Movements that are driven by a conservative ideology are joining hands to block various progressive efforts by the government in Taiwan. Using threats, violence, disinformation and even democratic instruments, these groups seek to intimidate civilians and elected officials in the pursuit of their objectives. J. Michael Cole looks into the latest developments.
Violence-prone groups that advocate unification with China, a movement that opposes the Tsai Ing-wen government’s pension reform program and religious organizations that are dead set against the legalization of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) have come together and formed a loose coalition in recent months, using tactics that go against the progressive momentum that has animated Taiwanese society in recent years.
Though more alliance of convenience than an actual structured organization, the three movements have joined ranks to push back against what many regard as progress, and have had no compunction in resorting to threats and violence to punish, intimidate and silence their ideological opponents. Left unchecked, these activities will contribute to greater social instability and undermine the nation’s democratic institutions.
Violence and threats
A handful of groups have resorted to physical violence, and the threat thereof, in recent months. Led by Chang An-le’s (aka “White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and its ideological ally, the Concentric Patriot Association (CPA), these groups have repeatedly attacked protesters and students at various venues, most recently during the aborted “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival.” The CUPP and CPA are believed to be working alongside Chinese triads, chief among them the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang.
Besides their involvement in violent altercations during the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the groups have been linked to assaults targeting members of the Falun Gong and young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong (interestingly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alleged recently that the Bamboo Union is behind the proliferation of the drug trade in his country). Moreover, the CUPP has been present at protests against pension reform and has collaborated with the Blue Sky Alliance, a violence-prone organization that is suspected of involvement in physical assaults against elected officials outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei earlier this year. Anti-pension reform groups were also behind the disruptions during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei last month. The Blue Sky Alliance also added its own threats against students after the concert incident.
Following the controversy surrounding the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” which has been regarded as a United Front effort by the Chinese, numerous Taiwanese activists have reported receiving threatening messages on social media. In at least one instance, a message made a direct reference to a knife attack. The spouse of Yao Li-ming, a vocal talk show personality, has also received threats, cautioning her to be “careful” next time she visits the market. Given precedent in China and Hong Kong, such threats should not be taken lightly and require proper investigation by the authorities, which in the past week have launched a series of raids against locations associated with the Bamboo Union (although he denies it, Chang, who served a decade in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, is widely suspected of being associated with the group).
Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf,” speaks to reporters during a protest outside DPP headquarters in Taipei (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Young activists, including former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (now a legislative aide), have also been threatened with lawsuits for exposing links between concert organizers and UFW groups back in China. “Lawfare,” as the tactic is sometimes referred to, has been used with greater frequency by Chinese companies and organizations in recent months to silence and intimidate investigative journalists and academics.
The atmosphere of fear that is generated by the use and threat of violence is anathema to the inherent liberties in a democratic system, where different opinions should be aired without fear of reprisal. Involvement by crime syndicates, which have access to weapons, adds a layer of apprehension among people who advocate for their country and a progressive, liberal-democratic way of life.
Although the tolerance of pro-unification parties like the CUPP is a clear manifestation of Taiwan’s political maturity and democratic openness, such permissiveness ought to have its limits. If a registered political party ceases to act like one; if it intermingles with organized crime; if it infiltrates and co-opts grassroots organizations (trade groups, temples); if its head is, as he claims, collaborating with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (or one of its subsidiaries tasked with “turning” criminals and using them to further unificationist objectives); and if, as is suspected, it receives illegal funding (possibly from a foreign and hostile government), then its rights as a party should be annulled and the CUPP should be written off as an entity that operates outside the system. In other words, unless its leaders agree to abide by the democratic rules of the game that define Taiwanese politics, the CUPP should be barred from participating in elections or engaging in other forms of activities that are the remit of law-abiding political parties.
Using democracy against itself
Meanwhile, the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, an alliance created to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, is reportedly within a hair’s breadth of collecting enough signatures — 25,119 — to launch a recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang, the executive chairman of the New Power Party (NPP). Huang, whose NPP emerged from the Sunflower Movement and is well regarded by young progressive Taiwanese, has openly supported same-sex marriage and pension reform. A count on Oct. 6 will determine whether all the signatures gathered are valid. Should the attempt succeed, Huang could be removed despite not having committed a crime or been involved in irregularities; his removal would be the result of conservative/religious groups who cannot countenance a society that operates outside the confines of a literal and often self-serving interpretation of a religious text that guides no more than 5% of the total population of Taiwan.
The Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, which has initiated the attempted recall campaign against Huang, is a close ally of the Faith and Hope League party, which itself serves as an umbrella for various highly conservative Evangelical churches across Taiwan that have actively opposed same-sex marriage and which are generally anti-gay and against sex ed in school. The groups are also known to have been collaborating with MassResistance, a U.S.-based organization that promotes conservative values and that has been described as a “hate group.” Using disinformation and a fear campaign on social media to win over adherents to their cause, other religious groups (including Presbyterians) have threatened similar punitive action against politicians who support same-sex marriage, including the Democratic Progressive Party’s Wang Ting-yu in Tainan.
Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan predict doom and gloom during a rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
National Civil Servant Association president Harry Lee, who has spearheaded opposition to pension reform, has also thrown his support for the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, thus merging opposition to same-sex marriage and pension reform, two issues that enjoy majority support with the Taiwanese public (more than 80% of young Taiwanese support the legalization of same-sex marriage). The CUPP’s Chang An-le is also known to have taken part in activities (including a panel) organized by anti-gay groups in Taiwan.
United in their opposition to progressive ideas, the alliance of convenience that has recently emerged in Taiwan threatens to serve as a force multiplier whereby the anti-liberal-democratic tactics used by one group exacerbate the efforts of other groups, however unrelated their causes. The involvement of pro-Chinese Communist Party, violence-prone and ostensibly triad-related groups in those movements adds a worrying variable to the mix and compounds the resulting instability.
A controversy over the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” on Sept. 24 has laid bare some of the political tactics employed by Beijing in Taiwan for its united front work — so-called “soft power,” a propaganda system that champions China’s “innocence” and chastises those who “politicize” its “non-political” activities, local collaborators who capitalize on democracy and freedom of expression, and groups that are willing to resort to violence. Alison Hsiao reports.
Strong protests by National Taiwan University students on Sept. 24 led to the cancellation of a “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” scheduled to take place at the university’s sports field. Among other things, the students accused school administrators of lending the field without conducting a proper assessment, which according to them not only compromised the students’ right of access to the field but also damaged polyurethan running tracks that, earlier this year, had been revamped at the cost of US$1 million.
A change of the name of the university from “National Taiwan University” to “Taipei City Taiwan University” in the event’s promotional material was also deemed unacceptable by the students.
However, something far more troubling was afoot, namely NTU’s interactions with the organizers of the festival, who besides the Taipei City Government included the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Cultural Exchange Promotion Association, the Shanghai Cultural Association, Shanghai Canxing Trading Co., Ltd., and Shanghai Voice of Dream Media Co., the company that produces Sing! China, a Chinese reality TV singing competition.
As protesters gathered on the stage, the NTU administration negotiated with the organizers, who in the end agreed to cancel the event.
Protesters occupy the stage of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” on Sept. 24, forcing organizers to cancel the event.
While many questions over the signing of the agreement between the school and the event organizers remain unanswered, the fact that various cultural-exchange-cum-entertainment events, innocuous in name, hosted by Chinese groups and companies, are now used to try to gain ground on university campuses in Taiwan is a cause for alarm.
Since the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the Chinese government has shifted the emphasis of its united front work to Taiwanese youth. From the policy slogan “three middles and the youth” (三中一青) — residents of central and southern Taiwan, middle- and low-income families and small- and medium-sized enterprises — in early 2015 to “one generation and one stratum” (一代一線) — the young generation and the grassroots — unveiled by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Yu Zhengsheng in March 2017, Beijing has been eager to influence what is regarded as the “naturally independence-leaning” generation.
Only after the cancellation of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” at NTU did it come to public attention that NTU was only the last stop in the festival’s series of events held on university campuses over the previous week. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016, the show had toured across Taiwan to “hold musical exchanges” at high schools and colleges.
In a press statement the same day, Shanghai Voice of Dream accused critics of “politicizing a music event that is public-welfare-oriented.” Some in Taiwan echoed the sentiment.
In reality, this ostensibly “cultural” event was very much political. For one thing, the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Exchange Promotion Association clearly calls on its website for the “peaceful unification of the motherland.” And Li Wenhui, the “honorary chairman” of the association who came to Taiwan for the musical event, is the Taiwan Affairs Office’s director of the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government.
The willingness of Beijing’s proxies in Taiwan to use physical violence against their ideological opponents was also on full display during the crisis. Members of the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), including party chairman Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) son, Chang Wei, allegedly attacked the protesting students. At least two of them have since been arrested. One assailant used an expandable baton (which he claimed he “happened to find on the ground”) in his attack, resulting in at least three injured protesters.
