TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

China is using its power to undermine democratic institutions and free expression in democracies worldwide. From the harassment of journalists to the removal of thousands of articles in prestigious academic journals, the CCP is rapidly eroding freedoms that we have long taken for granted. Olivia Yang reports.

 

During his three-and-a-half-hour address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on Oct. 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make his party more responsive to calls for democracy and justice. But tight security around the congress — human rights lawyers, rights defenders, petitioners and dissidents were arrested nationwide — suggested otherwise. And increasingly, China watchers are warning of Beijing’s accelerating efforts to reinforce and export its anti-democracy beliefs abroad.

One day before the closely watched Party Congress, a press conference was held in Taipei to draw attention to China’s spreading influence in democracies around the world.

Titled “Made in China: Democracy Oscillated and Human Rights Wrecked,” the media event was convened by 17 Taiwanese non-government organizations, including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Covenants Watch, Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network, Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, International Tibet Network, and Tibetan Youth Congress.

Beijing has been increasing pressure on international events and organizers to either not extend an invitation to Taiwan or force the island-nation to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan delegations, research teams, journalists and NGOs have also been barred from entering international meetings and assemblies despite having gained access in the past. These events have included the World Health Assembly (WHA), the Interpol general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labor Organization conference, and others.

Other than interfering with Taiwan’s international affairs, China has been tampering with local events through more direct means. This includes the kidnapping of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che in March, influence in Taiwanese media, threats against journalists, and longstanding reliance on pro-unification groups to intimidate civilians, such as the violent assault on student protesters who rallied against the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” which was scheduled to be held at National Taiwan University last month.

Growing international threat

China’s interference is not limited to Taiwan. In August, Chinese authorities demanded Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 315 articles in China Quarterly, CUP’s China-focused journal, when accessed in China. Around 1,000 e-books were also asked to be taken off from CUP’s Chinese websites. The writings covered issues ranging from the Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution to Taiwan and Tibet.

The U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies (AAS) also confirmed the same month that China had requested the censorship of around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies — also published by CUP. It was also learned in early November that Germany-based Springer Nature, the world’s largest academic book publisher, had removed at least 1,000 articles in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles in question also contained the keywords “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”

U.K-based CUP reversed its decision to comply with Beijing’s request after receiving widespread criticism, while AAS refused to adhere to Chinese authorities.

Visa denial is an alternative approach China is taking to curb discussion of democracy and human rights.

Canadian Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen in August was denied a visa upon planning to raise questions on human rights on a Canada-China Legislative Association trip. Prominent British human rights activist Benedict Rogers this month was also barred from entering Hong Kong, despite Rogers saying he was making a private trip.

In a more extreme case, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, was not even allowed to apply for a China visa when she sought to attend the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.

China has long used visa denials to also rid itself of foreign journalists and academics who are too critical of its repressive policies. In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China. In August this year, Nathan Vanderklippe, the Beijing bureau chief for Canada’s Globe & Mail, was briefly detained by police and his computer was seized while reporting in Xinjiang. For updates on how China meddles and censors media worldwide, see Freedom House’s “China Media Bulletin.”

In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China.

While Beijing authorities had a direct hand in the above occurrences, the Chinese Communist Party is also infiltrating democratic countries through “soft power.”

In May, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has chapters in universities across the U.S., condemned one university for inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. A few days later, it accused a Chinese student of “not loving China” because she praised U.S. freedom and liberty in her graduation speech.

The following month, Chinese students at Australian universities were reported to be monitoring fellow nationals and keeping the Chinese embassy informed of activities such as human rights protests. Political parties in Australia have also been accused of taking donations from Chinese property developers in recent years, while Chinese state-controlled media giants have sought to influence mainstream Australian media by pushing cooperation deals.

