Taiwan’s Democracy amid Widespread Democratic Backsliding

Taiwan’s Democracy amid Widespread Democratic Backsliding

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Taiwan’s Democracy amid Widespread Democratic Backsliding

It is no secret that many democracies are performing poorly, and not just new ones. Older democracies, even those that have existed for centuries, often find it hard to provide competent governance and to resist authoritarian impulses by populist politicians. That Taiwan’s democratic system is performing well is doubly curious, as it contends with many problems others do not—including diplomatic isolation, exclusion from international forums like the World Health Organization (WHO), and, of course, threats from its autocratic neighbor, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic—a central focus of this article—is emblematic of the island’s democratic success, but that is far from the only example. Taiwan’s economy has also proved resilient—its tech-sector in particular, which supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors. More broadly, while many countries struggle with inflation, Taiwan has managed to keep levels low, in part because the government refrained from flooding the economy with cash during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Taiwan’s economy is linked to a wide range of global factors, making it much more complicated as an indicator of Taiwan’s democratic success. COVID-19 is easier to treat as a localized event, as it began in late 2019 when rumors of the virus first began to circulate, and ended in April 2022 when the Taiwan government decided to drop the “zero COVID” policy. Also, unlike the semiconductor industry, which is largely controlled by business elites, the island’s pandemic response was driven by ordinary citizens. These individuals consistently demonstrated the ability to put personal politics aside and unite in following guidelines set by their elected officials—who for their part, exercised authority with sensitivity and a high degree of apolitical transparency.

Unifying amid the Pandemic

By COVID success, I mean that between 2020 and 2021, with millions dying around the world, Taiwan went eight months with no domestic cases. When an outbreak did occur in May 2021—during which infections rose to 600 a day—the number dropped again to zero by fall, a recovery experts said was impossible. More impressive still, Taiwan accomplished this without lockdowns, school closures, or significant economic impact. Once Western vaccines arrived, the government dropped its “zero COVID” policy and infections rose to levels similar to other countries—thereby leading to political differences normal in a healthy democracy, but without the anger and malaise that followed post-pandemic normalization elsewhere.

How did a country that should have been among the hardest-hit avoid the pandemic’s worst effects? While the Taiwan government has been justifiably credited for managing the crisis, authorities had no special insight into the nature or treatment of the virus. However, protocols established after the 2003 SARS pandemic helped. During that outbreak, 73 Taiwanese died, largely due to mistakes. In response, Taiwan established the National Health Command Center based at Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 衛生福利部疾病管制署), which is a facility designed to mobilize quickly against infections like SARS, avian flu, swine flu, H1N1, and many others. News of a new virus prompted CDC officials to begin airport screenings on December 31, 2019—long before most countries—with quarantine and other control measures following shortly after.

Yet as effective as the government response was, the key factor in Taiwan’s pandemic success was a citizenry that allowed itself to be governed. When officials said wear masks, Taiwanese wore masks. They did other things too, but in hindsight, wearing masks may have been the most effective response in limiting transmission and signaling collective support for elected officials and appointed experts. Even when mistakes were made, Taiwanese remained united in support of government efforts to address the crisis.

At a time when world democracies are increasingly threatened by would-be autocrats (and the voters happy to elect and then re-elect them), governability has been one of Taiwan’s greatest advantages. Leaders in democracies such as Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Brazil have demonstrated success at the polls despite performing poorly in office, openly defying limits on their political power and manipulating elections to their advantage. Even where democratic governments are still accountable, constituents often make it difficult to govern (France being the most dramatic current example).

While peaceful protests have been common throughout Taiwan’s 27 years as a democracy, its citizens have consistently elected competent leaders and allowed them to lead. The only outright resistance came in 2014, when a coalition of students and civic groups—dubbed the “Sunflower Movement”—occupied the Legislative Yuan (LY, 中華民國立法院) in a challenge to the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) government’s attempt to push through a trade agreement with China that had very little public input. But even with democracy on the line, Sunflower protesters did not push for the agreement to be retracted. Instead, they demanded that it receive the required clause-by-clause legislative review, which the government avoided through procedural means. Later, having received significant public support, protest leaders indeed demanded the trade pact be rejected—and further, that all future agreements with China require special legislative oversight. The KMT relented, and was subsequently defeated in the next election.

The Underpinnings of Taiwan’s Governance

To a significant degree, Taiwan’s governability—what I believe that academic Shelley Rigger means by its “secret sauce”—stems from cultural and historical factors that, while important, are not easily replicated by other countries. Nevertheless, they are worth noting.

First is the communitarian teachings of Confucius, who advocated for respecting authority and prioritizing the collective good over that of the individual. While often seen as incompatible with democracy, Confucianism deeply influenced the democratic thought of Republic of China (ROC) founder Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙). The ROC constitution preserved Sun’s thought during Taiwan’s brutal “White Terror” period, and laid the groundwork for Taiwan’s democratic transformation at the end of the 20th Century. While Confucius’ writings are 2,500 years old, and some traditional Confucian principles have been replaced by more modern modes of thought, they remain central to childrearing, education, and general socialization in Taiwan.

