elections and election management, parties and party system development, one-party dominance, and the links between domestic politics and external security issues. My regional expertise is in East Asia, with special focus on Taiwan.