Taiwan’s Exemplary Democracy Deserves America’s Attention and Support

Beijing sees an existential threat in Taiwan’s enduring freedoms.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the democratic advancements of Taiwan at a dinner hosted by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. (TECRO). Image credit: Taiwan Presidential Office via Flickr 

On July 12, Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz spoke at a dinner hosted in New York by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to honor Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for her dedication to strengthening and supporting democracy. Below are Abramowitz’s prepared remarks.

Good evening. I bring warm greetings from the staff and trustees of Freedom House.

We were founded in 1941 as a nongovernmental organization with a mission to mobilize Americans for the fight against fascism, totalitarianism, and dictatorship. Through the years, we have dedicated ourselves to exposing the major threats to freedom—the leaders who suppress their own people, the antidemocratic transnational movements, and the ideas that provide autocracy’s intellectual window-dressing.

We have long admired the remarkable progress Taiwan has made in securing democratic rights for its people. We can chart this progress in the data assembled by Freedom House for our flagship report Freedom in the World, which ranks countries for the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by its citizens.

In 1972, when we began this annual project, Taiwan was ranked among the Not Free countries, only a bit above China. Taiwan was a military dictatorship with a history of violent repression against its own people, a country led by strongmen with no real elections, independent media, or civil rights.

Taiwan has since made dramatic gains. In 1996, Taiwan joined the ranks of countries that Freedom House regards as Free. Its score was similar to other countries that had advanced from dictatorship at the same time as Taiwan.

But here the story takes an interesting, even inspiring, turn. Over the past dozen years, a number of countries whose journey to freedom coincided with that of Taiwan moved away from the path of greater liberty. By contrast, Taiwan stands in a select group of new democracies which have continued to improve their free institutions and challenge the global slide towards populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.

This is the kind of news that under normal conditions would demand celebration. But in Taiwan’s part of the world, nothing is ever that simple. As Taiwan’s freedom is strengthened and civil liberties embedded in everyday life, the discordant noises and hostile actions from Beijing have intensified. It’s as if China modulates its menacing gestures in tandem with Taiwan’s democracy. The greater Taiwan’s freedoms, the more table thumping, harsh demands, and threats from Beijing.

We have felt China’s wrath first hand. Some years ago Beijing led a campaign to revoke Freedom House’s UN credentials. Interestingly, Beijing did not care that Freedom House placed China among the world’s most repressive regimes. Instead, Beijing’s diplomats repeatedly asked why we treat Taiwan as an independent country in our reports, as other independent countries. From above, from below, from left, from right, they conducted an interrogation during which their representatives accused Freedom House of violating UN standards and threatening global stability. We stood our ground, and in the end we prevailed. Unfortunately, I can’t say with confidence that we would prevail at the UN today.

President Tsai, on behalf of Freedom House, I want to express how deeply moved we are to have you with us in the United States. You have one of the world’s toughest jobs. You must lead a democratic society with different factions and interest groups. And you must endure the relentless pressure from a powerful neighbor, a country with a massive economy and sophisticated military capacity, which regards your democratic freedoms—by way of the extraordinary contrast they present—as an existential threat to its own regime of control, regimentation, and censorship.

And I want to especially salute the people of Taiwan. Xi Jinping has worked desperately to send the idea of freedom in Taiwan down history’s memory hole. And again and again, Taiwan’s people have responded with a resounding “No.” At Freedom House, we are committed to amplifying that “No.” And we remind our own leaders that in East Asia there is a model in Taiwan’s democratic values and resistance to tyranny that deserves America’s attention and support.

Thank you.