The second source of Taiwan’s governability is proximity to its authoritarian past. Before holding its first open presidential election in 1996, the island was a police state ruled by a series of dictators, beginning with Sun Yat-sen’s military protégé, Chiang Kai‐shek (蔣介石). Before Chiang, Japan administered Taiwan as an overseas colony, also with an iron fist. So, whatever Taiwanese learned at home or in school about respecting authority, these lessons were reinforced by hard experience. Especially for those born under authoritarian rule, governability was less a philosophical respect for authority than a habit of deference once necessary to survive.

Taiwan enjoys other advantages too. Thanks to a history of closed immigration, the island is largely homogeneous racially and ethnically, while identity categories like gender and sexuality have not been politicized to the extent they have in the West. It bears repeating, however, that such advantages are circumstantial and not easily replicated. We only have to recall the failures of the Arab Spring to appreciate the risks posed by democratization without social and cultural advantages such as those held by Taiwan.

What is more, there is no guarantee that these advantages will persist. Over a quarter-century of freedom and affluence has produced rising expectations. Taiwanese have grown increasingly individualistic, which could potentially erode communitarianism. Fading memories of pre-democratic autocracy will do the same for deference. Ethnic and racial homogeneity will also decline as leaders seek to offset the effects of population aging by increasing immigration.

Cultivating Public Trust

This is not to say that Taiwan has nothing to offer. Seeing that competent administration requires competent citizenship, successive governments have sought to cultivate public trust. One way they have done this has been by actively addressing public problems. In 2001, Taiwan expert Larry Diamond noted several worrisome characteristics of the island’s fledgling democracy: including corruption, weak institutions and rule of law, a problematic electoral system, and insufficient consolidation of democratic values. Recently, Stanford’s Kharis Templeman concluded that, while shortcomings remain, many of the reforms that Diamond called for have been implemented. Templeman also pointed out new concerns, notably China’s growing influence over Taiwan’s political parties, business groups, and civil society.

Here we find the second way Taiwan’s leaders have cultivated public trust: innovations in democratic practice. This may also be the island’s most valuable contribution to struggling world democracies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center handled more than disease treatment and control: it also provided information and emphasized transparency. Officials did this often, with apolitical scientists providing updates rather than partisan officials. The Center also worked with Audrey Tang (唐鳳), a Cabinet official overseeing digital efforts, to track infections, identify hotspots, and publicize this information. Tang also addressed one of the biggest problems COVID responders faced around the world: false information. In addition to working to correct such falsities, she sought to reduce public disputes between experts, politicians, and in social media.

Audrey Tang was not appointed to lead the Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA, 數位發展部) simply to bolster pandemic response. Taiwan established the new ministry to develop better means of facilitating governance. Central to Tang’s project has been managing the risks of digital media, while also embracing its democratic potential. Even before COVID, Tang was designing platforms to reduce the ill effects of misinformation and disinformation. Here, as Templeman suggests, the main culprit is once again China. In recent decades, Beijing has supplemented its hard power resources by investing in information warfare. Many of these efforts have centered around promoting Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland by turning its democratic openness against it. This has included spreading narratives to discredit pro-independence views, extol the PRC model of governance, and promote polarization, thereby increasing gridlock and eroding confidence in the island’s democratic processes.

To protect itself, Taiwan has taken a multi-pronged approach, encouraging national pride and monitoring individuals and organizations vulnerable to Chinese influence. Civil society groups like Taiwan Media Watch and the Association for Quality Journalism have also joined forces to establish the Taiwan Fact Check Center to “curb the negative impact of false information and enhance the information literacy of the public.” Tang’s Digital Ministry has actively supported such projects and pursued its own.

Tang has attracted the most attention for her work designing digital platforms that address democratic weaknesses vulnerable to exploitation. Working with government policymakers, Tang’s ministry harnesses the power of social media, while avoiding divisions caused by network services like Twitter and Facebook that encourage conflict in pursuit of revenue. For example, Tang’s applications solicit input on policy issues, while eliminating the reply option. In doing so, they limit the rage fueled by the back-and-forth of commercial apps. Tang also measures neither respondents’ opinions, nor their understanding of facts, but rather how they “feel” about a topic in question. By measuring feelings rather than opinions, Tang looks for what she calls “rough consensus”—which officials can use to develop policies that, while not necessarily ideal for everyone, provide solutions that most people can live with.

Again, this may be Taiwan’s most valuable contribution to democracies plagued by internal divisions. When people have a say in making public policy, Tang says, they are more willing to comply, even when they do not entirely agree. By reducing the social divisions produced and magnified by social media, constituents are also less likely to fall for the lies of those who seek to turn elections into contests that produce only winners and losers, rather than a shared sense of collective achievement. 

None of this suggests Taiwan’s democracy is problem free. With age, it could well develop the same problems as older democracies, with foundational commitments diminished through a combination of complacency and exhaustion. Voters tired of drama want things done and do not ultimately care how. It may be worth saying that the most consistent advice I received about this project since arriving in Washington DC, capital of the world’s oldest and greatest democracy, has been, “nobody wants to hear about COVID.” Beyond practical solutions to policy problems, avoiding complacency and exhaustion is Audrey Tang’s long game: to uphold foundational commitments by preserving communication and compromise, the factors that make democracy possible.

The main point: Taiwan’s democracy is performing well while other democracies around the world are struggling. The reasons for this are to be found in responsive governance, a cooperative population, and innovative responses to China’s information warfare.