What you need to know
Taiwan can't criticize China's authoritarianism while continuing its love affair with iron-fisted populists and tyrants.
By Brian Hioe
The Taiwanese government is continuing its abysmal record of support for authoritarian regimes in the hopes that they will support Taiwan, with congratulations issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to recently elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro on social media. Bolsonaro is a far-right wing firebrand and his election has raised concerns globally that Brazil will see resurgent authoritarianism under his presidency.
Bolsonaro has openly expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s authoritarian period, support for police repression and use of torture, and support for violence against women, gays, indigenous, Afro-Brazilians, and other minority groups. Bolsonaro supporters have a demonstrated history of violence against critics and Bolsonaro himself suggested that he would not accept an election defeat if he lost.
As with other right-wing populists in recent years, Bolsonaro’s victory was accomplished through not only the support of political elites who felt threatened by policies of wealth redistribution, but by seizing on the uncritical nostalgia of society for past glory. The most famous example of an individual who took power on such a basis would be U.S. President Donald Trump.
For Taiwan, which prides itself as a democracy and claims progressive social values under the present administration, the values represented by Bolsonaro seem more akin to those of Xi Jinping’s China.
The Kuomintang (KMT) has attempted something similar in drawing upon past nostalgia for its authoritarian period, in which Taiwan had a strong economy. It, however, has largely been unsuccessful, probably because it is too out of touch with contemporary identity trends in Taiwan.
But it is all too ironic for the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), a progressive administration which at least in name claims to value LGBTQ rights and indigenous rights and whose political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), emerged from Taiwan’s democracy movement, to congratulate Bolsonaro immediately after his election.
The Tsai administration’s response proved so out of step with other international responses to Bolsonaro that this was in itself newsworthy, as observed in a Reuters report.
Namely, Bolsonaro visited Taiwan earlier this year and it is a feature of Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric to lash out against Chinese economic exploitation of Brazil. This has led some in Taiwan to see Bolsonaro as a potential enemy, perhaps in line with how Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on China as economically cheating the U.S. led him to break from decades of diplomatic precedent with the Trump-Tsai phone call in December 2016.
Ironically enough, Bolsonaro’s neo-authoritarianism makes him reminiscent of far-right members of the KMT that call for a return to the orderly era of martial law, rather than the messy democratic politics of the present. For Taiwan, which prides itself as a democracy and claims progressive social values under the present administration, the values represented by Bolsonaro seem more akin to those of Xi Jinping’s China, in which Xi presently seeks to move the country towards lifetime dictatorship under his rule.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time that the Tsai administration has taken to immediately congratulating far-right wing, even authoritarian politicians on their election victories, even those whose actions are reminiscent of past KMT.
In many cases, Taiwan’s self-professed progressive values are only skin-deep.
The Tsai administration immediately congratulated Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández in December 2017 despite widespread allegations from international observers that the vote had been stolen, a set of actions highly reminiscent of past incidents of vote-buying or election rigging by the KMT.
Many of Taiwan’s 17 remaining diplomatic allies are small, poor countries with questionable human rights records which have been encouraged to maintain ties with Taiwan through subsidies.
In the past, Taiwan has been alleged of literally paying off politicians to maintain ties with Taiwan, the object of a recent scandal in Nauru. This led to the Taiwanese MoFA aggressively attacking the credibility of media outlets such as The Guardian on social media in a manner which seemed more like the behavior of the foreign ministry of an authoritarian country than of established democracies in which freedom of the press is an established right.
Taiwan also has taken to depicting the leaders of such countries in a positive light when they are, in fact, despots as in the case of King Mswati, the ruler of eSwatini, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies and a country which has the world’s highest known HIV/AIDS prevalence rate and the 12th lowest life expectancy in the world.
Anything goes, then, in order to build diplomatic ties, even when this involves turning a blind eye to the abominable human rights records of certain countries or political leaders. Such actions go to show that in many cases, Taiwan’s self-professed progressive values are only skin-deep, or that the Taiwanese government truly has little interest in pushing for these values outside of its own borders.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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