Analysis of both quantitative data (V-Dem scores and survey results) and qualitative data (interviews conducted with a translator* who works in the government) show worrying trends of democratic backsliding in Taiwan, particularly due to the coinciding timeline of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests.
Democratic backsliding can be quantified by the decreasing scores assigned to a country by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). There was a 8-year hiatus (2012-2019) in which Taiwan was not considered as exhibiting signs significant enough to show evidence of democratic backsliding. However, in 2019, Taiwan’s score dropped suddenly and significantly by 0.024, which is the second largest drop in Taiwan’s history since 2000, following the current highest drop at 0.026 in 2004. In 2020, there was another drop of 0.007. It is also important to note that the timeline of the dropping in scores coincides with that of the Hong Kong protests in 2019-2020.
What was happening in Hong Kong in 2019?
This blog post will attempt to summarize the events of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests effectively, thus, it will not go into details that may not be too relevant to the discussion Taiwan. To find more information on the protests, the author recommends this detailed timeline that pinpoints key events to start with.
Hong Kong, formerly a British colony, was handed to China in 1997, under the supposed promise of “one country, two systems”, which allowed citizens to enjoy non-interfered democracy and judicial independence for 50 years (till 2047). The first waves of protests were triggered after the Chinese government introduced amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (FOO), in April 2019. These amendments would commonly be referred to as the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, which allowed alleged criminals of any nationality to be extradited and tried in China if crimes were suspected of being committed in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and China. This Bill came after Taiwan sought assistance in the extradition of a Hong Kongese man who allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend on a trip in Taiwan and fled back to Hong Kong. Despite having obtained a confession from the man, Hong Kong officially was still unable to comply with Taiwan’s request for extradition, as there was no existing extradition agreement between the two. China seized the opportunity and introduced the Bill in a way that offers “an almost parental-like solution for two kids having issues. However, it was just so they can cover up their true intention of furthering their efforts to have more power and control in both Taiwan and Hong Kong; the amendments would make the process of arresting dissent voices in Hong Kong easier and will not have to continue to rely on abductions, a tactic commonly used in Hong Kong by the Chinese government to silence specific people”, said the interviewee. After 5 months of drastically increasing frequency and levels of violence between the police and protestors and footage of police brutality being widespread across the world, the Bill was announced to be suspended indefinitely in September 2019. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, protests dwindled down as well, but the sentiment never disappeared.
In June 2020, a new Hong Kong National Security Lawwas passed without the content being shared with not only the public but also local officials. The new Law discussed the crimes of supporting secession (of both Taiwan and/or Hong Kong), subversion, collusion with foreign organizations, and terrorism. It allowed authorities to surveil, detain, and search anyone who is suspected of committing said crimes, and also required any publishers, content-sharing platforms, and internet service companies to block any and all content that the authorities deem to be in violation of any of the crimes listed above. Essentially, it limited free speech by outlawing dissent and practicing gradually increasing efforts in censorship. During the prior months of protests, many activists and protestors were arrested and subsequently went missing, or would die mysterious or illogical scenarios. The police would explain away these deaths as accidents or suicides. Records show that a minimum of 9,216 people were arrested at the protests, but the official prison records indicated a total of only 7,023 people being detained and awaiting trial. This prompted the commonpracticeof writing “no-suicide declarations” before protesting, to ensure loved ones know that if they turn up dead, it was not by choice. The harsh reality and the implementation of this new Law encouraged large numbers of activists to flee in fear of their lives as soon as they could. Though this Law made it significantly more dangerous and difficult for activists to organize, the sentiment remains present. News articles have shown that many activists who remain in Hong Kong are still secretly gathering at times, trying to figure out the next move.
This start of the practice of censorship is deeply alarming, as the supposed 50-year deadline (in year 2047) had not even hit the halfway mark. Nonetheless, the Chinese government just openly walked back on their promise of not intervening in Hong Kong’s government and is already coming up with new laws on censorship. Despite international condemnation against China and the support offered to Hong Kong citizens, ultimately, China still achieved what it wanted, with no real consequences, and the world has moved on.
Hoe does what happened in Hong Kong explain the sudden V-Dem score drop in Taiwan?
There is one major problem — the issue of China— that really demonstrates just how similar the two are. In fact, data from surveys show decisively that the majority of citizens from both nations hold a negative view towards China and that they largely identify themselves as Taiwanese or Hong Konger, as opposed to Chinese, despite the ethnic roots of all three of being ethnically Han Chinese (See fig. 1-4).
Fig 1: 61% of respondents stated having an unfavorable opinions of China in Taiwan, while 28% harbor favorable opinions.
Fig 2: 71% of respondents stated feeling not proud of being a citizen of China while only 27% stated feeling proud.
Analysis of data: Both regions show that the majority of its people hold unfavorable opinions towards China in both surveys which are both conducted in the chaotic 2019 year. In fact, Hong Kong’s statistics for this year had created both a new all-time high and all-time low records since 1997. However, it is important to note that the survey was conducted less than a week after tensions increased drastically when police officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors during the city’s largest and most violent protests in decades, thus the anger towards the police and China’s role in the development of said events may have contributed to respondents reporting more extreme views than they would normally. Nonetheless, the perception of China in both regions are still overwhelmingly negative.
Fig 3: 66% of respondents stated that they identify as being solely and specifically a Taiwanese person while 28% identify themselves as being both Taiwanese and Chinese.
