Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) this morning led calls for global democracies to stand together in the face of Chinese oppression and pledged that Taiwan would never reverse its democratic course.

In a speech to mark the opening of the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei, Tsai said that Taiwan is facing ever greater pressure from China, including interference in its politics and compression of its international space.

Echoing sentiments expressed at a TFD “Defending Democracy: Combating Authoritarian Corrosion” symposium in May, the president said that only by working together can countries that share the same values counter unwelcome economic, political or military intimidation.

She said that as a result of China’s pressure on its political space, Taiwan is at the forefront of a global battle to resist authoritarian regimes’ “sharp power” initiatives, which aim to erode respect for human rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech.

Since President Tsai came to power in 2016, China has mounted intensifying campaign on Taiwan that spans at least 10 fronts, including efforts to poach its diplomatic allies, military coercion, cyber and political warfare and pressure on overseas corporations to negate Taiwan’s international space, most recently by bullying multinational corporations into changing the way they designate Taiwan to indicate it is part of China.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

A student dressed in Winnie The Pooh costume to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping stands on the stage to protest against a popular Chinese talent show "Sing! China". Protesters accused the show of being part of Chinese United Front tactics and forced the cancellation of the event at National Taiwan University, in Taipei, Taiwan Sept. 24, 2017.

Elsewhere in the region, most notably in Australia and New Zealand, the depth and scope of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front propaganda wing activities have caused considerable alarm, and galvanized a new sense of urgency among regional democratic governments to share information and strategic insights.

Tsai also highlighted the progress Taiwan has made since the lifting of martial law 30 years ago, noting that the country now enjoys among the freest media environments in Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), within one of the world’s most dynamic democracies.

She referenced Taiwan’s role in what American political scientist Samuel P. Huntingdon termed “Democracy’s Third Wave”, or the near doubling of global democratic governments in the world that occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1974 and 1990.

As with those states, the transition to free and fair elections is rarely smooth, Tsai said, before reaffirming her government’s commitment to building consensus and pursuing transitional justice as essential in maintaining the health of Taiwan’s democracy. “We must reconcile with the past and go forward together,” she said.

Tsai’s words set the stage for subsequent panel discussions on the state of global democracy, and threats and challenges to democracy and civil society in Asia.

In January, Freedom House released its “Democracy in Crisis” report, which highlighted the erosion of democratic values around the world in 2017, and noted that global freedom had declined for a 12th straight year.

Speaking during a panel on “Democracy and Freedom in the Global Context”, Senior Vice President for International Programs at Freedom House Lisa B Dickieson said that the greatest threat to democracy on a global stage are challenges to multilateral alliances and a lack of faith among the citizenry in the value of democracy itself.

Harking back to Taiwan’s role as an important standard bearer for countries struggling to resist authoritarian influence, Dickieson called on firsthand evidence of the impact of the role of moral support in encouraging democratic societies, recalling a recent trip to Kenya where local government representatives expressed the feeling that the democratic world “doesn’t have our backs anymore.”

Throughout the panel discussions, the subversive role of the internet was a key theme, with RSF President Pierre Haski noting that disinformation is not a new problem, but technology has enabled extreme political forces, previously denied a platform by mainstream media, to act with unparalleled speed and reach.

Haski referenced a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report that investigated how and why France was able to resist attempts to interfere in its presidential elections last year.

He said that the attempts, orchestrated by the American alt-right movement with Russian support, failed because they were poorly translated into French and the electorate was wise to online strategies aimed at influencing their voting as a result of reporting on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

That theme -- the importance of an informed and engaged electorate -- ran through the TFD event, highlighting the importance of civics education and teaching children how to discern the difference between fact and disinformation in maintaining the democratic freedoms and values.

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