Changing Circumstances Call for Taipei to Lift Its Effort in Promoting Democracy on China and beyond

Written by Chen Jie (陈杰).

Image credit: DSCF2489 by Studio Incendo/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

There are remaining concerns urging the government of democratised Taiwan to support democratic causes and human rights in China. In fact, for the Tsai Ing-wen administration, these issues have strengthened. Despite their disdain for the one China project, politicians of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) share the sentiment that Taiwan’s own democratisation inspires China. This is echoed internationally. The former US Vice President Mike Pence spoke positively about Taiwan’s “embrace of democracy” and the example it had set for “all the Chinese people.” President Tsai followed by proclaiming that Taiwan was “a beacon of democratic transition for people on mainland China, Hong Kong and friends all over the world pursuing democracy.” The democratisation of China facilitated by those mainlanders – having studied Taiwan’s experience – would benefit Taiwan, potentially including some sympathy for its quest for independence. Indeed, Taiwan is the most obvious and immediate external beneficiary of democratisation in China. On the other hand, a totalitarian China shored up by nationalistic sentiment is the single most serious existential threat to Taiwan’s own democracy. During Tsai’s presidency, more than one hundred Taiwanese visiting China have either mysteriously disappeared, held in detention in undisclosed locations, charged with the crime of “subverting state power,” or given televised confessions.

The Tsai administration has indeed played a niche role in supporting democracy. Some activities follow the practice of previous administrations. Thus, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), founded in 2003 to support democracy movements in Asia and the world, has continued to allocate funding for China projects. The program of Study Camps, which the Ma Ying-jeou administration initiated for mainland students to witness Taiwan’s vibrant civil society, has also continued. Other activities were in reaction to new circumstances. For example, considering the violent crackdown on Hong Kong protests, particularly with the imposition of the National Security Law, Taipei expressed strong solidarity and eased its policy to facilitate the Hong Kong migration to Taiwan. The president also boosted the morale of Chinese democracy activists when she received a group of arch dissidents in May 2019—a climax of a series of activities to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre sponsored by TFD and civil society groups. It was the first time for a Taiwanese president to receive Chinese dissidents in the presidential palace since December 1998, when President Lee Teng-hui met Wei Jingsheng, a Democracy Wall movement veteran.

However, the overall track record is a chequered one. TFD’s funding for Chinese grantees (including Tibetan, Uyghur and Falun Gong activists) has continued to remain a negligible percentage in its total disbursement. The category of “pushing mainland China’s democratisation and human rights” has been dropped from TFD’s statement of “working goals and plans” since 2016 (as seen in its Annual Reports from that year onwards). TFD has continued to ignore any Chinese activist or group for its most significant prize, namely the annual Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award. The number of Study Camps has dwindled, evident well before the pandemic suspended student exchange.

Meanwhile, request for Taipei to craft a proper and clear refugee law to process political asylum cases from the mainland and Hong Kong has been persistently ignored. The Tsai administration has been convincing Chinese asylum seekers to return to the mainland, or it has just been sending people back outright. When five Hong Kongers fled by boat to Taiwan in July 2020 to escape persecution under the National Security Law, they were held on a military base until departure to the US in January 2021. They were not allowed to communicate with family and friends or contact lawyers and NGOs. Some Taiwan rights activists saw this as worse than how illegal immigrants were treated. One wonders how Taipei would deal with asylum requests potentially from thousands of mainland students on the island if another Tiananmen kind of crackdown occurs, particularly if Western democracies grant asylum to Chinese students en masse as they did in 1989. At her historic symbolic meeting with Chinese dissidents in May 2019, one urged the president to issue a formal statement to express grave concern for the persecuted rights lawyers and Uyghur Muslims in China, but she dodged the question. The president prefers to keep such concerns to the world of Facebook and Twitter.

It appears that unique impulses to empathise with, influence and support China’s democratisation have been significantly watered down by the surging socio-political sentiment about China decoupling, as well as a general worry about Beijing’s reprisal. The issue of supporting democracy has also been played as a card for electioneering. However, despite the Hong Kong card’s strategic value for the DPP’s success – in both the presidential and legislative elections in 2020 – in her victory speech, President Tsai failed to include Hong Kong citizens in an exhaustive list of people and groups to thank for their support and inspiration.

It may be time for Taipei to revisit and strengthen its agency in promoting democracy. In the looming crossroad of global struggle against totalitarianism, Taiwan should advance its role as a helper, as well as being an inspiration. It is undoubtedly essential to beef up state security laws to contain Beijing’s political interference through manipulating print, online media and its proxies. It is also sensible to strengthen the US security commitment to Taiwan by convincing Washington that, as the president said, if Taiwan’s democracy can be secured from China’s erosion, instead of becoming the next Hong Kong, then the entire democratic bloc in the Indo Pacific will be safer. However, it also helps to get more proactive and offensive in using Taiwan’s inherent soft power vis-à-vis China. It helps to heed Chen Guangcheng, a persecuted blind rights lawyer. Sensing he was being dodged by both the Kuomintang and DPP politicians when visiting Taiwan in 2013, Chen said, “If you do not bring democracy and freedom to China, China will bring repression and dictatorship to Taiwan.”

Meanwhile, young Hong Kongers -both at home and in exile – continue to look to Taiwan with the call “Taiwan’s today, Hong Kong’s tomorrow.” Furthermore, Taipei’s self-claimed role as a beacon for democracy—along with TFD’s grand self-vision as Asia’s first and only state-level democratic promotion agency—is being tested in Southeast Asia. Taipei has kept remarkably muted towards the ongoing military crackdown on democracy movements in Myanmar and Thailand. In contrast, many people from Myanmar have explored the possibility of asylum in Taiwan and have called for Taipei to craft a refugee law. Ultimately, the struggle for democracy in the region generally points to China, as Beijing is the main backer of authoritarian regimes in Asia and beyond. This is symbolically manifested in the burning of China’s national flag in many protest rallies in Myanmar. Thus, Taipei’s path to democratic international citizenship is, indeed, to refocus its work directly on China.

Chen Jie (陈杰) is an Associate Professor at the Political Science and International Relations, the University of Western Australia. He currently researches the Chinese democracy movement and exile politics. Email:

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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