From democratic recession to the rise of ‘fake news,’ authoritarian influence to accusations of Occidental imperialism, freedom around the world is under assault. Global experts and NGO luminaries met at TFD in Taipei last week to brainstorm and find ways to fight back. Alison Hsiao gives us the highlights.
Challenges confronting democracies, running the gamut from fake news to repression of civil society, are real, grave and on the rise, experts from around the globe warned during the fourth annual East Asia Democracy Forum held in Taipei last week. The experts called on democracies and civil societies to join efforts to safeguard freedoms against authoritarianism and to reinvent and strengthen democratic institutions in the face of repressive regimes’ negative propaganda.
“Democratization and democratic consolidation around the world not only have stalled. According to scholars who study democracy, the world is now experiencing a democratic recession,” Taiwan Foundation for Democracy President Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) said in the opening remarks.
“When dictators are perfecting their rule by learning from each other, we must not only keep a watchful eye on our democracies. We must also improve and strengthen our democratic systems and defend democratic values, so authoritarian regimes cannot take advantage of the weaknesses of democratic procedures and use them against us,” he added.
Hsu’s points were resoundingly echoed by the speakers at the forum. Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, also raised concerns over a democratic retreat, with democratic norms assaulted, civil society repressed, information space polluted and kleptocracy rife.
Russia and China are two non-democratic regimes whose presence and practices loomed large in some of the mentioned malaise. Greve pointed out that both countries in recent years have passed laws restricting the activities of civic groups and posed a threat to both online information and the halls of power.
China’s new non-governmental organization management law that came into force earlier this year, for example, targets both Chinese human rights lawyers and activists and foreign NGO workers and scholars, as manifest in the detention of Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin and Sydney academic Feng Chongyi (馮崇義).
Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), who since mid-March been detained incommunicado by Chinese authorities for “jeopardizing national security,” is another example. The cases demonstrate that “from a free country or not, you can be easily affected by other countries’ human rights [deteriorated] conditions,” said Chiu Eeling (邱伊翎), secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
Democratic institutions could also be seriously compromised and corrupted when authoritarians are allowed, with the use of corrupt money, “to project their influence across borders in order to finance their campaigns to make the globe safe for authoritarianism,” Greve said.
“Awareness and recognition” is where we could begin to respond to the challenge of kleptocracy, which is “transnational, new and require[s] us to adjust our thinking,” she stressed, offering by way of example how residents of London could take action by creating a “kleptocracy tour” to see which neighborhoods have Russian oligarchs buying luxurious real estates.
Equally disquieting for democratic communities, said Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are fake news, digital disinformation, and the slow adaptation by democratic institutions to new technological changes.
A global cyber security firm went through all the social media posts “supposedly from protesters in a series of riots about the death of an African American man in Baltimore who died in police custody because of alleged mistreatment,” and found that a vast majority of them actually originated from Russia, China, India and the Middle East, Hubli said.
“Well over 100 pro-Trump websites are registered in Veles, Macedonia, a 55,000-person town,” he said. “During the [U.S. presidential election] campaign, a young group of entrepreneurs were earning tens of thousands of U.S. dollars on fake news, pro-Trump websites and stories they just invented out of thin air.”
Fake stories sometimes can just be funny, but when they are completely preposterous, they can still be believable for those who frequently visit highly politicized websites even if they look ludicrous to mainstream politicians or traditional media, Hubli warned.
And retraction of fake news “rarely works,” for when — and if — those are noticed the damage has usually already been done, he added. “You can’t combat the fire hose of falsehood with a squirt gun of truth.”
How, then, do we save democracy in a digital age? Hubli said we should try to better understand our own disinformation vulnerabilities, integrate the discussion over these issues into the international infrastructure for election monitoring, disrupt the economy of fake news by advocating to tech companies who can reduce the financial incentives for disinformation, and “pre-bunk” disinformation by strengthening public media literacy and sensitivity.
What’s more fundamentally at stake, Hubli added, is the reinvention of democratic institutions. “A lot of disinformation narrative is showing how ineffective democratic models are or that they are equally corrupt and bad [as the authoritarian models].”
Creating a more informed public and actively engaging them with democratic systems that have been long criticized as insufficiently representative, is precisely what Josh Wang (王希), one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps – two Taiwanese platforms aiming to lower the threshold for familiarizing the general public with substantive political discussion – have been advocating.
