Written by Frédéric Krumbein.
The last three decades has seen Taiwan join Japan and South Korea in the ranks of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. Since democratization began in the island in the 1990s, democracy and respect for human rights have become an increasingly prominent part of the island’s identity and values. These values were on full display during the vibrant, free and fair 2020 Taiwanese presidential and legislature elections, which saw the reelection of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)), and a gracious concession and call for unity from her opponent, the Kuomintang Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu.
As the only Chinese democracy that has ever existed, Taiwan shows that Chinese culture, authentic democracy and respect for human rights can coexist. It is thus pertinent to ask – to what extent is Taiwan a bastion of democracy and human rights? How has Taiwan gone about promoting these values in the region, and how will it continue to do so moving forward?
There are three main reasons why democracy and human rights play important roles for the Republic of China (Taiwan) and for the Taiwanese people. First and foremost, Taiwan is a democracy that respects human rights because Taiwanese people by and large want to live in a democratic society. Opinion polls consistently show overwhelming support for democracy in Taiwan, even though, not unlike people in other democracies, Taiwanese are not always satisfied with the performance of their political system. Moreover, no major party in Taiwan opposes democracy. The four democratically elected Taiwanese presidents have all stressed the importance of Taiwan’s democracy as a uniting value in Taiwanese society.
Respect for democracy and for human rights have become part of Taiwanese identity, in particular among its younger citizens. The two major political parties in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), also see democracy as a core part of their respective identities. The DPP was born out of the struggle against the KMT dictatorship in the 1980s. For its part, the KMT views the democratization of Taiwan as a fulfillment of one of the three pillars of Sun Yat-sen’s conception of the Republic of China, the ‘principle of democracy’ (minquan zhuyi).
Secondly, it is in Taiwan’s interest to advocate for a more democratic international order, which would mitigate the risk of violence being employed as an instrument of international politics, potentially to Taiwan’s detriment. A democratic international order would bring us closer to realising the goal of an international order based on the principles of liberalism, which could potentially help humanity realise the Kantian ideal of “eternal peace” among democratic nations. A consequence of constructing a liberal international order would be that war as an instrument of international politics would become much more difficult to use and to justify. The democratization of mainland China in particular would ease tensions across the Taiwan Strait and further decrease the threat of an armed conflict in that theatre, as consolidated democracies do not usually wage war against each other.
Thirdly, Taiwan’s democracy and respect for human rights is an important cornerstone of its relationship with its most important ally, the United States, and other strong democratic nations, including Japan, the European Union, and the latter’s member states. The assessment of Taiwan’s democracy by the United States and the European Union has indeed been very positive. In a speech on October 24, 2019, Mike Pence, the US Vice President, called Taiwan a “beacon of Chinese culture and democracy,” and emphasized that Taiwan is a role model for mainland China, noting “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people”. It is worth noting in relation to this that democracy and respect for human rights are often closely interrelated – democracy is also a human right, as the right to vote is codified in article 21 of the Universal Declaration and article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Taiwan’s profound respect for democracy was a part of the reason that the European Economic and Trade Office, the representation of the European Union in Taipei, called Taiwan a “human rights leader in the Asia Pacific region” in its most recent report about EU-Taiwan relations.
Major indices that measure the overall situation of democracy and human rights, such as the Freedom in the World Index of Freedom House or the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, similarly rank Taiwan among the top tier of countries in Asia, together with Japan and South Korea. Taiwan takes second place in Asia in the area of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, according to the NGO Reporters without Borders. The island is also one of the leading countries in Asia for woman’s rights and LGBTI rights. In relation to the former, Taiwan elected its first female president in 2016, and prior to the last election, almost forty percent of its members of parliament were women – a record high in Asia. As for LGBTI rights, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2019.
Even though Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it has incorporated six of the nine so-called “core human rights treaties” of the United Nations into domestic law. The Taiwanese government also invites international human rights experts to evaluate its human rights situation and to give recommendations on how to improve human rights. While great progress has been made, the island is, of course, not perfect. An area of concern that remains, in particular from a European perspective, is the existence and ongoing application of capital punishment – although the number of executions have dropped sharply under President Tsai Ing-wen, and only one person was executed in 2018. Another issue is that Taiwan does not recognise the right to asylum – however, it does admit a small number of refugees on a case-to-case basis.
Democracy and human rights are a crucial part of Taiwan’s identity, and the situation in regard to both on the island is overall very positive. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s limited diplomatic power has meant that human rights agendas have been restricted to playing a relatively small role in Taiwan’s relations with mainland China and other countries, as well as in Taiwan’s development aid programs. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the institution responsible for relations with the mainland, issues frequent statements regarding human rights problems on the mainland and in Hong Kong. Most statements since the new administration of President Tsai took office address human rights issues in Hong Kong and the rights of Taiwanese in mainland China, or of Taiwanese in other countries that have been extradited to the People’s Republic. The MAC also publishes a statement every year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, and has published statements on the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. The statements usually call for democratic reforms and respect for human rights on the mainland. Yet Taiwan can do little to influence mainland China’s human rights situation and policies, even though Taiwan can serve as a good example for the People’s Republic of China, given that it is a formerly one-party state that has successfully transformed itself into a flourishing and vibrant democracy. Taiwan’s government, moreover, needs to exercise caution when dealing with China, as its citizens face the threat of persecution in mainland China if they engage in activities that aim to promote democracy or human rights, or that are perceived as such by the mainland authorities.
Regarding other countries, Taiwan’s relations are constrained by its disputed status in international law. Taiwan simply cannot afford to offend other countries by criticizing them – particularly the fifteen countries that officially recognize Taiwan as a state. To promote human rights and democracy, Taiwan mainly relies on the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. The foundation, which was established in 2003, supports civil society actors in Taiwan and abroad with project grants, publishes academic journals and reports about human rights and democracy in Taiwan and Asia, and offers scholarships for researchers specializing in democracy and human rights.
Taiwan’s democracy and respect for human rights is first and foremost highly significant to the Taiwanese who want to live in a free and democratic society. Furthermore, Taiwan provides a positive example to its East Asian neighbors, even developed societies such as Japan or South Korea, in areas including same-sex marriage or woman’s rights. Taiwan could also serve as a role model for mainland China, and show a viable pathway to transition from a one-party state to a consolidated democracy. Taiwan’s creation of the world’s first Chinese democracy, and the enduring success of this model, may well be Taiwan’s most important contributions to the development of democracy globally.
Dr. Frédéric Krumbein is a Research Associate at the Institution for European Politics, and a Visiting Professor at the Tel Aviv University European Studies Program.