Fig 4: 76% of respondents identified themselves as “‘Hongkongers’” in a broad sense” (i.e. either as “Hongkongers” or “Hongkongers” in China), while only 23% identified themselves as “‘Chinese’ in a broad sense” (i.e. either as “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”.
Analysis of data: It is important to note that 83% of the respondents who were aged between 18 and 29 shared the same pride and self-identification of being solely and specifically Taiwanese. As we saw in the protests in Hong Kong, many of those who emerge and successfully lead movements and protests are likely to be in that age group. If what happened in Hong Kong were to be repeated in Taiwan as well, many of these people would end up needing to step up and take charge, and the strong sense of pride they have in the island is reassuring to see. As for the self-identification portion, both countries once again show that citizens largely have refused to identify themselves as Chinese, despite our shared ethnic roots (along with China) of being Han-Chinese. Taiwanese and Hong Kongers no longer identify themselves as “Chinese” politically, and have gained a strong sense of pride in where they are from.
The similarities in both regions, especially in regards to China, help explain the sudden and large drop in V-dem score in 2019. After witnessing what happened, both Taiwanese officials in power and citizens would exhibit sudden shifts in behaviors and/or beliefs that may be perceived as a sign of democratic backsliding. Since there was no significant amount of change in the V-Dem score for Taiwan between 2012 to 2018, the timeline of having the second largest drop in score in 2019 does coincide with the timeline of the protests in Hong Kong. In an effort to better understand what the current sentiment is in Taiwan towards China (after Hong Kong protests), the author asked the translator, “What have you heard, both professionally and personally, about what citizens are thinking or feeling about the rising level of threats from China, especially after what had happened in Hong Kong?” A summary of his response is as follows:
In general, Taiwanese people have always known that its military forces do not stand a change without the support from the U.S. if a military conflict were to occur between China and Taiwan. There is different levels of trust placed in the U.S. government on whether or not and to what extent it would support Taiwan amongst citizens if China really were to invade militarily — a topic that has been focused upon much more by both officials/ academia, and chatter amongst friends after the seeing what had happened to Hong Kong. The majority of arguments can be split and categorized into two groups.
Group 1 largely consists of younger people, and can sometimes sound idealistic in how much trust they have in the U.S. government. These people did not experience the period of time when Taiwan was put under martial law (1949-1987), which is also known as White Terror, and may find it difficult to relate to the struggles the older generations faced. They can come off as unrealistic as well, by their reliance of a sense of “undying pride of being Taiwanese” and believing that the U.S. government will “handle the rest”, and send over troops to fight Taiwan’s battle for them. The difference in experiences and struggles definitely shows, as these young kids are less afraid of consequences and value standing up for themselves and freedom, even if it may anger China.
Group 2, on the other hand, consists of people above the age of 40-45. These people have a more traditional mindset of avoiding conflicts, and are more realistic about how much faith should be put in another country. Perhaps it is due to being more able to relate to the stories told to them from their own parents or grandparents about the struggles during White Terror, that many could have been raised to fear another potential head-on challenge between Communism and Democracy. On top of not being completely trusting, the ideas of avoiding conflicts and to keep quiet to prevent escalation is much more engrained with these people. A common thread amongst arguments in this group is their dislike of current President Tsai’s administration and her much more aggressive approach towards China compared to former President Ma. People in this category generally feel like Tsai’s administration, alongside the U.S., have continuously been “poking the bear” despite clear warnings and repeated reiteration of the “One-China Policy” from China. “You poke a bear enough times, it will attack and it will be too late to do anything about it” is an analogy that can be used to describe this group’s thoughts on how best to handle the cross-strait relations.
Signs of Hope
Despite the worrying signs and trends observed, there are still signs of hope. Taiwan has been formally invited to attend the “Summit for Democracy” created by President Joe Biden. The first of two Summits, which convenes in December of 2021, aims to tackle issues of democratic backsliding. After the news broke of the formal invitation, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office called the inclusion of Taiwan a “mistake,” and that China continues to oppose “any official interaction between the US and China’s Taiwan region.” Despite having shown signs of democratic backsliding itself in the past 2 years, Taiwan stated that Beijing has no authority or right to speak for the island, and stated that it will continue to cooperate with like-minded countries, to continue the efforts of protecting universal values, such as democracy and human rights. It also expressed that the invitation affirms the island’s continued efforts to promote democratic values and human rights throughout the years. The fact that Taiwan was even invited to this Summit shows that President Biden has also continued his efforts to raise Taiwan’s international profile by including the island in international forums, despite the threats from Beijing. President Biden and Taiwan’s goals align, in Taiwan’s continuous advocacy to be included in various IGOs (i.e. efforts to join the World Health Organization). Hopefully, this invitation for the Summit can boost morale amongst officials with power in Taiwan as well as citizens, and allow people to remain hopeful that signs of democratic backsliding will stop in the island, and that regardless of how much trust we put in another country, at least the U.S. is on Taiwan’s side if China were to actually invade the island.
* Interviewee wishes to remain anonymous in the publication of content discussed in the interview. The interviewee is a translator works with high-level government officials, including occasionally, the President herself. Full transcriptions of the two separate interviews conducted, which will include translations of all phrases communicated in Mandarin, Chinese, will be available upon request by contacting the author at email@example.com by December 12th, 2021.