His teams have set up websites where Legislative Yuan documents are visualized with graphs and videos of Taiwanese lawmakers’ remarks (the absurd and the insightful), during question-and-answer sessions are edited for public reference.
“Making politics fun” and the nation’s congress more open and transparent is what has inspired the teams. Political parties, incumbent lawmakers and challengers had their voting records and expressed stances listed and visualized during the most recent 2016 legislative election, for example. The teams also continued to function as a watchdog after the new legislature took office, arranging for lawmakers to meet face-to-face with young electorates and to be bombarded, as government officials are by them during the legislative sessions, with questions.
The threshold to politics, however, proves to be of different heights for different groups.
Violence against women in politics (VAWP) is a serious hurdle for women around the world. “Violence targeting politically active women makes it more difficult to build sustainable and resilient democracy,” said Crystal Rosario, a gender specialist at the NDI.
“Too many women are told that when they experience this violence that it’s just the price of doing politics, but violence should never be the cost of politics,” she said.
In 2016 the NDI launched the international “Not The Cost” campaign to bring awareness and encourage action to end it. “While violence against women is often associated with domestic violence and trafficking, VAWP has been defined as a range of gender-based harms that seek to force women into a subordinate position with men,” said Rosario, adding that while the extreme form may be assassination, more often, this violence “takes the form of persistent harassment and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.”
In Mongolia, women in politics, as in many other Asian countries, face systematic discrimination such as traditional and social norms preferring “strong men” in the political arena, said Erdenechimeg Badrakh, Executive Director of Mongolian Women’s Fund. Issues about women’s rights are also more than often easily brushed aside or stalled in the parliamentary discussion, she added.
For many more people from the south hemisphere, however, gender justice is more than about challenging gender injustice or gender inequality, as what lies at the core of this injustice is economic policies and institutions that deeply entrench the social inequalities, according to Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE).
Talk about gender justice needs to “go beyond the notion of women’s empowerment that has been promoted by the World Bank and other similar institutions,” she said.
Gender justice is not a single, separable issue, Lauron added, but one to be integrated in the macro-problem of the world’s “obscene inequality,” to which women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and to achieve gender justice would mean “deconstructing those institutions and policies that work against not just women but all people claiming their right and striving to have a voice of their own and the power to imagine their own future.”
Asia and the Community of Democracies
The extent to which people have moved closer to creating a more equal and open society varies greatly in different parts of the world. In Asia alone, the answer also varies dramatically across the region.
Asia is a region where countries are unequally developed, with some, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, having developed relatively stable, democratic and open systems, and others that are governed by semi-democratic or outright authoritarian and closed regimes.
While challenges to democracy were emphasized in the forum, Greve said counterexamples in the region are cause for hope.
It took 50 years after the country’s post-independence military coup in 1962, in 2012 – with democratic movements budded and oppressed during the dark days – that Burma had its first genuine democratic election. “The fruit of the struggle came after a long period of repression, and now Burma has open elections in the context of partial democracy in the constitution,” Greve said.
Sri Lanka suffered decades of forced disappearances and brutal civil war that ended with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, “and yet the voters of Sri Lanka overcame these deficits and had a peaceful election which surprisingly threw out the long-serving family dynasty,” she said.
Despite experiencing Beijing’s increasingly constraining measures and tightening control in the recent years, Hong Kong has seen a rising young generation of democracy fighters, Greve said. Quoted Martin Lee (李柱銘), a Hong Kong political activist who has lived under both British colonial rule and the current Chinese sovereignty. “What gives me hope is to find people who were not born at the time of the handover in 1997 are now leading the struggle for democratic rise in Hong Kong.”
People power recently manifested its force in the ousting of corrupt political leadership in South Korea as well, but Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, still believes there is cause for worry when it comes to South Korean society’s conception of what underlies the country’s democratic institutions.
A “haunted question” that has been repeatedly raised in South Korea, and probably in most East Asian countries, is that whether the idea of democracy and human rights came from the West or dovetails with East Asian traditions, Lee said.
Those doubts, Lee said, originated from the fact that South Korea’s modern nation-building was unlike that of Western countries, which started with “civil society initiatives based on rights, duties and creation of collective will.”
