Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Freedom House releases ‘freedom index’ in Taipei

For the first time since it started publishing its Freedom of the World annual report in 1972, the US-based Freedom House released the report in Asia, and did so in Taipei on Tuesday. The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy hosted the event at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel.

In assessing countries, related territories (Hong Kong, Puerto Rico) and “disputed territories” (such as Kashmir, Tibet, Palestinian Occupied Territories), Freedom House looks at five principal variables — namely public assembly, media freedom, ethnic/religious tolerance, rule of law/judicial independence, and corruption/governance — within two broad categories: Political Rights (PR) and Civil Liberties (CL), which are then attributed a score of 1 (“free”) to 7 (“not free”). With these, all 193 countries are listed as either “free”(green) “partly free” (yellow) or “not free” (violet).

Without going into too much detail (the full report is available at www.freedomhouse.org), Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, said that last year, the number of “free” countries dropped by one to 89; the number of “partly free” countries rose by two to 62, while the number of “not free” countries stood at 42. By population, 3 billion people lived in “free” countries, 1.3 billion in “partly free” countries and 2.2 billion — 1.3 billion in China alone — in “not free” countries.

Three countries — Pakistan, the Maldives and Bhutan — moved from “not free” to “partly free,” while three experienced declines: Afghanistan and Mauritania (“partly free” to “not free”) and Senegal (“free” to “partly free”).

“Not free” countries included the usual suspects: North Korea, China, Zimbabwe and Burma, among others, while at the other end of the spectrum, Scandinavian countries topped the list. Of interest to readers of this blog, Taiwan was listed as “free,” with scores of 2 in PR and 1 in CL; China was “not free,” with 7 in PR and 6 in CL; Singapore was “partly free” with 5 in PR and 4 in CL; Hong Kong was “partly free,” with 5 in PR and 2 in CL; Tibet was “not free,” with the 7s in both categories. South Korea and Japan were both “free,” with 1 in PR and 2 in CL. The US and Canada were both “free,” with top scores in both categories. In Asia — the region with the greatest variety — South Asia was mostly “partly free,” Northeast Asia was either “free” or “not free,” while Southeast Asia was mostly “partly free” or “not free.”

As some, including Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, executive director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, pointed out, Freedom House may have been “too kind” to Taiwan this year, especially in light of recent developments, including the violent police crackdown on demonstrators during the visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) in early November. At minimum, some said, a “downward trend” arrow should have been added next to the country.

Mr. Walker was accompanied by two contributors to the report, Dr. Bridget Welsh of John Hopkins University, and Sarah Cook of Freedom House, as well as Mr. Hsiao and Dr. Chu Yun-han of National Taiwan University. Some salient points from the presentations and the Q&A period that followed:

- While from 2000 to 2006 political freedoms improved worldwide, after 2006 that trend was reversed.

- Despite the promises and commitments it made prior to the Olympic Games, Beijing failed to deliver. It remains a regional hegemon whose effect on democracy and freedoms in the region is for the most part negative, especially through investments in countries like Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. Its “neutral” stance vis-à-vis corruption and abuse in countries it invests in could have a serious long-term impact socially, especially as the divide separating the elite and ordinary citizens widens.

- The Asia-Pacific lacks a regional organization that pushes for human rights and democracy. For example, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping, of which China was a principal architect, focuses on economics and security, but fails on the democratic side (while only one country in region, Indonesia, is listed as “free”). Exacerbating this problem is that the Great Powers have placed little emphasis on democracy in Asia, focusing instead on trade and security. Chu said that while such a role would ostensibly be for Japan to fulfill, it has failed to do so and Japanese are not all that confident in the health of their political system, let alone its value as a model for the region.

- While the impact of the ongoing economic crisis has yet to be fully ascertained, there was general agreement that it risks widening the gap between rich and poor and cause problems in countries with vast migrant populations, such as China, and where governments depend on economic performance to retain their legitimacy. In the face of economic crisis, authoritarian regimes could become more repressive to stay in power. Chu made the point that “Many democracies did not survive the Great Depression.”

- Repressive regimes are becoming more subtle in their control of citizens and the media. Realizing that monitoring Internet use in full was impossible, regimes such as China have turned to more “creative” strategies, such as placing pro-government propaganda on key Web sites or controlling Web portals.

- Mr. Hsiao pointed out that the belief that Islam is incompatible with democracy was a fallacy, as most Asian countries in the “southern crescent” of Asia tended to be freer than their northern, Buddhist counterparts. We should therefore ask why most Muslim countries in the Middle East remain so undemocratic, he said, without elaborating (oil, external intervention and geography are all likely candidates).

- Freedom is transitory and could be at risk if the electorate feels that governments are not delivering. In fact, Asia’s three strongest democracies — Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — also show the highest levels of dissatisfaction, which seems to stem from the greater expectations that come with democratization. As such, failure to deliver could bring about a democratic backlash and give rise to populism (as was seen in Venezuela, to name but one country).

- Despite all its rhetoric, the administration of US President George W. Bush was generally bad for freedom and democracy, and aside from military invasions it encouraged dictatorial and authoritarian regimes while compelling otherwise democratic regimes to undermine the rights of citizens in the “war on terrorism.” Expectations were high that president-elect Barack Obama would reverse the course.

- Most agreed that 2009 would be a pivotal year for worldwide freedom, especially amid the challenges posed by the economic crisis. On Taiwan in particular, this year will be a crucial one that will determine whether the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which has control over both the executive and the legislature, has indeed brought about a downward trend in freedom and democracy, as many already fear.

In all, I believe it was very positive for Taiwan that Freedom House would choose to make its first Asia launch here, as it might help put the country back on the map internationally (in contrast, for example, with the decision by Human Rights Watch to remove Taiwan from its Web site). As Mr. Hsiao said, in Taiwan he can (still) express his political views (very green, I must add) without fear of being arrested, a stark contrast with places like China, Myanmar and North Korea. Yet there was a consensus that democracy and freedom are very fragile and should not be taken for granted. Epitomizing this reality was the birth of the Wild Strawberries Student Movement (whose representatives were present in the audience), which, as Mr. Hsiao said, emerged after years of non-involvement by youth in politics and in reaction to new realities.

Vigilance, therefore, remains necessary. Now the question is, Which way will Taiwan go in 2009?


E.M.E. said...

Hi Michael, thanks for this great report! Not much coverage on the "mainstream" Chinese speaking media, as expected.

MikeinTaipei said...

Dear E.M.E.,

Thanks again for the kind words. The Chinese-language media were there; I don't understand why they would fail to report on it — or give it the space that it deserved — given that it was a first for FH to release its report in Asia.