David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
Taiwan received a rating of 93 out of 100 in Freedom House’s Freedom of the World 2018 report. The new report published on January 16, highlighted how Taiwan’s rating improved by two points in 2017. The numbers were calculated based on degree of political rights and civil liberties among 195 countries in the world. On a spectrum between one and seven, with one being the “most free,” Taiwan received an impressive score of one for both political rights and civil liberties. As such, it is ranked similarly to other, more mature, democracies such as those in the Scandinavia, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, China was at the other end of the Freedom House spectrum, with an aggregate score of just 14 out of 100.
A decade ago, Carlos Pascual and Richard Bush at Brookings Institution outlined what they called the four faces of Taiwan’s democracy focusing on Taiwan’s political achievements and challenges at the time. They examined whether Taiwan’s democracy was backsliding, how well Taiwan’s democratic institutions worked, its implications for regional peace and stability, and its ability to pull extreme positions toward the center. The Freedom House 2008 Taiwan report indicated that Taiwan was “free,” with a high rating of 1 for civil liberties, but with a score of two for political rights. At that time, in late 2007, Taiwan had only undergone one government transition when the incumbent party switched from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic People’s Party (DPP). However, now Taiwan has fully undergone three incumbent party transitions. This provides a good opportunity to reassess Pascual and Bush’s snapshot of Taiwan’s democracy from around 10 years ago.
Taiwan’s Four Faces of Democracy Then and Now
In Pascual and Bush’s Brookings 2007 study, Taiwan received high marks for its lack of democratic backsliding, and ability to pull extreme political positions toward the center. They note that Taiwan’s transition to democracy had not been fundamentally reversed in any major way, which they called a “significant achievement.” They specified, “[w]hatever problems Taiwan has, it is not like Thailand with its military coups.” This was true then and remains true today.
In addition, Pascual and Bush lauded Taiwan’s democratic system for being a moderating force to shape a “centrist consensus” to “defer discussion of ultimate solutions like unification or independence.” While Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen has drawn China’s ire by not explicitly affirming the so-called “1992 Consensus” that is the foundation of China’s “One China principle,” she has nevertheless constantly offered olive branches to the other side of the Strait only to be rebuffed. Both Tsai and the previous administration have sustained the fairly centrist position over the past decade that Pascual and Bush described in 2007, particularly in deferring ultimate solutions such as unification or independence.
However, the authors of the Brookings study questioned how effectively Taiwan’s democratic institutions worked, and possible negative implications of Taiwan’s democracy for regional peace and security. At the time, Pascual and Bush noted that Taiwan’s democratic institutions “don’t work well.” Specifically, they named Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, Legislative Yuan, political party system, electoral system, and mass media as working in a “perverse way to reward political gamesmanship over good policy.” This was arguably the case in the early years of Taiwan’s democracy, and a feature in the beginning of the Chen Shui-bian administration when Taiwan’s politics was caught in a gridlock between the DPP incumbency in the Presidential Palace, pitted against a Kuomintang majority in the Legislative Yuan. The political situation has improved since then.
Furthermore, Pascual and Bush examine the logic behind the contention that “Taiwan’s democracy is bad for regional peace and stability.” The underlying concern at the time was how open competition could allow a leader to emerge that may dramatically change Taiwan’s legal status, and thereby provoke a forceful Chinese response. In Taiwan, National Chengchi University identity poll data show how this coincided with a growing unique Taiwan identity, coupled with declining trend of identifying with China, along with a stable percentage of the population that says they are both. However, even then Pascual and Bush recognized that though Taiwan’s identity has grown stronger over the decades, and in part because of PRC actions, the authors were heartened that Taiwan’s political parties opted for running moderate candidates in elections while eschewing calls for extremism at the margins— so Taiwan’s pragmatism has strengthened along with its identity. Therefore there is less of a concern about harming regional security than previously thought. This point also ties with their other one mentioned earlier about how Taiwan is reaching a “centrist consensus.”
The following discussion of Freedom House criteria for Taiwan will show how leading political parties in Taiwan have sharpened their focus on good policy rather than political gamesmanship over the past decade, though it is no surprise to find both features in any political environment and even among the more mature world democracies.
