On Sept. 1, Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil visited the Legislative Yuan and gave a speech about looking from the perspectives of the history of Taiwan and the Czech Republic and contemporary issues about freedom, demonstrating his commitment to defending democratic ideals.
Not only was the occasion a tremendous breakthrough in Taiwan’s international relations, but it was also the most direct response from an EU country toward the endangerment of European values by autocracy and populism after the 2008 financial crisis.
Taiwan and the Czech Republic share many similarities in their paths to become democratic nations.
After the failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 followed by Soviet military occupation, many young Czechoslovakians and intellectuals who were not willing to succumb to the authoritarian regime took their activities underground, waiting to rise again for democracy. Eventually, in the wave of East Europe’s democratization in 1989, Czechoslovakians peacefully ended communist rule through the non-violent Velvet Revolution.
Taiwan, for its part, went through decades of the White Terror era, which was eventually ended by the Wild Lily student movement.
By ending his speech with the statement “I am a Taiwanese,” not only did Vystrcil uphold the value of democracy and freedom, but he also showed the bravery of refusing to compromise with an authoritarian regime.
His delegation’s visit to Taiwan sounded a loud alarm to autocratic countries like China.
The political stance behind his speech is connected to two events during Czechoslovakia’s democratic movement: the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution, which are directly related to the concerns of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other totalitarian regimes — political stability and separatism.
For this reason, if we put Vystrcil’s speech in the present situation in Central Europe, we can understand that the sentence “I am a Taiwanese” has a different meaning. Instead of praising the democratic values of his home country, it serves as a wake-up call to the Czech Republic’s neighbors who are seeing a gradual backsliding in their democracies.
In the past few years, many new democracies such as those born during the third wave of democratization — such as Eastern European and Latin American nations — and some of the older democracies — such as India, Israel, Brazil and Chile — are facing bottlenecks in their democratic development, sparking worries over anti-democratic movements inside their borders.
Moreover, the public panic and uncertainties raised by the COVID-19 pandemic have created a massive impact on traditional democratic meritocracy.
The boundary between democratic politics and authoritarian politics has gradually become vaguer. Amid the ongoing pandemic, not only have many dictators taken advantage of the situation to expand their power, but some democracies that used to praise liberty have also promoted political institutions and technology systems — thanks to manipulation by powerful politicians — to conduct surveillance in the name of disease prevention.
For example, in India, the world’s largest democratic republic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demanded that all central government personnel should use the official app “Aarogya Setu” for disease prevention measures, and officials have forced all citizens and inbound and outbound travelers to download the app.
Modi’s strong will has led many domestic enterprises and landlords to force their employees and tenants to use the app, escalating human right violations.
Another example is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has authorized the Shin Bet security agency to utilize confidential data on mobile phones, initially developed to combat terrorism, to track Israeli citizens.
Thanks to data tracking by the military, the Israeli government can sentence citizens defying quarantine orders to a maximum of six months in prison, severely violating their rights.
A bill approved by Knesset on July 21 allows the Netanyahu administration to legally extend the measure until Jan. 20 next year, thereby raising a disease prevention policy to the political surveillance level without scientific proof or broad consensus.
The most typical anti-democratic leader is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is taking his country back to an era of authoritarian rule.
As Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz once said: “Many leaders in this region [Eastern Europe] are no longer pretending to care about democracy or the rule of law.”
Orban has threatened to abandon democracy, turning Hungary into what he calls a Christian illiberal democratic country. He has also used the pandemic to declare a state of emergency, allowing him to rule by decree and using domestic protests as an excuse to expand his power. Although Hungary has ended the state of emergency, Orban’s move has already struck a blow on the EU’s democratic values.
When we first observe authoritarian regimes, we will generally consider that since there is a connection between the escalating pandemic and the rise of autocracy, we will further have a preconception that let us instinctively regard COVID-19 and disease prevention policy as easily manipulated political tools for dictators to use.
However, such a view not only ignores the foundation of the power of authoritarian politics, but it also ignores civil power lying within.
First, dictators often prefer political crises that they can freely manipulate, while enjoying the power to pick and respond to any issue according to their preferences, but the uncertainties brought by COVID-19 have limited the space and possibility for political manipulation, giving dictators no choice but to respond to a crisis that threatens their political legitimacy. Moreover, emergency management policies such as curfews and mandatory lockdowns implemented during the pandemic might seem to be only limiting people’s rights in their daily lives.
However, Ivan Krastev, a researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences, sees the situation differently.
In authoritarian regimes, generally there is a broad identity to dictatorship. This identity not only promotes the dictator’s goal into its people’s ideology but also assures the stability of the regime.
