Carl Gershman on Taiwan’s Democracy and the Democratic Future

Keynote address at The 15th Anniversary Celebration of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

It’s a great honor for me to make keynote remarks at this celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), and to follow President Tsai Ing-wen, who is an important new leader for democracy in Asia.  As the first woman to be elected President of Taiwan, she represents the extraordinary progress Taiwan has made in building a dynamic, stable, and successful liberal democracy.

It is also a great pleasure for me to be here with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, a committed and impassioned democrat who has said that his proudest moments have been when foreign friends have given a thumbs up to Taiwan’s accomplishments in advancing democracy and developing civil society.  I, too, want to give him a thumbs up for Taiwan’s democracy, and also for his decision to recruit my friend, the TFD’s President, Szu-chien Hsu, to be Deputy Foreign Minister.  This is a dramatic statement that Taiwan wants to play an ambitious, hopeful, and forward-looking role in defending its interests and advancing democracy in the world.

Szu-chien has invited me to speak this morning about how the TFD and NED can join forces with others around the world who share our democratic vision, and forge an even closer relationship at a time when democracy is being challenged as never before since the end of the Cold War.  We are building on a long and fruitful friendship, beginning in 1995 when NED teamed up with the Institute for National Policy Research to hold the most important conference ever convened on “The Third Wave of Democratization.”    We brought together in Taiwan dozens of the most important democratic scholars and intellectuals on democracy, among them Robert Dahl, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Juan Linz, Larry Diamond, and many more.  The conference was not just a memorable event in the history of scholarship on democracy, but also a great celebration of Taiwan as one of the world’s leading third-wave democracies.

That first joint initiative was soon followed by another milestone event – an enormous ceremony in the U.S. Congress in April 1996 honoring Lee Teng-hui soon after he became the first popularly-elected president in Taiwan’s history.  It was one of the biggest events NED has ever held – attended by three dozen members of Congress and addressed by 7 senators and 12 House members, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House committee chairmen Ben Gilman, Bob Livingston, and Gerald Soloman.

In October 1997 we held another major international conference in Taiwan promoting the idea that other countries should establish NED-like foundations to advance democracy.  It was attended by important leaders from 19 countries, among them Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, South Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.  Russia was still a democracy then, and it was represented by Galina Starovoytova who had been Boris Yeltsin’s spokesperson and adviser on inter-ethnic issues.  Her assassination the following year in St. Petersburg marked an ominous turning-point in Russia’s decline into authoritarianism.

The partnership between NED and Taiwan deepened in November 2000 when President Chen Shui-bian sent a message to the Second Global Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in which he announced Taiwan’s intention to establish the first democracy foundation in Asia.  The TFD was formally inaugurated on June 17, 2003, and our cooperation since then has been strong and continuous, highlighted most recently by the joint memorial event we held last September 7 remembering Nobel Laureate Lui Xiaobo.

Szu-chien’s appeal to deepen this cooperation comes at a time, as he said, when democracy is being challenged as never before in recent history.  This challenge has three basic dimensions.  The first is resurgent authoritarianism, meaning the growing threat to democracy posed by China, Russia, Iran and other autocracies, and the geopolitical retreat of American power.  The second is the democratic backsliding in countries like Venezuela Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey.  And the third is the rise of illiberal populism and nationalism in the democratic West.  As President Tsai has already noted, Freedom House has documented 12 consecutive years of democratic decline.

Yet I think it’s a mistake to assume that the decline of democracy is inevitable or irreversible. Democracy was thought to be in terminal decline in 1982 when Ronald Reagan delivered his great Westminster Address that launched the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy.  The Solidarity movement had just been suppressed in Poland, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and the U.S. was still reeling from the defeat in Vietnam.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan had famously declared in 1976 on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial that “Democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.”

Yet Reagan said that he saw a “democratic revolution gathering new strength” in the world, and he was right.  What Samuel Huntington was later to call “the third wave of democratization” was just beginning to gain momentum in the early 1980s, and while it was later to crest with the fall of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and East Asia and the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the Soviet Union, none of that could have been anticipated in 1982.

I don’t know if a fourth wave of democratization is now gathering strength, but we shouldn’t discount that possibility.  I would call your attention to some encouraging recent events – among them the remarkable democratic transition in The Gambia, the fall of the corrupt Zuma government in South Africa, the stunning victory of democracy in Malaysia and the freeing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the equally stunning triumph in Armenia of the democratic opposition, and the successful local elections in Tunisia that are a decisive step forward in the Arab world’s first democracy.

These are just a few of the examples I could give of recent democratic advances.  Gains have also been made in Slovakia and Ethiopia, and there is even a small new opening in the relatively closed Central Asian country of Uzbekistan. These changes show that we should never underestimate the desire of ordinary people for freedom and dignity, or the extent of the popular anger at corrupt and unresponsive government officials.