Interference by Chinese officials has also been reported in Canada, such as during a state visit by then-president Hu Jintao, when, according for a former Canadian intelligence officer, a Chinese diplomatic mission mobilized Chinese counter-protesters. Keen on securing a free-trade deal with China, the Liberal Trudeau government has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing for its human rights violations or activities that undermine Canada’s democracy.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, also a prominent expert on Chinese affairs, in September published a research paper examining how China’s soft power is becoming a growing concern for New Zealand and how its effects could be mitigated.

In the executive summary of her study, Brady writes, “The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread. China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed ‘magic weapons’ that helped bring it to power.”

China’s influence, and by default its nefarious influence on democratic institutions, is also growing through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and in places like Africa, where it has been cooperating with local media organizations.

Safeguarding democracies

The Australian government is preparing to introduce next month a series of laws covering espionage and foreign political interference. The U.K.’s Foreign Office also summoned China’s ambassador to the U.K. after Rogers was denied entry in Hong Kong. The activist said on Oct. 17 that he will start an NGO to monitor the city’s democracy and human rights.

However, in Canadian MP Bergen’s case, she said Liberal MPs that were also traveling to China for the Canada-China Legislative Association trip did not reply when she asked what measures they would take in response to her visa denial. The group proceeded with the trip without her. Senator Joseph Day, co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, said the group was told by Canadian and Chinese officials it had no choice if it still wanted to go.

When Montreal-based ICAO last year refused to invite Taiwan and blocked Taiwanese reporters from a triennial air safety assembly, Paraguay’s ambassador to Canada, Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez, told reporters that the ICAO Secretary General, Fang Liu of China, had warned them their microphones would be muted if they tried to speak on behalf of Taiwan.

“The government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”

In addition to his vow to respond to calls for democracy, Xi also mentioned cross-Strait relations during his report at the 19th CCP Congress, saying China has “a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”

“[We will] never allow any person, organization or political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.

In response to Xi’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the unilateral construction of a “one China” on Taiwan was unlikely to gain support from the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her National Day address on Oct. 10 also dedicated a passage reminding that the island-nation’s democracy and freedom “only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.”

“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life,” Tsai said.

The president also reiterated that she and Taiwan would not “bow to pressure” from China regarding cross-Strait relations.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Alison Hsiao sat down with Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Secretary General of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, winner of the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, to talk about memory, justice, and government crimes against ordinary citizens. 

 

On Dec. 10, 2016, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy awarded the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, a prize established and sponsored by TFD to honor individuals and organizations that have demonstrated a strong commitment to advancing democracy and human rights through peaceful means across Asia, to the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).

In her acceptance speech, AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso said that Taiwan is a country that “ha[d] a common experience of enforced disappearances during [its] authoritarian rule,” adding that receiving the award from such a place was a “noble expression of friendship and solidarity.”

For the Philippines, where AFAD is based and Ms. Bacalso is from, the award probably also came at a propitious time, as the country was marking the 20th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ overthrow in the wake of the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Marcos was accused of killing, abducting and torturing his opponents and activists under Martial Law, which he had declared in 1972 and did not lift until 1981.

Asked in a separate interview earlier this year what has changed since the lifting of Martial Law in her country and the dictator’s ouster, Bacalso responded with pessimism.

Besides the loss of “the best and the brightest,” who could have been the pillars of present-day Philippines had they not been killed or disappeared, it is also “unfortunate that not many people have been educated [about] what happened in the past,” she said.

While it was “encouraging that many young people took to the streets when [the incumbent Philippine government] moved Marcos’ remains to the country’s heroes’ resting place [last November], unfortunately the protest was not sustained” as it should have, she said.

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice. While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

Honoring Marcos the dictator as a national hero by “burying him in the Heroes’ Cemetery causes a lot of shame in a country that underwent repressive rule and whose best and brightest men and women were disappeared, killed and executed,” Bacalso said.

Schools should have provided a platform where young people can obtain knowledge about the past, but “in some textbooks Marcos has continued to be portrayed as a hero,” she said. And the fact that Marcos was buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery also sent a misleading “message to the young people that we have forgiven him, that we should reconcile for the sake of the future.”