Violent assaults by pro-unification groups since the pension reform rallies earlier this year are the result of more than a rush of adrenaline in the heat of the moment. These acts of violence, and the fierce debates that follow, are meant to spread fear, distrust and division within society, and to undermine democratic institutions.
As Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House in the U.S., said recently, China as a “threat to democracy” has been underestimated or intentionally ignored by the international community. Thankfully, democratic societies in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, have started to raise the alarm, and New York University Professor of Law Jerome A. Cohen has referred to Australia “the canary in our coalmine.” But much more needs to be done to identify China’s united front activities and their detrimental impact on our democratic institutions.
Democratic Taiwan is and should be open to various kinds of cultural exchanges, but we should never forget that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As a target of Beijing’s unification efforts, Taiwan cannot afford to be naïve when facing seemingly innocuous initiatives sponsored by the Chinese government.
Following a nine-day workshop in Taipei, a group of young democracy activists from around Asia elaborated various strategies to tighten regional cooperation and facilitate information-sharing in times of democratic recession. Alison Hsiao reports.
At the conclusion of a nine-day Asia Young Leaders for Democracy (AYLD) program hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei earlier this month, young participants from around Asia issued a document that is known as the AYLD Declaration. Covering a wide range of issues, the declaration was drafted by the 20 participants, most of whom come from countries that face many challenges in achieving or sustaining democracy.
In itself, the fact that a declaration was issued by a group of young people with different national backgrounds can be hailed as an accomplishment. As many of us know, consensus is rarely the outcome of official region-wide conferences.
Still, adopting a declaration that could be approved by all through a democratic process nevertheless proved challenging, which the young democracy advocates knew all too well from their own experiences back home, where efforts to discredit democracy have been gaining momentum. As the democracy-skeptic camp often argues, efficiency, ostensibly key for development, often suffers from long democratic procedures; so if a trade-off at the expense of democracy is the inevitable cost, then so be it.
Consensus-building isn’t easy, even among ardent supporters of democracy.
“Democracy needs time,” the participants admitted. And as if to prove this, they requested more time to arrive at a final draft of their declaration. Notwithstanding the delays, the young participants were keenly aware that the case for an alternative model to democracy — autocratic governance — is based on a “false promises of economic prosperity and national glory (Clause 1).”
While some efficiency must be sacrificed for the sake of democracy, the “best solution” is not, and never was, what democracy is about, as one participant said during the discussions. Another cited Winston Churchill, who once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
As democracy is said to be in recession with the rise of “illiberal democracy,” the young democracy leaders responded to the trend with an emphasis on fighting disinformation and extremism (Clause 2 & 3), which serve as incubators for and are the product of illiberal democracy, respectively.
The declaration also contains much evidence that the young democracy leaders fully understand what democracy is not: majoritarianism with the majority having all the say. Votes may be necessary, but deliberation and compromise among groups and people, with members of a program or a community having equal rights and access, are indispensable.
The rights of minority groups and political participation have to be guaranteed (Clause 4 & 5): “All human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, language, religion, social class, sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights and equal dignity,” the declaration says, following a debate on whether “women’s political participation” should enjoy a highlighted focus with a separate clause.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
“Democracy needs time” could also be taken to mean that the realization of true democracy is a long haul that requires people, especially the young, to resolutely and actively engage in monitoring, maintaining and improving the democracy agendas in their respective countries.
The task, however, can be particularly daunting for those who live in countries where governments wield power without proper checks and where people in general are ignorant about (or nonchalant) human rights violations. Inter-country and regional alliances and cooperation are therefore essential for activists and dissidents for the sharing of hands-on experience and solidarity building.
To this end, the 2017 AYLD participants came up with three action plans to strengthen the network they creatdd during the program and the principles they have vowed to uphold in the declaration.
The Asia News for Democracy has been set up and will serve as a platform for Asia-related news-sharing to enhance regional partners’ understanding and facilitate networking initiatives.
Moreover, two types of workshops have been proposed to promote democracy and its consolidation: a workshop at the country-level on disinformation for schools and organizations to improve young people’s information literacy and skills to combat “fake news”; and regular regional joint workshops to building regional communities and share first-hand information to young human rights defenders, with a focus on cyber security, utilization of new technology, legal training and protest-organizing strategies.
AYLD participants break into small groups as the project drafts its declaration.
The people behind the idea of holding regional workshops also agreed that lessons can be learned not only from what works, but also from failure. Stories of botched-up tactics and flops can be just as educational and rewarding as those touting successes. In the long run, they said, failure can be a series of steps and milestones leading to success.