“When asked about democracy, many South Koreans recalled resistance and demonstrations. We have created our democratic identity via resistance, but that is not enough,” she said.
Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, shared the same concerns for a people lacking commitment to genuine democratic principles.
“Democracy in its form itself is not enough,” she said, citing Japan’s nearly 60-year one-party dominance as a cause of unease. “We have to strive for substantive, pluralistic democracy with [an authentic and workable] multiple-party system.”
For many Japanese, the motivations for supporting a functioning civil society are not for sustaining democratic institutions per se but out of a “pacifist attitude or [other] single issues such as anti-nuclear energy,” especially for members of the old generation who had first-hand experience of the Second World War and are keenly aware of what Japan did in and around Asia, Shoji said.
People do not appreciate democracy, which was “given by the [Allied] Occupation force to Japan after the war,” and human rights are often considered Western in Japan, with conservative politicians attacking the notion, saying it is too individualistic and detrimental to Japanese traditional values, she said.
Enmity to this supposed “non-Asia-ness” has been acutely palpable for Shoji, who doubles as chair of the board of Amnesty International Japan.
NGOs are often considered “Western” in Japan and NGO workers advocating certain issues are regarded as “foreign surrogates,” she said, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that “Asia has a limited voice within the international NGOs.”
Shouji called for more effort and networking to be undertaken to change the status quo.
The Community of Democracies (CoD) is a platform where such networking could occur. The intergovernmental coalition was established in 2000 under the premise that governments around the world “need to come together to help strength democracy in countries that have already made democratic commitment,” said Robert Herman, Vice President for International Programs at the U.S.-based Freedom House.
A critical premise, agreed to by the group, is that there is “no such thing as a perfect democracy, as all democracies are in some evolutionary process,” learning from each other, he stressed.
It is also agreed that civil societies have an important role to play in consolidating democracies, Herman said.
The Civil Society Pillar – one of the affiliated bodies at the CoD and of which the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy is currently a board member of its standing International Steering Committee (ISC) – is where the organization “aims to facilitate close dialogue with civil society around the world, even in places where it faces challenges and restrictions.”
But the operations of the CoD are not without difficulties or critics.
Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a Co-chair of the ISC, hinted at one of the problems by openly calling, two days before the deadline, for applicants to the position of secretary-general of the CoD, which is expected to be vacant with the incumbent’s two-year term soon to end, and pointing out that there was no one lining up to succeed the U.S. to be the next presidency.
The U.S., which current holds the presidency, was described by Herman as one of the countries that are on the CoD Governing Council but at the same time witnessing “democratic backsliding,” which constitutes a further challenge to the world’s community of democracies in the present era, where “new authoritarianisms and global assault on liberal democratic institutions and values” have already put democracies on the defensive.
How is Asia faring with CoD networking? Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue from the Philippines, questioned what India, South Korea and Japan, the three Asian CoD Governing Council member states, have been doing across borders with each other and with other democracies in the region.
Anselmo Lee, executive director of the Korea Human Rights Foundation and secretary-general of Asia Democracy Network, echoed those views and asked why no statement was issued by Asian countries, unlike the U.S. and Europe, when incidents such as the military coup in Thailand occurred.
“Like-minded countries in Asia” should be brought together and put the mission of CoD into practice in the region, especially during a time when everybody is talking about democratic regression, he said.
“In order for CoD to be relevant to us and to the lives of people of the community of democracies, you have to have impact. Now it’s low-key if there at all, but politically [the impact] is a bit wanting,” Miclat said after pointing out that the organization lacks public recognition.
The highlight of the CoD may be the invitation process every two years. where it is decided which democracies are to be invited as participating members based on their democratic performance against the CoD guidelines, Miclat said.
“But no one knows the implications [of the invitation process]” if it is not publicized, Miclat said, adding tha publicity and analysis of the invitation process is what is needed for the CoD to have more impact.
There is also “a glaring contradiction [in how CoD works] in the region,” he continued. “There is a vibrant democratic government that is not a member of CoD” due to the “strong lobby of a country that is not even democratic and not a member of CoD.”
Miclat was referring to Taiwan and China. “This is a contradiction we need to address head on.”
All photos by Huang Hsiengo/TFD