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice,” Bacalso emphasized. “While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

“There must be admission of what happened in the past and public apology from the Marcoses and from those who were involved in human rights violations during the Martial Law period,” she continued.

Bacalso’s remarks had resonance with many people in Taiwan who have called for transitional justice, men and women for whom certain anachronistic — if not outrightly offensive — authoritarian-era icons are still featured prominently around the country. For them, such controversial figures should also be held accountable for what they did, and their crimes should not be whitewashed using superficial pretexts such as “other values” over justice.

Enforced Disappearances 

The award was AFAD’s first for its accomplishments, Bacalso said, adding that and it “recognizes the suffering of the victims of enforced disappearances” which at this very moment still occurs on the Asian continent.

And this strikes very close to home for Bacalso. The former AFAD chairperson, Munir Said, was allegedly assassinated during a flight from Indonesia to Amsterdam via Singapore in 2004; its present chairperson, Khurram Parvez, was arbitrarily detained for more than two months in India in 2016, while many others from AFAD’s partner organizations in the region have been arrested, attacked or threatened.

The era during which Taiwanese were arbitrarily arrested by the government has long ended, but democratization has not stopped the Chinese communist regime from kidnapping or arbitrarily detaining Taiwanese nationals such as Lee Ming-che in March this year (people from other nationalities have suffered a similar fate in China).

AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, left, shares the organization’s stories and objectives at the 2017 Asia Young Leaders for Democracy program in Taipei in August (Photo: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy).

Bacalso’s organization is urging countries to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and entered into force in 2010. But the political conundrum in this case is evident: While China is not expected to be a signatory anytime soon — not to mention that China was, according to Bacalso, “one of the most difficult states during the Convention-drafting negotiation process, invoking national security” — Taiwan as a non-UN member is not in a position to sign the Convention.

Notwithstanding the dilemma, she encouraged Taiwan to incorporate the contents of the Convention into its domestic laws, as it has done for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

By doing so, Taiwan would be “a good example for those countries that are members of the UN, and I’m sure this will pressure China as well,” she said.

There is a reason why Taiwan has a role to play in advocating against the crime of enforced disappearance, Bacalso concluded. “It’s important for Taiwan to have a domestic laws against enforced disappearances because you had enforced disappearances during your four decades of Martial Law. It should be a lesson that could teach the present and future governments. It’s also an explicit admission that there were enforced disappearances in your [dark] period of history.”

The winner of the 2017 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award will be announced on Nov 15.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

Various NGOs and members of the artistic community are turning Taiwan into a leader on gender equality and gay rights, using activism, workshops and visual arts to raise awareness and reach out to a region where some backsliding has been observed. Olivia Yang reports.

 

Taiwan LGBT Pride, the largest gay pride parade in Asia, was held on Oct. 28, drawing a record 110,000 participants from around the region through the streets of Taipei for a day of concerts and festivities.

In its 15th year, the annual parade started out on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei. Three groups — including one led by the representative offices of 19 countries — marched through northern, western and southern Taipei before returning to the popular plaza for an evening concert.

Thousands march down Zhongshan Road on their way to Ketagalan Boulevard. An estimated 110,000 people took part in this year’s LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Representatives from foreign diplomatic missions in Taiwan took part in the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28. Many of them distributed flags and paraphernalia celebrating their country’s embrace of gay rights (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Everyday people, young and old, as well as extravagant floats and revellers in flamboyant costumes and rainbow accessories of all kinds paraded to this year’s theme, “Make Love, Not War — Sex Ed is the Way to Go.” The focus on gender equality education was chosen in response to anti-gay marriage groups ramping up the pressure after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices on May 24 ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

The landmark ruling has paved the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex unions. The Grand Justices said Taiwan’s Civil Code, which currently states that an agreement to marry can only be made between a man and a woman, “violates” the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of marriage and people’s equality. It ordered the Taiwanese government amend the law within two years, adding that should it fail to do so, same-sex couples could get married regardless.

