With rising unemployment and a sharp drop in exports, China and Taiwan are both facing economic recessions. But which government is better equipped to deal with the downturn?
Past experience has shown that the true test of governing systems is not when the economy is chugging along smoothly, but rather when it hits a bump in the road or comes to a screeching halt.
In a declining economic environment, democratic systems have been found to be more stable, flexible and well-equipped than their authoritarian counterparts to address such changing circumstances. Nevertheless, even in democracies, times of economic hardship can correspond to deteriorations in civil liberties, as politicians coming under fire from frustrated citizens seek to minimize criticism.
As two governments at opposite ends of the democratic-authoritarian spectrum, Taiwan and China are emerging as key case studies for how these complex dynamics play out this year. A brief look at the condition of core institutions — such as the media and law enforcement — at the end of last year, offered insight into how prepared the two societies are for successfully overcoming these challenges.
Beyond the worlds of business interactions and tourist attractions that outsiders most commonly encounter, China remains a one-party state governed by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Despite playing host to the Olympics last year and making pledges years ago to improve human rights ahead of the Games, China’s leaders failed to institute significant democratic reforms or even gestures toward improved rights protection.
Instead, during the year, there was an evident backtracking when it came to core institutions and freedoms. The Communist Party tightened control over key elements of the judiciary, with courts refusing to even hear cases on issues of accountability based on “orders from above.” Among those rejected were lawsuits filed by parents of children killed in collapsed school buildings in Sichuan Province and made sick from melamine-tainted milk.
There were crackdowns on bloggers, human rights lawyers, petitioners and those seeking to protest during the Games. Of particular note was a nationwide escalated persecution of minorities. From Tibetans to Uighurs to Falun Gong adherents to “house church” Christians, thousands of believers found themselves facing an intensified campaign of arbitrary detention, labor camp sentences and, in some cases, death in custody.
At the end of the year, as it became evident that China’s economy would be pulled down along with the rest of the world, the authorities appeared to be preparing for further restrictions on freedom of expression and judicial independence. More than 100 signatories on the pro-democratic “Charter 08” have reportedly been detained or interrogated, while the head of China’s supreme court recently called on judges to prioritize “social stability” in their rulings.
The irony is that such orders tend to undermine social stability as people take to the streets in frustration because there is no independent court system to guarantee compensation or curb corruption.
Taiwan, by contrast, has distinguished itself globally over the past two decades by its achievements in becoming a fully fledged member of the community of democracies. With a free press, a generally protected right to free assembly, elected representatives and a well-developed judiciary, the Taiwanese polity has a wide range of self-corrective mechanisms in place to weather economic and political storms.
Nevertheless, recent months have also seen several incidents that indicate some of these key institutions are coming under pressure.
Restrictions on protesters and police violence during the visit of Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), a perceived selectiveness in corruption prosecutions, suspicious circumstances of judges’ appointments to former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) corruption case and proposed legislation that would enable program-by-program government scrutiny of public broadcasting have raised concerns both domestically and internationally that some of Taiwan’s hard-won democratic gains may be regressing.
A series of KMT summits with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials has further raised fears of back-door dealings on crucial economic questions and of Taiwanese officials stooping to the CCP’s level of non-transparency and manipulation.
But unlike in China, these events have triggered some of the “checks and balances” mechanisms common in democracies. The media have reported extensively on these incidents and the different viewpoints regarding them. Citizens and rights groups have lodged court complaints over police violence. A student-led civil disobedience movement has grown, demanding greater freedom of assembly. Opposition legislators are critiquing the proposed public broadcasting bill in the legislature.
That is why if the current administration responds positively to these efforts, taking a more inclusive approach to governance and safeguarding fundamental democratic features of transparency and the rule of law, then Taiwan would be well-poised to deal with the economic crisis.
China, on the other hand, is likely in for a rocky ride as nothing suggests the CCP is at all prepared to have a genuinely open conversation about the country’s future with the people it rules.
Sarah Cook is an Asia researcher at Freedom House. She is visiting Taiwan for today’s launch of Freedom in the World, the organization’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties around the world.
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