Taiwan’s Improving Freedom House Scores
In the new 2018 Freedom House report, Taiwan scored 37 out of 40 points for political rights. This includes a full score of 12 out of 12 for its electoral process since the head of government and legislative representatives are elected in free and fair elections, and electoral laws and framework are fair. It received 15 out of 16 for political participation, with perfect scores in people’s rights to organize different political parties, ability to form a realistic opposition, and various segments of population (e.g. ethnic, religious, LGBT, etc. groups) have full rights and electoral opportunities. In this category, Taiwan’s one point deduction is due to the fact that its political choices are not free from domination by foreign powers or other powerful groups. Therefore, a unique aspect of Taiwan’s democracy in its regional context is that Taiwan might never be able to achieve a full Freedom House score solely due of factors external to Taiwan and outside of Taiwan’s control.
In the category of how the government functions, Taiwan received a 10 out of a possible total of 12. It has a perfect score for how the freely elected head of government and legislative representatives determine policies of government, but one point off for effective safeguards against corruption and one point off for government transparency. These are two areas that Taiwan can continue to improve upon.
In the areas of civil liberties and rule of law, Taiwan received near perfect scores across the board. It received perfect scores for its independent media, people’s freedom to practice religious faith, academic freedom from political indoctrination in the educational system, freedom to express personal views on politics without fear of retribution, freedom of assembly, freedom of nongovernmental organizations engaged in human rights work, independent judiciary, due process in civil and criminal matters, and freedom from illegitimate use of physical force. Areas where Taiwan were just one point away from a perfect score include freedom for trade unions and labor organizations, and equal treatment of various segments of the population.
Yet, juxtaposing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan’s level of political freedoms and democracy show the dramatic political incongruence between the two. In contrast to Taiwan, China received a Freedom House aggregate score of 14 out of 100— down one point from the previous year. On a scale of one to seven, with seven being “not free,” China received dismal scores between six and seven in political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House explains that China is on a downward trend due to its restrictive cyber security and foreign nongovernmental organization laws; increased internet surveillance; and heavy sentences handed down to human rights lawyers, micro bloggers, grassroots activists, and religious believers.
China’s grades are near zero across the board. For instance, its political rights’ score was one out of 40 (while Taiwan’s was 37 out of 40, as mentioned earlier). Its civil liberties are slightly more optimistic with a score of 14 out of 60, but still dismal compared to most other countries in the world. In fact, China is in the lowest bottom quartile of countries in the Freedom House list, accompanied by many African countries, some Middle Eastern dictatorships, and North Korea.
Interestingly, China’s best-performing indicators are in personal autonomy and individual rights—where it received six out of 14 points, nearly half of its total aggregate score. To China’s credit, in 2016 Premier Li Keqiang reiterated a government plan to reform China’s hukou system of personal registration rules that restrict China’s internal migrants from enjoying full legal status as residents in the cities where they work. The abolition of the one-child policy also contributed to a decrease of forced abortions and sterilization, which were more common in the past.
In light of the stark contrast across the Strait, the people of Taiwan should take pride in their aggregate Freedom House score of 93 out of 100, as it is on an upward trend compared to previous years. The maturation process of Taiwan’s democracy involved constantly improving and refining those same political processes that Freedom House examined and rated highly today. Taiwan’s score is over six times higher than China’s score of 14 out of 100. With this comparison in mind, Taiwan can be thankful for the freedoms and self-determination it possesses, even while many aspects of its democracy were in question just one decade ago. These date points should make the leaders in Beijing contemplate the reasons why the people of Taiwan are moving farther away in their association with China.
The main point: Taiwan has made significant gains from a decade ago when Pascual and Bush outlined what they called the four faces of Taiwan’s democracy. Today, Taiwan’s aggregate Freedom House score of 93 out of a 100 indicates that virtually all aspects of its democracy are strong. Yet, areas of improvement remain, and they include: safeguards against corruption, improved government transparency, influence of trade unions, and equal treatment for various segments of the population.