While Taiwan positions itself as one of the most progressive countries on LGBTQ issues in Asia, the region has hardly made any headway on the subject, with some countries even regressing in recent years. Laws and taboos that inhibit people from expressing their sexual orientation continue to exist in various Asian countries: Indonesia has imposed a nationwide crackdown on the community, and many in countries like the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia still face discrimination, sometimes even violence.

Despite the progress, Taiwan has also experienced pushback, primarily from conservative Christian groups.

In response to this phenomenon, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, a gay rights organization, held a workshop on Oct. 27 which brought together nearly 50 LGBTQ activists from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to discuss the influence of conservative groups on LGBTQ movements in those countries. The three nations have met resistance from conservative powers in implementing laws and regulations related to LGBTQ rights.

 

A number of Evangelical Christian churches and other conservative groups are behind the anti-gay rights and anti-sex ed movement in Taiwan. Their recent attempt to unseat New Power Party (NPP) Executive Chairman and legislator Huang Kuo-chang — an active supporter of same-sex marriage — is an example of the group’s efforts to pressure the government against implementing marriage equality.

Answering with art

Despite the conservative influences, Taiwan’s LGBTQ culture continues to flourish and to lead the discussions on LGBTQ rights in Asia.

Besides the annual pride parade, the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently featuring the first major survey of LGBTQ art in Asia. The group exhibition, “Spectrosynthesis: Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” is exhibiting 22 artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, as well as Chinese-American artists based in North America.

The show features 51 works created over the past century. The pieces range from interactive light boxes and videos to photography and paintings. The exhibition aims to generate more discussion about the diversity of human social values and further advance human rights in Taiwan and other Asian societies.

“Man Hole,” by Hou Ching-Ming (Photo: Olivia Yang)

Jun-Jieh Wang’s “Passion” (Photo: Olivia Yang)

In the past, public museums in Taiwan have also held exhibitions exploring gender identity, such as the “Your Closed Eyes My Extinction” exhibition at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, and “SEE THROUGH, exhibition against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia” at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park earlier this year.

The local film industry has also been making waves on the international LGBTQ scene. In its fourth year, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) opened on Oct. 20, offering screenings of 53 films in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung.

This year, Taiwanese film director Huang Hui-chen won Taiwan’s first Teddy Award at the Berlinale — an official award given by the Berlin-based festival for films with LGBTQ topics — for her documentary “Small Talk”; film director Wang Yu-lin just returned from the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival with his latest film “Alifu, The Prince/ss,” which explores the conflict between gender identity and local indigenous traditions; and film director Zero Chou is working on her latest project, Six Asian Cities Rainbow Project (亞洲六城彩虹計劃, unofficial English translation) — a series of six films about LGBTQ issues shot in six different cities across Asia.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

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.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

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.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

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.

 

All photos by the Garden of Hope Foundation.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 6: Democracy Challenged

TDB Vol. 1 No. 6: Democracy Challenged

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.

 

Gender Injustice

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.

 

All photos by Huang Hsiengo/TFD

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

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.

 

Top photo: J. Michael Cole

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 3: TFD hosts 2017 Community of Democracies Youth Forum

TDB Vol. 1 No. 3: TFD hosts 2017 Community of Democracies Youth Forum

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) and the Permanent Secretariat of the Community of Democracies (PSCD) today opened the 2017 CoD Youth Forum at TFD headquarters in Taipei, bringing together young human rights activists and academics from around the world to discuss the many challenges facing democracy.

 

Titled “Strengthening Youth Participation in Democracies Worldwide,” the three-day workshop is one of the first CoD events to focus specifically on youth and their role in democracy.

Nearly 40 speakers and participants, from countries as varied as Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Morocco, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S., are taking part in this year’s workshop. Among the participants from Taiwan are Lin Fei-fan, Wei Yang, Poyu Tseng and Jennifer Lu.