Two visits by AYLD members — to the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum — drove in the fact that failure can be but a temporary setback. While both sites are dedicated to activists and dissidents who “failed” in the face of an authoritarian regime, today they are now remembered with respect and pride, and the principles they fought for have prevailed over the forces of repression that, at the time, seemed implacable.
As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, much still needs to be done to ensure that a proper account of what happened is given as the memories, victims and perpetrators fade into the past. Alison Hsiao reports.
It was 1980, a year after the Formosa Magazine Incident. Still in high school, Chen Tsui-lien (陳翠蓮) was asked to “serve the country” after enrolling in university.
Her mission? To “catch the bad guys,” like those involved in the Formosa Magazine Incident, who, according to the school discipline director, were captured thanks to the assistance of many “patriotic youths.”
Selected by the system, Chen said was proud to be one of the students chosen for the spying assignment.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, which had been declared in 1949. To coincide with various commemorative events this year, the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), an organization dedicated to transitional justice in Taiwan, has launched an initiative calling on “ordinary people to share their memories of the Martial Law period.”
During her high school years, immersed in an educational environment closely monitored and calibrated for collective action and inebriated with stilted patriotic refrains, Chen, now a history professor at National Taiwan University, was a what we could call a “defiant” daughter: she was appalled by her father’s criticism of nationalistic songs and accused him of being “unpatriotic.”
Professor Chen Tsui-lien tells about the state’s attempt to recruit her as a spy during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).
“My parents couldn’t sleep at night after I told them how excited I was that I was going to help the country,” Chen said of her spying assignment during a talk organized by TATR last month.
Chen’s father, however, explicitly told her that she should not accept the school director’s offer. “You’re out of your head for wanting to go. You will be responsible for many lives,” he said.
“I cried so hard because this ban,” she told a laughing crowd.
Chen is among the lucky ones who eventually sensed “cracks” in the Potemkin village created by the authoritarian government’s propaganda later in her college years.
“Once you noticed the inconsistencies in their narratives, there was no turning back,” she said.
But “sensing cracks” was far from ordinary. While there indeed were hot-blooded activists who were extremely committed to fighting authoritarianism, several others — like Chen’s parents — only secretly harbored an attitude of resistance. And then there were the “free riders,” those for whom the TATR event would be more appropriately titled “ordinary people’s no-memory of the Martial Law period,” said NTU history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈).
“It’s undeniable that in the latter part of the Martial Law period, which overlapped with an era of high economic growth, many were occupied by the sole idea of making money and accustomed to the life under Martial Law,” Chou said.
Admittedly life could be pretty safe — as long as you stayed away from the “unpatriotic activities and riots that disturbed social stability,” which is how resistance was portrayed by the regime. The mentality explains why many Taiwanese, especially those who are now in their 50s, remember pre-Martial Law life with nostalgia.
“There is a reason why Taiwan’s democratization has been called a ‘quiet revolution,’” NTU political science professor Huang Chang-ling (黃長玲) said. “And this trait does make the country’s transitional justice harder to achieve.”
The problems arising from historical amnesia soon manifested themselves after TATR invited ordinary people to share their stories online and to present (if they had any) memorabilia to accompany their narratives.
Among the items posted was an encyclopedia with blacked out, or “sanitized,” entries about the People’s Republic of China that attested to the era’s censorship. Other participants shared their memories of being indoctrinated with Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People at school, being punished for speaking “dialects,” or even being forced to tear out the star logos (unfortunately red) printed on their Converse All Star shoes.
A ‘sanitized’ version of the Encyclopedia Americana, with passages blacked-out by state censors. The encyclopedia is kept at the National Chiao Tung University Library (photo courtesy of TATR).
Soon enough, the stories attracted criticism by people who accused the witnesses of lying and fabrication. Some questioned the authenticity of memories they said cannot be verified, while others turned to their own memories and stated that since they did not experience such traumas, the stories must therefore be fake.
The attacks forced TATR to issue a statement calling on netizens to respect the diversity of memories of life under Martial Law held by people from different regions, generations and groups, and not to dismiss other people’s life experiences.
“The same questioning logic can always be applied to the questioners themselves,” it said.
“Contemporary studies of personal and collective memories indicate that how the past is narrated can indeed be influenced by the time and situation in which the memories were told, the passage of time and the interaction between the narrator and the hearer,” it said. “But the past is not easily the product of manipulation in a democratic society where files are declassified, different groups of people’s memories are told and historical studies are done in an open and free academic environment.”