However, due to the escalating pandemic crisis and information exchange between countries through the Internet, people in authoritarian countries are more aware of the relative deprivation that they have lost in terms of their privacy, property and even the right to life, he said.
Krastev also considers that setting limitations such as social distancing, wearing masks in public areas, downloading virus prevention apps demanded by governments, and so on, indirectly provide people with the means for civil disobedience.
In many ways, this imperceptibly facilitates the strengthening of civil power.
From authoritarian regimes to democracies, the spirit of democracy in Taiwan and the Czech Republic is again facing threats and challenges from a great power.
Facing the democratic crisis in the post-pandemic world, Taiwan can protect its precious liberties amid the global wave of “gradual democratic backsliding” through the following means.
First, we have to readjust our sensitivity toward the international situation. As mentioned, due to the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, many dictators have so few political choices that they have to divert domestic dissatisfaction toward disease policies outside the border.
For instance, the frequent military conflicts between China and India, and the CCP’s active deployment around the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait are an indication of the domestic crises that China and India are facing in a post-pandemic world.
Specifically, even with the ongoing virus outbreak and 25 members of India’s parliament testing positive, Modi still emphasized in his parliamentary opening speech on Sept. 14 that “the country stands with our soldiers.”
He has tried to divert domestic dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of disease prevention toward national sentiment.
Therefore, if we can understand the pros and cons of the political nature of dictatorship from different aspects, we will have a clear view of the changes in the international situation, while helping small democracies, such as Taiwan and the Czech Republic, take precedence in the conflict between great powers, laying the foundation for maintaining our sovereignty and democratic value.
In addition, amid the pandemic, several disease prevention technologies have been adopted. However, people usually have a distorted view of technology, attributing its drawbacks to technical problems and considering “better technologies” the only solution while neglecting the political and social influence lying behind.
To avoid stepping into digital authoritarianism, we must admit that it is user context and ways of utilizing technology that determine how certain technologies exert their influence.
While virus prevention technologies can be implemented with a more democratic view, we must first break misconceptions about technology, then constantly examine and ponder its influence and design products that take social justice into consideration. Ultimately, we have to understand that virus prevention technologies exert influence based mostly on innovation and assistance within bureaucratic systems.
However, “comparing ” is a permanent characteristic of politics, as people will always evaluate a government’s performance and commitment, which in the pandemic and Internet era will further increase the ideological gap between democracies and autocracies.
In democracies, successful policies always depend on active civic participation and support.
Therefore, we Taiwanese should, on the one hand, diligently supervise the way our government utilizes and controls virus prevention technologies through political participation, while cooperating with it to develop more inclusive and democratic technologies.
On the other hand, we can take advantage of our democracy and liberty to show the world, via the Internet, how we include inclusiveness and efficiency in our democratic system through examples such as the national mask team. In short, we have the opportunity to create an irreplaceable Taiwanese value in the global society.
Chang Liang and Wu Xiao Mi are studying for their master’s degrees at National Yang-Ming University’s Institute of Science, Technology and Society. Huang Shen is a game designer based in Taipei.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday last week, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei City Councilor Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯) wrote: “The KMT must fall for Taiwan to improve.’ Allow me to ask the question again: Is this really true?” It matters not how many times Hsu asks the question, my answer will always be the same: “Yes, the KMT must be toppled for Taiwan to improve.” In the lengthy Facebook post, titled “What were those born in the 1980s guilty of?” Hsu harked back to the idealistic aspirations of the 2014 Sunflower movement before heaping opprobrium on the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP)
The scuffle between Chinese embassy staffers in Fiji and a Taiwanese diplomat at a Republic of China (ROC) Double Ten National Day celebration has turned into a public relations opportunity for the government, Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Although the incident occurred on Oct. 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) downplayed it, only for the story to be picked up by the foreign media, forcing the ministry to respond. The public and opposition parties asked why the government had failed to remonstrate more strongly in the first instance. It is still unclear whether the ministry missed a trick
US President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former US vice president Joe Biden, are holding their final debate tonight. In their foreign policy debate, China is sure to be a major issue of contention for the two candidates. Here are several questions the moderator should pose to the candidates: For both: In the first televised US presidential debates in 1960, then-Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and his Republican counterpart, Richard Nixon, were asked whether the US should intervene if communist China attacked Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Kennedy said no, unless the main island of Taiwan was also attacked.
For most of us, the colorful, otherworldly marinescapes of coral reefs are as remote as the alien landscapes of the moon. We rarely, if ever, experience these underwater wonderlands for ourselves — we are, after all, air-breathing, terrestrial creatures mostly cocooned in cities. It is easy not to notice the perilous state they are in: We have lost 50 percent of coral reefs in the past 20 years and more than 90 percent are expected to die by 2050, a presentation at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego, California, earlier this year showed. As the oceans heat further and