Interview: Illiberalism run amok

Reporters Without Borders chair Pierre Haski will give a lecture on Sunday about the rise of illiberal democracy throughout the globe

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Thu, Dec 07, 2017 - Page 14

Pierre Haski says Taiwan’s hard-won democracy is not irreversible. Citing Russia, Turkey and the Philippines as examples, a growing number of states that 20 years ago were feted as becoming free — or at least freer — have instead become increasingly illiberal.

Taiwan’s unique geopolitical situation with China and securing its hard-won democratic achievements at home will require strengthening the nation’s civil society and deepening press freedoms.

“Illiberalism usually starts with attacks on press freedom and the independence of the judiciary,” Haski tells the Taipei Times. “The whole society, therefore, should be involved in securing those two symbols of a strong democracy, counterweights to any attempt to take the country backwards.”

Haski, who is chairman of Reporters Without Borders, will be in Taipei on Sunday to give a lecture for the Lung Ying-tai Cultural Foundation (龍應台文化基金會) on the rise of illiberal democracy. The talk will be moderated by Kuo Chen-lung (郭崇倫), deputy managing editor of United Daily News.

The starting point of Haski’s lecture will be the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, examining the general consensus at the time that liberal democracy and market economy “had won,” and that with time, even countries such as China, which had quashed in June of the same year the Tiananmen Square protests, would move in that direction.

“This was proved wrong,” Haski says, citing Poland and Hungary as states within the EU that have become illiberal, and Turkey, where the pendulum has swung towards authoritarianism. Haski’s main focus will be on Russia, which he finds “an interesting example of illiberal democracy.”


When Fareed Zakaria wrote his prescient article two decades ago in Foreign Affairs magazine about the rise of illiberal democracy, he declared that “there are no longer respectable alternatives to democracy.” Yet, today it has become increasingly clear that other systems of governance are offering alternatives — ones that Haski finds concerning.

“China today clearly defies [Zakaria’s] sentence and has decided, particularly under the rule of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping (習近平), that it could continue on its path without even pretending to embrace what it sees as Western-style democracy,” says Haski, who was stationed in Beijing as a foreign correspondent from 2000 to 2005.

Haski says that China’s economic rise “contradicts every single political science theory of the past 30 years.” Many predicted that the rise of the Chinese economy would lead it on the path of liberal democracy, the rise of a middle class would demand democracy and accountability and that innovation was impossible in a country with authoritarian rule and severe censorship.

Haski, citing Hong Kong as an example, says Taiwan should not expect to be able to export its liberal political culture with its press freedoms and independent judiciary.

“Taiwan [does not have the] capacity to influence the political evolution of the [People’s Republic of China], not only because of information control on the continent which gives a distorted vision of [Taiwan’s] political life, but also because of the strong nationalist vision of the ‘Taiwan question’ on the mainland.”

And as China accelerates its ambitions and activism abroad, and with the diminished role of US President Donald Trump’s administration on the world stage and the EU continues to fracture over economic crisis, waves of migrants and Brexit, it is more important than ever for Taiwan to shore up its political institutions at home.


Haski says the current situation is far different from the post-cold war world, and increasingly far removed from the harmonious multi-polar world many hoped for in the 1990s and early aughts.

This could spell bad news for the liberal democratic model as a “growing number of people in the West [feel] the strains of the last decade in the spheres of economy, social, identity and even security, which has shaken its established historical dominance.”

It also means, Haski says, that other nations, particularly those in developing regions of the world, are increasingly looking towards non-democratic actors for models of governance, such as China on the African continent.

Haski, however, remains convinced that liberal democracy is the only governing system that allows for the greatest amount of freedoms.

“But a lot is at stake in both the US, with the capacity of Donald Trump to be effective in a country that has shown very strong institutions capable of resisting a dysfunctional but very ideological president, and with the capacity of European Union core nations to revive their model and take their unique multinational construction to the next stage,” he says.