Nor should we assume that strongmen always win.  Many people thought communism would last forever because it had concentrated so much power in the hands of the ruling bureaucracy.  Yet Reagan understood the vulnerability of closed and corrupt political systems, which is why he declared in his Westminster Address that “the march of freedom and democracy…will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”  That vision remains relevant today.

For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a failed system, which was shown by the protests that swept over the country less than six months ago and that are recurring as we meet today.  The Bolivarian dictatorship in Venezuela and the Ortega regime in Nicaragua are also failed systems, not to mention Cuban and North Korea dictatorships and the stagnant Russian kleptocracy.  Even in communist Vietnam there were large demonstrations just several weeks ago in seven cities protesting two new laws tightening cybersecurity and giving China new privileges in special economic zones.  China is another case of autocratic vulnerability that I’ll discuss in a moment.

Democracy is thus inherently resilient, and we have the capacity to help it regain momentum and put its enemies on the defensive.  In 2015 the U.S. Congress called upon NED to push back against the new challenges to democracy when it gave us special funds to develop a strategic response to resurgent authoritarianism.  We quickly developed a comprehensive plan that consisted of six strategic priorities:

  • defend pluralism against ethnic and religious extremism;
  • defend the integrity of the information space in an era of fake news and Sharp Power;
  • help civil society prevail against the campaign by authoritarian regimes to repress democracy activists and cut off their support;
  • fight against the rise of kleptocracy – the rule by thieves – that is a key feature of modern authoritarianism;
  • strengthen the capacity of emerging democracies to fight corruption and consolidate successful democratic systems; and
  • last but not least, build democratic unity among democracies and democratic activists and NGOs in defense of democratic norms and values.

The TFD is already working on some of these issues, and there are panels at this conference on fighting extremism and defending the integrity of the information space.  I look forward to deepening our cooperation at every level. We can work together in different countries; build the World Movement for Democracy, the global network that just held its ninth global assembly in Dakar, Senegal; and join together in the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal, a network of public intellectuals and democracy activists that is being coordinated by the Prague-based Forum 2000, an organization created two decades ago by Vaclav Havel and that is represented at this conference by its director Jakub Klepal. The TFD is to be commended for taking the lead in establishing the International Coalition’s China Working Group.

Given the growing role that the TFD is playing in advancing democracy, I want to humbly suggest that the Legislative Yuan consider increasing its funding so that the TFD can become a stronger NED partner in responding to the momentous challenges to democracy that I have described.

I’ve just visited Japan and South Korea on this trip, and I can assure you that leaders in both of these countries are greatly concerned about the threat to the liberal order in Asia that is growing as a result of China’s rise and the U.S. retreat.  Many of the people we met with would welcome closer collaboration with Taiwan and the TFD in building greater democratic unity in defense of the liberal order in this region.

Taiwan has a special voice and unique perspective in addressing the challenge posed by China, which American foreign-policy leaders now see as the greatest threat in the world today to democratic norms and U.S. security interests.

Liu Xiaobo understood this problem very well.  In an essay he wrote in 2006, he warned that if China continued to rise as a dictatorship as Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union had done in the last century, the result would not only be a catastrophe for the Chinese people but a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.

No one listened to him back then because the conventional wisdom at the time in the foreign-policy establishment and the business community was that China’s growth was a good thing because it would lead to liberalization, as it did here in Taiwan and in South Korea.  But that hasn’t happened.  China’s growth has had the opposite effect of reinforcing Beijing’s belief in the legitimacy and superiority of its state-driven economic model.  In addition, with the new wealth it has amassed, Beijing has been enabled to play a much more assertive role internationally, totally upending the delusion that its growth would be good for democracy and the rules-based global order.

The Economist magazine reflected the breakdown of the old consensus when it bluntly declared in March, after Xi Jinping announced his intention to remain in power indefinitely that “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.”  The China scholar Orville Schell expressed the new attitude toward China when he wrote recently that the disillusionment with Beijing actually began long before Xi cemented his grip on the Politburo.  “Be it saber-rattling in the South China Sea,” he wrote, “proselytizing on American college campuses [through more than 100 Confucius Institutes], theft of corporate secrets, or censorship of the web, China has alienated one constituency after another in the U.S.”

The U.S. is only beginning to understand the new era that we have entered as a result of what The Economist has called “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.”  As it considers how to address this historic new challenge, I think the U.S. needs to consider the value of Taiwan as a unique and strategically positioned political ally.  Taiwan is a concrete and credible democratic alternative to “the new option” of authoritarian development that Xi promoted in his address to the 19th Party Congress last October.

