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.
How Democratic Is Taiwan?: The Comparative Data
- Freedom House in 2021 rated Taiwan "free," with an overall score of 94/100--its highest rating in the history of FH, and the second-highest in Asia behind only Japan (96/100).
- The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)'s latest democracy rankings upgraded Taiwan to an overall score of 8.94/10, highest in Asia and higher for the first time than Japan (8.13) and South Korea (8.01).
- The Bertelsmann Transformation Index has Taiwan ranked 3rd among all 137 countries it evaluates on "political transformation," with a score of 9.55/10. BTI excludes the developed democracies of western Europe and North America but includes all the third wave cases; among those only Estonia and Uruguay score higher.
- The Varieties of Democracy project's Liberal Democracy Index has Taiwan scored at 0.72/1, virtually identical to Japan (0.73) and slightly under South Korea (0.79).
If the DPP government is responsible for an increasingly illiberal wind blowing in Taiwan, none of the international indices are picking it up.
1. On January 5, 2018, Professor Kuan Chung-ming was elected as the President of National Taiwan University, but the Ministry of Education ignored the legitimacy of the election and violated the "University Act" by denying his eligibility. It took more than a year for Professor Kuan to finally be appointed.
The missing context here, for those who don't follow Taiwan politics closely, is that the NTU election itself was controversial because of an apparent conflict of interest of one of the electors, along with Kuan's KMT affiliation and previous service in the Ma administration. Kuan's (mostly pan-green) opponents at the school then dug up some other accusations against him, including plagiarism charges, violation of a rule against teaching in the PRC, and writing paid columns for a media outlet while he was a government minister. The MoE refused to approve his appointment until those questions were addressed. Kuan was ultimately cleared of the plagiarism accusations, and the issue was finally resolved when the Minister of Education, Yeh Jiunn-rong, himself an NTU professor on leave and former colleague of Kuan's, threw himself on his sword by appointing Kuan president and then immediately resigning. Kuan is still president of NTU today. If this was a strike against academic freedom, as Ma claims, it was ultimately beaten back.
(As a US-trained academic, I find the Taiwanese system of faculty directly electing the university president a bit bewildering, given how vicious and petty academic politics can be, but that's beside the point.)
2. On September 12, 2018, media reports revealed that Chang Tien-chin, the deputy chairman of the Transitional Justice Commission regarded the Commission as a sort of "Dong Chang (a secret police agency in ancient China)" and used "transitional justice" as a tool to attack Hou Yu-ih, the KMT candidate for mayor of New Taipei City.
This comment was clearly inappropriate, and Chang Tien-chin quickly resigned after it became public. The TJC hasn't actually gone after Hou You-yi at all, and he remains one of the most popular mayors in Taiwan at the moment.
3. On June 17, 2019, the DDP [sic] caucus in the Legislative Yuan amended the "Referendum Act" at President Tsai’s request to do away with the previous practice of holding referendums on the same days as general elections. The amended act mandated that referendums would instead be held on the fourth Saturday of August every two years. It is perfectly obvious that this change will reduce voter participation in referendums.
The reason the DPP changed the Referendum Act is because holding it concurrently with other elections in 2018 resulted in a lot of confusion and long lines to vote. There's a good administrative reason to separate them. It's also worth remembering here that the DPP used to be the party pushing for holding referendums concurrently with other elections, to juice up their turnout, and the KMT was opposed.
4. On December 19, 2019, Su Hung-dah, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University, criticized the government's cultural policy. The Taipei City Police Department then called him in for questioning regarding a possible violation of the "Social Order Maintenance Act." He was interrogated for several hours at a police station.
Clearly inappropriate action by the Taipei city police, in hindsight. But context, again: this was the month before the 2020 president election, when there was deep fear of a surge in CCP-backed disinformation flooding Taiwanese media. This case ended up being exceptional, rather than the start of a crackdown on free speech. This long piece by Nick Aspinwall does an excellent job of describing the challenges of responding to false charges during this period.
5. On August 28, 2020, President Tsai, acting without discussion with the Executive Yuan or the Legislative Yuan, unilaterally announced a decision to allow the import of highly controversial American ractopamine pork (including offal).
Now this is rather silly coming from Ma, who did the same thing in 2009 when he was president. The difference with Tsai? Ma's own KMT caucus overruled him, joining the DPP to overturn Ma's executive order and impose a ban on ractopamine-fed beef imports. Tsai has a better handle on her own party caucus and has kept them in line behind her decision (though it hasn't been easy.) There's lots of hypocrisy in both parties on the ractopamine issue. But the bottom line is, in a representative democracy leaders sometimes have to make tough choices that go against public opinion. That's not anti-democratic, or illiberal. The voters will get their chance to weigh in soon enough.
6. On December 11, 2020, President Tsai shut down CTi News, which was the first time that a Taiwanese TV news station had ever been shut down by the government in history.
It's more accurate to say the National Communication Commission (NCC) made this decision, not Tsai Ing-wen herself. The NCC is supposed to operate as an independent commission, though its members are appointed by the president. I have mixed feelings about this action, which we explored in a Hoover event last March. But it is clearly defensible. I noted in that post that (1) CtiTV had some serious ethical problems and had been linked to the CCP's United Front propaganda efforts; (2) it had repeatedly violated the terms of its license; (3) it continues to broadcast via YouTube; and (4) all the other pan-blue channels have remained on the air. Also, here's the Reporters without Borders position on this case: "The non-renewal of CTi news channel's licence [sic] does not go against press freedom."
7. On March 28, 2021, President Tsai ignored the results of the 2018 referendum in which the people of Taiwan voted to retain nuclear power. She insisted on taking the fuel rods of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and sending them abroad.
Yes, the Tsai government ignored the result because it legally could: the Referendum Act does not have a self-execution clause. This is a problem with the referendum law, as I noted here. A similar thing happened with same-sex marriage, which voters banned. The legislature (rightly, in my view) ignored that vote to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling. If your main complaint is about the poor design of Taiwan's referendum system, I'd agree with you...but the changes to the Referendum Act certainly don't support the case that Taiwan is growing more illiberal. I mean, the DPP itself first lowered the Referendum Act threshold in 2017 to make citizen-initiated referendums more feasible. C'mon, man.
8. On November 16, 2021, President Tsai personally designated the DDP [sic] mayoral candidates, thereby essentially abolishing a nomination system in the DDP [sic] that had been in existence for decades.
This is a non-sequitur: as E.E. Schattschneider noted long ago, intra-party democracy is not a necessary condition for a regime to be democratic. Also, this is not a new thing: Tsai as DPP chairwoman has exercised considerable influence over the party's nominations since 2008. It helped the DPP recover in 2009-10, be competitive in 2012, and win big in 2014 and 2016. There's nothing inherently authoritarian about a party delegating to its leader the ability to choose nominees.
9. In November 2021, the media disclosed that a female DPP legislator was violently abused by her boyfriend. The report resulted in the exposure of the DPP's "cyber army" system. These cyber armies, which are suspected of receiving support from a questionable source, are like "online brownshirts" who have long bullied anyone that disagrees with the government on the Internet. In fact, they have even hounded an outstanding Taiwanese diplomat stationed in Japan to death.
This is a long-standing complaint from KMT folks, dating back to before the 2020 presidential campaign. I'm not sure what Ma means by "exposed" here, or a "questionable source," or really what online "cyber armies" have to do with the Kao Chia-yu case. What I do know is that there's a lot of harassment online, it targets people of all political stripes, and it's an ongoing problem not just in Taiwan but in most democracies. That doesn't make Taiwan "illiberal," it makes it normal these days.