Among the topics discussed at the panels are “Security and Democracy: Extremism, Cultural Bigotry and the threats to Democracy,” “Unbalanced Globalization: Impact on Democracy,” “Effective Youth Participation – The balance between social movements and political participation,” “Global Youth Solidarity for Democracy,” and “Establishment of a Youth Pillar.”

According to the workshop manual, only 1.65% of parliamentarians around the world are under the age of 30 and less than 12% are under the age of 40, while the global average age of parliamentarians is 53.

“Despite the age eligibility for national parliaments starting at 25 in more than a third of countries around the world,” it says, “citizens under the age of 35 are rarely found in political leadership positions — political institutions, parties, parliaments, election bodies and public administration.”

As a result, it continues, “It should come as no surprise that, with limited opportunities for inclusive participation in decision-making processes, youth feel excluded and marginalized in their democracies.”

Since meaningful democracies require the participation of youth, the 2017 CoD Youth Forum “aims to develop proposals to the question how can youths be more engaged and included in democracies.”

TFD President Hsu Szu-chien, right, delivers opening remarks at the CoD Youth Forum held at TFD headquarters in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

In his opening remarks on April 19, TFD President Dr. Hsu Szu-chien expressed his hopes that the Youth Forum, held as Taiwan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its democratization, would set a precedent for future youth empowerment, an area of democracy promotion that has not received as much attention as others over the years.

More than ever, with the rise of populism, the lure of extremist movements, trends suggesting an erosion of democratic traditions worldwide and authoritarian regimes like those in China proposing would-be alternatives to a liberal-democratic world order, young people need to be empowered and to be better informed about the ramifications of non-democratic systems of governance, Hsu said.

While dialogue can provide the platform for countries to help each other to democratize, he said, it is also essential to help counter democratic reversals such as have occurred in recent years.

“TFD wants to be part of that effort,” he said. “It’s a fight.”

Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, discusses democracy during his keynote speech at the CoD Youth Forum in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

In his keynote speech, Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, struck a more positive note.

Despite the many challenges and reversals observed worldwide — exemplified, among other things, by U.S. President Trump’s congratulatory remarks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the passing of a referendum on Sunday that will fundamentally alter the Turkish constitution in ways that have human rights watchers deeply worried — we should remember that during the Cold War almost everybody growing up in the shadow of Soviet authoritarianism believed that the Soviet Union was eternal.

Decades later, and with the Soviet empire relegated to the history books, the Arab Spring proved once again that authoritarian regimes with the most powerful intelligence services and the savviest diplomats — countries like Mubarak’s Egypt — could be brought down by the people.

Turning to democracy, Eörsi said the term didn’t mean much unless it provided a platform for dialogue and the means to resolve the dilemma between human rights and the choices of the majority. That dialogue, he added, necessitates a parliament, a free press that can scrutinize the mechanisms of power, and a civil society. Without those, democracy as self-reflection cannot occur. And without self-reflection, there can be no room to change, or to improve, the system.

Eörsi described the Community of Democracies as a “democratic United Nations.”

“There is much talk about democracy at the UN, but little tangible is done,” he said. “Part of the reason is because nearly half of UN member states are not democratic.”

Headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, the Community of Democracy was founded in 2000 under the Warsaw Declaration, a ground-breaking document signed by 106 countries in support of democratic transition and consolidation worldwide. TFD is an International Steering Committee member of the Civil Society Pillar of the Community of Democracies.

The CoD 2017 Youth Forum runs from April 19-22.

Dr. Ketty W. Chen, Vice President of TFD, left, discusses issues with former Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Abdellah Eid, 23-year-old from Rabat, Morocco (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Thevuni Kotigala of Sri Lanka, left, and Jatzel Roman Gonalez of the Dominican Republic (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Andrzej Kostek
Head of Logistics, Events and Procurement, Permanent Secretariat, Community of Democracies, right, gives an overview of the Community of Democracy’s operations (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

TFD President Hsu, left, with Dr. Michael Y. M. Kau, Senior Research Fellow at TFD (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

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