To be sure, Beijing claims what the political scientists call performance legitimacy because of its economic growth.  But it lacks political legitimacy because the regime was never freely elected, and its insecurity shows in many different ways.  Why, for example, must Xi prohibit what he calls “historical nihilism,” meaning any discussion of the Tiananmen massacre or such Maoist disasters like the Cultural Revolution?  Why was it necessary to eliminate a peaceful dissident like Liu Xiaobo, or to arrest hundreds of human rights lawyers, suppress the Christian house-church movement, and expunge the cultural and religious identity of the Tibetan and Uyghur minorities?  By stoking nationalism to fill the void left by the death of communist ideology, the regime just exposes its failure to develop values with broad appeal.

Why, therefore, should we assume that the so-called “China model” will not also end up, as Reagan said, on the ash-heap of history?  Having Taiwan as an alternative “China model” will only sharpen the CCP’s crisis of political legitimacy.

Taiwan is also an inspiration to people in other Asian countries – and non-Asian countries as well – who are fighting for democracy.  One of our participants today is a Vietnamese activist name Trinh Huu Long, who runs a democracy organization that NED supports called Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, and who is now studying at the National Chengchi University here in Taiwan.  As we were hiking yesterday in Sanli Park – at least, when we paused for rest during our steep climb – he explained to me three compelling reasons why Taiwan’s successful model of democracy can aid Vietnamese democracy activists.

The first is that the example of Taiwan as a successful Confucian democracy counters the argument used by apologists for dictatorship in Vietnam that hierarchical Asian societies cannot become democracies and respect individual human rights.

The second is that as a small country threatened by the large neighboring dictatorship of China, Taiwan’s example counters the argument that a small country must accommodate its large neighbor and that it should not provoke it by becoming a democracy.

And finally, as a stable and successful new democracy, Taiwan’s example helps counter the argument used by apologists for authoritarianism who point to the Arab Spring or to backsliding Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines to claim that democracy brings chaos.  Taiwan shows that democracy can bring economic progress and human fulfillment.

People in Taiwan might not realize that their model is looked to in this way by democrats in a country like Vietnam.  But it is, and this is an important way in which Taiwan projects its influence in Asia and beyond.  If China, as Liu Xiaobo said, is a “blood-transfusion machine” for the world’s dictatorships, Taiwan is a catalytic inspiration for democracy, and the TFD is an instrument for projecting Taiwan’s democratic influence internationally.

Finally, Taiwan offers a model of democratic courage and determination at a time when many democracies lack the will to defend democratic values.  We all know that China threatens Taiwan in many different ways.  It uses Sharp Power to divide and undermine Taiwan politically.  It uses economic leverage to try to subdue it through absorption.  It uses diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. And it uses various hard-power military exercises – large naval exercises in the South China Sea, live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, and the dispatch of Chinese bombers to circumnavigate the island — to intimidate Taiwan and force it into submission.

Yet none of this has worked. The Economist reports that “the more China closes Taiwan’s diplomatic space, the more Ms. Tsai’s creative use of unofficial diplomacy grows,” in particular, the New Southbound Policy that has forged deeper ties with neighbors in Southeast Asia, Australia, and Japan.  A new study by the Lowy Institute in Sydney notes that Australia’s interest in the New Southbound Policy contrasts sharply with Canberra’s skepticism about Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.  In addition, the China expert John Pomfret has written that U.S. analysts and officials have come to reject the view, once held by leaders like Lee Kwan Yew and Henry Kissinger, that Taiwan will inevitably be absorbed by a rising China.  He notes two recent scholarly articles that express doubt that China has the capacity and even the will to take over Taiwan.

Significantly, a recently published survey found that up to 86% of Taiwan’s youth support the democratic political system, and that 70% would fight if the Mainland invaded.  The survey quotes Szu-chien Hsu to the effect that “the more people are committed to democracy, the more they are willing to defend Taiwan should it be attacked.”

I believe that Taiwan’s strong and strengthening alliance with the United States – symbolized by the recent opening of the large de facto U.S. embassy here in Taipei – will deter such an attack.  But in the end, the decisive determinant for Taiwan’s survival is the will of the Taiwanese people – forged in the battle for democracy, toughened by adversity, and strengthened by an increasingly vibrant and participatory civil society, economy, and democratic political process.

President Tsai has called Taiwan “a model citizen in global civil society.”  It is actually much more than that.  It is an inspiration for those who aspire to democracy, a partner for democracy advocates and practitioners around the world, and an agent for democratic change at a time when democracy is under assault and even its traditional friends and spokesmen are beset by doubt.

That such a small and beleaguered country can play such a role, directly and through an institution of democratic solidarity like the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, enables us to take hope that democracy, despite all the obstacles and adversaries it faces, will in the end prevail.

Thank you.