When “ordinary people” debate past events, what is really at stake but still lacking is a national report by the government detailing how many people were executed, jailed (and for how long) and subjected to surveillance, and how the institutions behind these operations played their roles and coordinated with each other.
“The state may have offered compensation to the victims of the White Terror, continues to declassify files, maintains historical sites and has even published the victims’ memoirs and interviews, but it has otherwise been completely silent about its past crimes [as an authoritarian regime],” Huang said.
“The public’s understanding of the White Terror has become hollow,” she said, adding that the victims are now little more than “elders in the family.”
People today mostly hear about the White Terror through stories that come up, inadvertently or not, during family conversations, which also refer to the persecutors as “the evil KMT.”
“It’s not exactly wrong to think of them in that way,” Huang adds, “but it certainly shows that the issue of state violence and its complexity has not been truly deliberated and reflected upon.”
Huang Chang-ling speaks during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).
Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy.
Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.
According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.
Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.
Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.
On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.
Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.
Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.
Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.
Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.
Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).
When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.
Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.
At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.
The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.
According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.
The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.
However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)
The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.
The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.
Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.
Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.
In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.
Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”
The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.
Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.
Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.
In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.
Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.
Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.
Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.
Amid a worldwide deterioration in freedom of association and expression, civic activists must urgently discuss how a more enabling environment can be created for civil society organizations (CSO). Last month, a Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) workshop, co-sponsored by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, provided such an opportunity. Alison Hsiao gives the highlights.
About 6 billion people live in countries where civic space is either closed, repressed or obstructed, according to the latest findings by the CIVICUS Monitor made public in April.
“Only 3 percent of the entire population around the world live in countries where space for civic activism is truly open,” Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told a workshop in Taipei last week, citing the report.
According to Maria Teresa Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, there is a global trend toward shrinking and closing civic space, with governments “not only in the south but also in the north” implementing restrictive laws hindering and disabling conditions for CSO formation, registration and operation.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-ruled China is known for the limited maneuvering room for NGOs and civic movements. It has recently attempted to further restrain civic activities by unveiling, in April 2016, the Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations.
The law requires overseas NGOs, which arguably have enjoyed more freedom in China and therefore have served as a critical source of resources and information for domestic NGOs, to report to the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as domestic NGOs must do, and to find a sponsor or “business supervisory unit” for registration, according to Chan Kin-man (陳健民), associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
“The sponsors could be difficult to find as they would have to shoulder political responsibilities [if the NGOs cross Beijing’s red lines],” Chan said, adding that exceptions are possible for “sponsors” seeking financial opportunities in those NGOs and for those that have guanxi (political connections).
With recent developments surrounding the new legislation, “the grey area that Chinese NGOs used to enjoy is disappearing,” he said.
“The large third sector is expanding, but civil society is actually shrinking in China,” as Beijing continues to crack down on dissenting groups while supporting “governmental non-governmental organizations,” a term Chan used to refer to “NGOs” supported by government funding and which therefore adhere to the government’s agenda.
Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, also told of the barriers facing CSOs in Vietnam.
Vietnamese CSOs, like their counterparts in China, need government approval before receiving international aid, she said, adding that it usually takes six months to a year before permissions can be obtained — if at all.
A draft law of association was put forward by the Vietnamese government in 2016 — “supposedly committed to creating an enabling environment for the CSOs, but in reality, there was no outside participation in the drafting process” — and if passed, would create a more restrictive environment for CSOs, Nguyen said.
Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, discusses tightening regulations in Vietnam.
The situation is equally dire in the Philippines. Despite his earlier announcement on negotiating peace with the country’s communist groups that have been waging armed resistance for the past 48 years, “[President] Duterte announced [in May] that he’s going after human rights defenders” and “[just in the night before the workshop took place on May 24], martial law was declared in Mindanao,” Lauron said.
As the above cases make clear, the development of civic space in Asia faces extraordinary challenges. According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space. (The conspicuous absence is Taiwan, which is colored grey, without information on the evaluation map.)
According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space.
Akio Takayanagi, policy adviser at Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, outlined the depressing state of affairs in Japan, which is generally regarded as a developed democracy, citing the World Press Freedom Index that put Japan in 72nd place in the ranking of media freedom in 2017, a stunning gradual downgrading from 11th spot in 2011.
Additionally, an “anti-conspiracy bill” — pushed by the Japanese government and passed by the House of Representatives — could “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci warned.
