Taiwan’s Destiny

Remarks by Carl Gershman upon receiving the Presidential Medal in Taiwan
President Tsai presented National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman with the Order of the Brilliant Star

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to President Tsai for this honor, which I find both moving and humbling.

I visited Taiwan for the first time 25 years ago to encourage it to join the community of countries that was fostering democracy through non-governmental institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy.  Taiwan was not ready for this idea at the time, but the visit led to a major international conference on the consolidation of third-wave democracies that NED organized with Taiwan’s Institute for National Policy Research.   The conference was the idea of Jason Hu, the head of Taiwan’s Government Information Office. He had been a student of the renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington, who had authored the path-breaking study entitled The Third Wave, which is what Huntington called the dramatic expansion of democracy at the end of the twentieth century.  Jason felt that Taiwan was being overlooked as a successful third-wave democracy, and that hosting such a conference would correct this mistake.

The conference, held at the end of August 1995, was a memorable event that brought together 60 of the world’s leading democracy scholars and practitioners, including Huntington.  It elevated Taiwan’s stature as a new democracy, produced two important volumes of essays on democratization, and set in motion the process that led less than a decade later to the establishment of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

In the quarter of a century since that conference, Taiwan has consolidated a dynamic, stable, and successful liberal democracy, exemplified by President Tsai herself, who is the first woman to be elected President of Taiwan.  Elsewhere in the world, however, democracy has entered a period of crisis. Third Wave democracies like the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand, and Nicaragua have moved backwards; illiberal populism and nationalism have grown in many of the world’s established democracies; and authoritarian countries like Russia and China have become more aggressive and threatening.

The developments in China are the most disturbing.  The papers on China delivered at our conference in 1995 were cautiously hopeful.  One of them was entitled “Creeping Democratization” and expressed the common expectation at the time that China would liberalize and become more democratic as it grew economically and became integrated into the global economy.  

As we know, however, as China has become stronger economically, it has grown more repressive and bellicose.  It is building a sinister surveillance state to control the population; committing cultural genocide against Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other minority peoples; threatening its neighbors militarily in the South China Sea and beyond; and penetrating into countries around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative and its use of Sharp Power information and propaganda tools.  It has shown how prescient Liu Xiaobo was when he warned in 2006 that China’s rise as a dictatorship would be a “catastrophe for the Chinese people” and “a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”

No country faces greater threats and pressures than Taiwan.  These include ceaseless military exercises targeting Taiwan and diplomatic efforts to isolate it internationally; the use of Sharp Power to undermine it politically and of economic leverage to coerce it and subdue it through absorption; and clandestine operations to manipulate Taiwan’s elections, including 30 million cross-border cyberattacks every month since 2018.    

Yet all this bullying and attempted subversion have not had the desired effect.  As President Tsai said in her National Day Address, the threats and challenges faced by Taiwan “have made us stronger and more determined,” and they have contributed to an increasingly robust sense of national pride and identity.

There are many military, diplomatic, economic, and other measures that Taiwan must take to defend itself.  But nothing is more important than for it to remain a strong, united, and inclusive democracy. It is democracy that Xi Jinping fears most, because he is fully aware that Communist China suffers from what Columbia University scholar Andy Nathan has called “a birth defect that it cannot cure,” which is that its dictatorial system lacks political legitimacy.

This is why Xi, at the very beginning of his reign in 2012, tasked the Communist Party to write the secret communique called Document No. 9, which directs party cadres to intensify the struggle against the core principles of liberal democracy – constitutional government, universal values, civil society, and free media.  

Document No. 9 repeatedly refers to these democratic principles as Western, meaning that they are supposedly foreign and threatening.   But Taiwan’s democracy shows that these principles are perfectly compatible with Confucian culture and are, therefore, truly universal.   This, of course, is the same message conveyed today by the people of Hong Kong, and three decades ago by the people of China in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and in 400 other cities across the country.  

Taiwan has not chosen to be a global symbol of democratic universalism, and I did not anticipate that it would become one when I came here 25 years ago, hoping that Taiwan might establish an institution to promote democracy in the world.  It now has such an institution, and for that I’m very grateful. And as I said last year when I spoke at the TFD’s 15th anniversary celebration, I hope that the Taiwan government will increase Foundation’s budget, as the U.S. Congress may soon do for the NED.  The work is so important.  

But China’s rise as a dictatorship, and the threat that it now poses to countries in East Asia and beyond, have given the democratic system established so successfully in Taiwan a much larger significance.

It is the example of Taiwan itself that now inspires people everywhere who believe in democracy.  It offers a vision for a better future, a different kind of dream that may once again capture the imagination of the Chinese people.  Because of Taiwan’s sacrifice and commitment, I believe that day will come.