Trans-Pacific View

Taiwan’s Pragmatic Approach to Biden’s Democracy Summit

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Taiwan’s Pragmatic Approach to Biden’s Democracy Summit

Bringing Taiwanese technocrats to Washington’s Summit for Democracy could help bolster Taiwan’s democratic standing.

Taiwan’s Pragmatic Approach to Biden’s Democracy Summit

Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s Representative to the U.S., speaks at an event commemorating ROC National Day in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Facebook/ Taiwan in the US

The Biden administration has invited Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, to held virtually December 9-10. By doing so, Washington has taken another bold step aimed at cementing American support for Taiwan. The invitation followed a series of concrete measures to enhance ties with Taiwan, such as approving the Biden administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan, calling for countries to support Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations system, holding the second U.S.-Taiwan Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue.

Shortly after the U.S. pronouncement, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) proclaimed that two Taiwanese representatives – Digital Minister Audrey Tang and Taiwan’s representative to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim – will be attending the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy.

For those expecting the presence of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at the summit, the attendance of these two Taiwanese officials may seem somewhat confusing. However, when weighing up the effectiveness and pragmatism of the messaging, the participation of Tang and Hsiao would prove beneficial.

Audrey Tang

According to Taiwan’s MOFA, Tang will be in charge of “conveying to the global community Taiwan’s commitment to firmly defending democracy and sharing how Taiwan can strengthen democratic governance through the use of technology” at the summit.

Tang, Taiwan’s first digital minister, has been a common figure in the international media, especially as Taiwan sought to amplify its success story in combating COVID-19 using digital pandemic-prevention measures. Tech-based initiatives proposed by Tang, like engaging civic participation, dialogue, and consensus-building while using the internet and using algorithmic co-governance to keep social media platforms in check, have helped reinforce Taiwan’s democracy and offered a middle ground “between the internet and personal privacy; between corporate interests and the welfare state.”

As a digital minister, Tang strongly believes in “radical transparency,” the necessary means to build a strong democracy. Thanks to her embrace of technology to strengthen democratic governance and transparency, the Tsai administration has sought to make democracy and digital tools the two inseparable components of Taiwan, thereby making “digital democracy” a landmark success of the archipelago.

Her radical vision and dedication to enhancing Taiwan’s digital democracy by embedding technology “into the spaces where citizens live” is an invaluable asset that Tang could bring to the summit.

Additionally, Tang has made enormous contributions toward cracking down on China’s malicious information operations, aimed to shape Taiwanese perceptions in Beijing’s favor. For example, Tang employed the “humor over rumor” strategy to forge Taiwan’s quest against disinformation. In response to hoaxes appearing on social media, Tang and her team would unleash jokes with memes within two hours to tell true stories, thus allowing the government to “wrest control of the narrative.” As countries scramble to defend their democracy while seeking effective strategies to fight authoritarian regimes’ tactics of spreading fake news, Taiwan’s utilization of a creative and effective approach to intercept fake news attacks and suspected disinformation operations launched by the People’s Republic of China could help.

At the summit next week, Tang will surely share her hands-on experience with like-minded democracies. In her tweet on November 24, she underlined that “To give no trust is to get no trust. As democracies, we must trust our citizens and in the digital commons. This is the best and only way to protect and advance our shared values.” By bringing Taiwan’s digital democracy to the table, the Asian democratic beacon and other democracies could come up with discussions and viable schemes that could encourage people to collaborate with the government to strive towards a transparent and accountable government.

Hsiao Bi-khim

Choosing Representative Hsiao to attend the virtual summit appears to be another sound choice by the Tsai administration. Her personal, educational, and political ties with the United States make Hsiao an ideal and natural candidate for the summit.

Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., has deep ties with the United States as she grew up in a bicultural and bilingual household with a Taiwanese father and an American mother. Hsiao immersed herself in U.S. academic and political life while studying at Oberlin College and Columbia University and has a good record of dealings with U.S. officials.

Before assuming her position as Taiwan’s representative to the U.S., Hisao had served as the chair of the USA Caucus in Taiwan’s Legislature Yuan. She is also a founding board member of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the first democratic advocacy foundation in Asia, and had previously served as the chairperson of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), a Manila-based platform aimed at forging dialogue and cooperation between Asian liberal and democratic political parties.

As a strong advocate for democracy and human rights, Hsiao is well-suited to attend the summit. In her article published in the National Interest, Hsiao highlighted that “freedom and democracy are part of Taiwan’s DNA” and underlined Taipei would keep on broadening democratic values across the world.

She has also been well-known as one of the most vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. In 2006, Hsiao proposed a draft same-sex marriage law and led the effort to make marriage equality a reality in Taiwan. In her words, “Passing same-sex marriage laws will make Taiwan one of the most progressive and tolerant societies in Asia.” In 2019, same-sex marriage was indeed legalized, a first for any government in Asia.

Equally important is Hsiao’s professional experience in fostering the Taiwan-U.S. relationship and promoting Taiwan’s liberal democracy to the world. At Biden’s presidential inauguration in January, Hsiao underscored that democracy is the “common language” of Taiwan and the U.S. and further demonstrated her commitment to work with the Biden administration to advance “mutual values and interests.” In October, Hsiao said that Taiwan’s democracy was under threat and Beijing’s aim to undermine the Republic of China’s democracy and freedom would pose a threat to regional countries, including the U.S.

Given her background, Hsiao would likely share with other participants at the Summit for Democracy Taiwan’s democratization, its unwavering commitment to liberal values and human rights, and its resolve to counter authoritarian regimes. Moreover, Hsiao will be expected to continue her expertise in building bridges between Taiwan and the U.S. and boost Taiwan’s interactions with like-minded countries.

Learning and Sharing Alike

But Taiwan’s democracy is by no means perfect, and the Tsai administration must deal with challenges regarding its democratic consolidation and human rights record. For instance, the nexus of democratization and digitization is a crucial issue, particularly when Taiwan continues to struggle with a digital divide, which occurs along both generational and geographical fault lines. Most internet users are still located in developed urban areas, or are younger and highly educated. Accordingly, when talking about democratic technology and digital democracy, Taiwan should also talk about digital inclusion.

Additionally, the issue of human rights in Taiwan should receive more attention. According to the 2021 Human Rights Report released by Freedom House, Taiwan ranked second freest in Asia. However, ongoing concerns like “foreign migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation,” their democratic participation in Taiwan’s political and societal life, and the delicate situation of Taiwan amid Beijing’s efforts to influence Taipei’s “policymaking, the media, and democratic infrastructure” should not be overlooked.

Biden is putting on a “Summit for Democracy,” rather than a “Summit of Democracies.” Consequently, while Taiwan should share its experience, it also needs to learn from others. The eagerness and ability to listen and learn from other countries could help Taiwan navigate its challenges while at the same time consolidating its democratic resilience.

Making Taiwan’s voice heard astutely requires a pragmatic approach rather than merely a symbolic one. In seeking to amplify its messaging, Taiwan embraced a creative arrangement to effectively share its story with the world instead of solely targeting political discourse. The attendance of Tang and Hsiao is essential not only for sharing Taiwan’s democratic success, but also for forging the Taiwan-U.S. relationship.

With the autocratic winds blowing stronger and threatening the existing liberal order, sharing experiences and best practices will likely be among the United States’ priorities for the summit. Put differently, political rhetoric is necessary, but practical experience may prove more effective. The two representatives of Taiwan have much to offer given their hands-on experience, natural connections with the U.S., and a dogged determination to make liberal democracy a common good of the international community.