If it becomes law, the bill will allow the authorities to “criminalize acts of preparation to commit crimes such as terrorism,” Takayanagi said.
The Taiwan model
Left out by the global assessment, Taiwan has proven an encouraging exception to regional and global trends.
Tracing the transformation of CSO-state relations in Taiwan, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, said that beginning with the democratization movements in the 1990s, the country’s CSOs have moved from external control to free association and self-governance, from state monitoring to self-discipline and accountability, and from state dependence to public empowerment.
Nevertheless, there are problems that need to be resolved to ensure a better functioning of CSOs in Taiwan and to strengthen its civic space. Jay Hung (洪智杰), Taiwan AID executive director, noted that while most CSOs in Taiwan align themselves with government requirements concerning internal management, “disclosure of financial reports and work plans to the general public, however, is not mandatory,” which could generate doubts with the public.
There is also the problem of “being strong in domestic affairs but lacking in global thinking and actions,” said Chien Shiuh-shen (簡旭伸), a professor of development geography at National Taiwan University, adding that activists over the years have sometimes worked too closely with the long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and lost momentum after the DPP assumed power for the first time in 2000.
Chien Shiuh-shen of National Taiwan University discusses the ‘Taiwan model.’
But the second democratic “alternation of ruling party” in Taiwan in 2016 has helped push legal and social change, which bodes well for the country’s civic space.
Amendments to the Civil Association Act, which regulates all “people’s groups” including political parties, civic groups and occupational associations, as well as new laws mulled by the government, would further strengthen regulations governing NGOs by enhancing their transparency and changing the language governing the establishment of civil associations from “applying for approval from the authorities” to “registration.”
Activists and CSOs have also “learned the lessons” from their experiences during the first transition of power, including the notion that they should “never say yes to the government all the time,” even if the ruling party was once an ally, Hsiao said.
Chien cited the ruling by Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan on May 24 in favor of same-sex marriage as a demonstration of Taiwan’s profound social progress, three decades after the lifting of martial law.
This is an experience in development that can be shared among Asian countries as the “Taiwan model,” he said, “which is in the social dimension” and is different from the “four tigers” type of economic model upheld in the past.
Enabling environment for CSOs
Besides sharing the Taiwan model, there exist global frameworks that, if observed, could help create a more enabling environment for CSOs, among them the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Goal 16.10, which encourages governments to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,” and Goal 17.17, which urges governments to “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships,” for example, are civic-space promoting, said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA.
Anselmo Lee, secretary-general of the Asia Democracy Network, also weighed in.
“We have to remind the governments that it is their legal obligation” to follow those frameworks developed by the global organization of which they are members, he said.
Meanwhile, the mere presence of regulatory or policy frameworks, or more quantifiable socio-economic development (GDP, life expectancy, literacy and so on), which some argue indicates the existence of an enabling environment for CSOs, may fall short of being comprehensive, Valot said.
The capability approach, first conceived by Amyarta Sen in the debate on welfare economics and defining individual’s wellbeing in terms of their capabilities to achieve their goals, has been applied to assess the environment for civil society, Valot said. It not only means that the socio-economic environment, which should include gender equality and equity in general, but also socio-cultural (participation trends, tolerance, trust), political/governmental and legal environments (civil society infrastructure, state effectiveness, policy dialogue, rule of law, and so on), have to be taken into consideration, he said.
Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, discusses the widening gap between countries and social groups.
Cultivating an enabling environment therefore requires both government input and CSO efforts. Trust between the two needs to be built and CSOs have to work on their professional capacity and undertake self-regulation to be seen as dependable actors, Lauron said.
Global networking is crucial, especially people-to-people exchanges. “Every Philippine activist is also an internationalist because we see that the problems facing the Pilipino society are not limited to our domestic context but must be situated” in the world economic and political context, Lauron said. “Political education among activists and civil society is therefore important as we have to know the forces we’re confronting with in order to develop new strategies and for the approaches to be effective.”
Lauron was responding to concerns raised by Chien about civil movements being restricted to the local and domestic level without global connections.
To share the “Taiwan model” or other experiences of civil society across countries, “we must move beyond organizations and formal institutions [that tend to be] distrusted by citizens and society,” Rutzen said, adding that one effective approach lies with youth engagement.
Lauron echoed this sentiment.
“A new generation of civil society leaders and movement leaders need to be developed; seeds can multiply,” she said.
While Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice. Specialists and victims of sexual and gender-based assault from around the world took part in a workshop organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last week. Stacy Hsu reports.
