Liberals across the world should take heart from Taiwan

Matt Gillow

January 14, 2020

The message from Taiwan over the weekend was clear: no to Chinese authoritarianism. 

Incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive party (DPP,) won the most votes of any Taiwanese leader ever, securing a second term with 8.2 million votes – nearly 20 per cent more than the DPP’s closest challengers, the nationalist (and pro-China) Kuomintang.

In the face of pressure from China, several threats of war if Taiwan makes any further moves to independence and a sophisticated Chinese disinformation campaign, the Taiwanese people emphatically rejected the Chinese model and the Chinese state – and liberals in every corner of the world should take heart.

Because the threat is a very real one. At a recent event by the British Foreign Policy Group, Gisela Stuart, former chair of Vote Leave and member of parliament, pointed out that we cannot just take it for granted that all countries want to be liberal democracies. 

That’s worrying. China is providing an alternative example of governance in a way that the Soviet Union never did, as Chinese affluence continues and the so-called “Asian century” enters its third decade. Amid a shifting world order, with right and left-wing populism prevalent in many developed countries in western Europe and North America, and the global world order battling problems entirely of its own making, a coherent alternative to liberal democracy presents a real challenge to the liberal world as we know it.

While that world order, and the institutions which support it, are chock full of flaws, the principles that underpin them must be protected. Multilateral action on the pressing issues of the day, free trade and support for individual rights – including support for democracy – are key to preserving the freedoms and relative prosperity that so many take for granted. 

That’s why greater support for Taiwan – and Hong Kong for that matter – is so important, as Edward Lucas pointed out yesterday. He notes that the big question is not whether Tsai and the DPP now shift their stance to a more explicit drive for independence, but how the liberal world responds to a victory for Taiwanese sovereignty, and liberal values, on China’s shores.

Lucas is right that there is absolutely nothing, bar diplomatic grumbling from China, that is preventing the UK and other European countries from ramping up diplomatic ties with Taiwan – and following the lead of smaller states (such as the Holy See) by increasing levels of support for Taiwanese officials, and their initiatives, on the global stage.

It’s hard to overestimate the resounding rejection of the Chinese model which the election results emphatically show. The Freedom in the World index 2019 ranks Taiwan as “free”, with robust protection of civil liberties, peaceful transfers of power after free and fair elections, and a vibrant, free economy.

With the world’s largest exporter of state control at large in politics, influencing of members of the business community and spreading pro-China disinformation campaigns, Tsai’s success should be cause for celebration for those who value human rights and freedoms. 

But there is, of course, still a threat. The election victory has riled Beijing, and leaders in the CCP will not accept a deviation from the current constitutional and political arrangements without a fight. At the end of 2018, the DPP had lost several key city seats, and voters were rallying against reforms to the state pension system. Clearly, Tsai’s leadership is not unassailable – and while liberals can, and should, be emboldened by Taiwan’s rejection of China, more must be done. 

Britain, and others, can do more in terms of diplomacy to protect liberty the world over. The situation in Hong Kong is a damning indictment of the liberal world order, which is allowing China to walk all over a neighbour. The same mistake cannot be made with Taiwan.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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