Standing in front of a packed room full of participants at a workshop on ending sexual and gender-based violence in Asia on May 24 — part of the three-day East Asia Democracy Forum organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy — 18-year-old Taiwanese Victoria Hwang (黃靖茹) electrified her audience with her vivid account of the sexual assaults she suffered at far too young an age.
Hwang was 10 when a close relative raped her at her home. Due to the belief that “the ugly should be kept within the family” and the unfortunate Asian culture that regards sex as a taboo subject at home, Hwang’s parents neither called the perpetrator out nor provided their daughter the emotional comfort she desperately needed.
Instead, they tried to pacify her by saying that the family relative only touched her because “he liked her.” Until this day, Hwang is forced to face her rapist at family reunions every year. The worst part? She has to pretend nothing happened in order to maintain household harmony.
At age 15, Hwang was sexually assaulted by a male friend, to whom she admitted she was attracted. The man also justified his action by saying he had feelings for her. The excruciating realization that she could not turn to her parents for help, or talk to someone about what had happened to her, led to her being diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Read Your Pain founder Victoria Hwang.
Hwang’s trauma was not only caused by the two people who sexually violated her, but also a patriarchal society’s tendency to silence rape survivors. “If this society does not allow rape victims to tell their truths, they will never acquire the strength and support they need,” Hwang said.
Fortunately for Hwang, she stepped out of the shadows after realizing later that she had to overcome her fears and get her story out there for society to listen and change its traditional mindset. She also initiated a scheme called “Read Your Pain,” which publishes the stories of victims of sexual violence anonymously to help facilitate their healing process and raise awareness of the issue.
The 18-year-old’s successful transition from “a rape survivor to an activist” may seem encouraging, but many more victims of sexual assault remain encumbered by past trauma in the darkest corners of the world.
As Garden of Hope Foundation chief executive officer Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容) said in her opening remarks at the workshop, while Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice.
“How to empower these victims to help them through trauma, and make society realize they are not responsible for what happened to them, are the goals most countries are working towards,” Chi said.
Chi’s views were echoed by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (陳婉宜), who believes the entrenched practices of “blaming the victims and assuming they must have done something wrong” are the greatest impediments to an appropriate societal attitude toward sexual violence and their survivors.
Though Taiwan currently has a relatively comprehensive sexual-assault safety net — including prevention campaigns by authorities and women’s rights groups, as well as an administrative mechanism of mandatory reporting of suspicious rape cases — there is still much room for improvement.
The time-consuming legal process for solving sexual abuse cases, coupled with a lack of gender awareness among some judges and prosecutors, can add to the already heavy psychological burden of victims, Chi said.
Chi gave the example of a recent case where a migrant worker was sexually assaulted three times by her employer. “The authorities, convinced of the existence of an emotional bond between the assaulter and the victim, concluded that the sexual acts were consensual and decided not to prosecute the case,” she said.
Education is another aspect that requires more emphasis, said Wang Yue-hao (王玥好), deputy chief executive officer of the Garden of Hope Foundation, singling out the common misconception that most sexual offenses are committed by strangers, while in fact in most cases the perpetrators are acquaintances.
Lee Ping-chang (李炳樟), a specialist at the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health, also warned against the association of rapists with mental illness, saying that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are actually found to have psychological problems.
“That is why we should focus more on monitoring them [sexual assaulters], rather than treating them,” Lee said.
Such a mistaken belief also prevails when people think about violence against women, said Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah, who formerly served as executive director of the Selangor-based Women’s Aid Organization.
“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, but one rooted in gender inequality, power imbalance and discrimination,” said Josiah, adding that alcohol, work-related pressure, or financial difficulties are merely enabling factors of such violence, as opposed to the primary causes.
Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah.
Whether it is sexual or gender-based violence, there was a resounding consensus among the workshop participants that more action by both government and communities is needed to resolve the problem.
All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano stressed the importance of government funding for shelters for victims of physical violence. According to statistics provided by Kusano, physical violence at the hands of a husband in Japan is the cause of death of a wife every three days.
Kusano said her organization took the initiative in establishing the first shelter for victims with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in Japan in August 2014, but the project only lasted eight months and fell apart shortly after they ran out of government subsidies.
All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano.
Although almost every country today provides shelters and emergency hotlines for violence survivors, Josiah said community involvement is still vital to helping battered women and their children.
“While it is easy to find help in a small nation like Taiwan, in big countries like India, you cannot find services everywhere,” Josiah said. “So there is a lot of work to get the community to stand up to provide service to each other.”
As to what can be done next to further combat violence against women, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs gender specialist Crystal Rosario offered an interesting suggestion: Incorporating gender-sensitive elements into soap operas.
Rosario’s idea resonated among many participants, including Josiah, who urged TV producers to come up with popular drama shows that challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them, as most Korean soap operas tend to do.
Other suggestions included providing interactive and educational touring plays to local community centers, launching campaigns that better engage men on gender equality, and offering re-education for members of society.
Re-education is particularly important at a time when people have started to see sexual assault and domestic violence as social norms, Josiah said, adding she regretted that only sensational news stories, such as one about a woman being raped by 20 men, receive public attention nowadays.
“We should really try to change and challenge this mindset,” she said.
Taiwan Foundation for Democracy vice president Ketty W. Chen.
Women’s group Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador.
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.
Taiwan Foundation for Democracy president Hsu Szu-chien, right, makes remarks during the East Asia Democracy Forum in Taipei.
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).
Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, speaks at the East Asia Democracy Forum.
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.
Chiu Eeling, secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
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.”
Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute.
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.
Josh Wang, one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps.
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.
Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness.
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.”
From left: Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, and TFD president Hsu Szu-chien.
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.”
From left: NDI’s Crystal Rosario, Scott Hubli, Louisa Greve, TFD’s Michael Kau, and TFD’s Hsu Szu-chien.
Although the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices fails to resolve the dilemma between amending the Civil Code or enacting of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the judges to support their ruling indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values. Stacy Hsu reports.
A large crowd of gay marriage supporters standing anxiously outside the Legislative Yuan on May 24 cheered after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruled in an unprecedented move that the Civil Code’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and demanded the law be amended within two years.
The ruling, titled Interpretation No. 748, states that the Civil Code, which currently prevents two individuals of the same gender from creating a permanent union for the committed purpose of managing a life together, is in violation of people’s constitutionally protected freedom of marriage and right to equality.
Article 972 of the Civil Code stipulates that an agreement to marry shall be made by “the male and the female parties” in their own concord.
The ruling accordingly urges concerned authorities to amend or enact laws within two years in accordance with the Interpretation, but allows them to decide in what manner they intend to achieve the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.
As the Interpretation enables homosexual couples to register their marriage should the authorities fail to complete relevant law amendments within the given timeframe, it could pave the way for Taiwan to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
The constitutional interpretation was issued in response to separate requests filed by the Taipei City Government and gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) in 2015. Chi has sought legal recognition of his union with his partner in the past three decades. His latest attempt, in 2013, was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in September 2014, prompting his request for an interpretation.
Gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei, who initiated the appeal to the Council of Grand Justices, waves the rainbow flag during the 2016 LGBT Pride parade in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)
The case has attracted tremendous attention both at home and overseas since the Council of Grand Justices held a closely watched hearing on same-sex marriage on March 24 this year.
Supporters of homosexual unions staked their hopes on the Interpretation after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration gave signs it was stalling efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in the Legislative Yuan due to pressure from religious and conservative groups.
Several amendments to the Civil Code to recognize same-sex marriage cleared a legislative committee in late December 2016, but they have yet to be put on the agenda for a plenary review.
The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.
The delays were also partly due to divided opinions among lawmakers, even within the DPP, on whether to recognize homosexual marriage by amending the Civil Code — which is deemed by conservative opponents as detrimental to the traditional family structure — or enacting a special law, which has been criticized by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups as discriminatory.
Although Interpretation No. 748 fails to solve the dilemma between amendment of the Civil Code and enactment of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the Grand Justices to support their ruling today indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values.
The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.
The ruling also refutes the myth that homosexuality is reversible, arguing that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic decided by many contributing factors and that homosexuality is not a disease.
Another argument frequently cited by opponents to same-sex marriage was also dismissed by the Interpretation. It stipulates that since the Civil Code does not make the ability to procreate a prerequisite for a heterosexual marriage, reproduction should not be seen as an essential element of marriage nor used as an excuse to deny homosexual couples their right to marry.
So far the ruling has met with vastly different reactions. Opponents of same-sex marriage have threatened to request another constitutional interpretation or to take the case to the Control Yuan for an investigation, while supporters have expressed their pride in “being Taiwanese.”
Both the Presidential Office and Legislative Yuan Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) said they respected the Interpretation, pledging to handle future legislative efforts with a tolerant and understanding attitude. However, as lawmakers from different parties remain divided on how to legalize same-sex marriage following the ruling, the road to achieving marriage equality in Taiwan may still be bumpy.