Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen waves while registering as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party 2020 presidential candidate at the party's headquarter in Taipei on March 21. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP)
At the beginning of this year, China’s President Xi Jinping issued a veiled threat to Taiwan, saying that it “must and will be” reunited with mainland China and that the island’s de facto independence could not continue forever.
As a proposed compromise, he offered Taiwan the “one country, two systems” principle. Yet it is strikingly and strangely ironic that he should offer this model to Taiwan at precisely the same time that he is dismantling “one country, two systems” in all but name in Hong Kong.
When Hong Kong was handed over to China from British colonial rule almost 22 years ago, it had the values of a democratic society — basic freedoms, human rights, the rule of law – without the full system of democracy, universal suffrage. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, universal suffrage was promised, but it now seems an even more distant dream than ever. Hong Kong today is fighting to preserve its most basic freedoms.
Taiwan, in contrast, is a vibrant, flourishing democracy with full universal suffrage. It has transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in an impressive way. Last month, I visited Taiwan for the first time in two decades to attend a conference on freedom of religion or belief in the region. Organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the conference was addressed by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Deputy Foreign Minister Szu-chien Hsu.
President Tsai delivered a powerful speech extolling the virtues of human rights and freedom. Religious freedom, in particular, means, she said, that “the state does not try to control religious organizations. It also means that government creates an environment of tolerance and acceptance, and a respect for minorities and diversity.”
That, she added, was what brought those of us who cherish freedom together. “We are not separated by our different beliefs but bound together by this shared tolerance and acceptance of one another’s differences,” she argued. “So we can work together — believers and non-believers alike — to meet the challenges of the 21st century … Freedom of religion has become central to our democratic way of life.”
President Tsai’s speech put down a marker. “Anyone can contribute a chapter to the story of Taiwan,” she said. Yet how about across the straits? “In countries where human rights and democratic values are suppressed,” she added, without naming them, “governments engage in discrimination and violence against people who simply want to follow their faith. In those countries, religious organizations are being persecuted, religious statues and icons are being destroyed, religious leaders are forced into exile, and people are held in re-education camps and forced to break their religious taboos. Taiwan knows how it feels when someone tries to take away your rights, wipe away your identity and challenge your way of life. So we choose to stand with those who were oppressed and whose religious rights were taken away by authoritarian regimes.”
Not only did President Tsai deliver a keynote speech at a conference that, frankly, few other heads of government around the world would have had the imagination and conviction to attend, but she praised another distinguished human rights champion in the room, the United States’ ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, who only days before had delivered a powerful speech in Hong Kong in which he accused China’s dictatorship of being “at war with faith.”
Brownback had said that “it is a war they will not win”. What, after all, he asked, does the Chinese Communist Party have to fear? “Why can’t it trust its people with a Bible? Why can’t Uyghur children be named Mohammad? Why can’t the Tibetans choose and venerate their own religious leaders like they have for more than a thousand years?” The ambassador repeated that challenge in Taipei.
Not only did President Tsai attend a conference on religious freedom. Not only did she deliver a speech. And not only did she applaud Sam Brownback. At the end of the two-day conference, and after a private meeting with Ambassador Brownback, her government announced that it was appointing a special ambassador for international religious freedom and would be donating US$200,000 a year for five years to an international religious freedom fund. No delegate at the conference expected that — and Taiwan deserves widespread applause.
After the conference, I had meetings with Taiwanese government officials. I was invited to give a 30-minute presentation, followed by an hour-long discussion, on human rights in China and the region. What other government in the world gives a human rights activist nearly two hours in its foreign ministry on such a sensitive topic?
Then I went to Radio Taiwan International and Formosa TV. I was told my radio interview would go out on 10 different frequencies throughout mainland China to millions of listeners. What other free media has that reach into perhaps the most repressive regime in the world today?
And I met my friends at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. A foundation. For democracy. In a Chinese-speaking environment. For the region. Why wouldn’t we want to work with it?
In addition, I met the inspiring, remarkable Lin Fei-fan, who led Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014 against closer ties with the Chinese regime at the same time as brave Hong Kong people peacefully protested for freedom in the Umbrella Movement.
And I met Lin Ching-yu, the young, courageous, gracious, dignified and steely wife of Taiwanese human rights activist Li Ming-che, who was abducted and jailed in China two years ago. “Even in prison, my husband is a human rights activist, and he wants the world to speak out, not only for his freedom but for all prisoners of conscience in China,” she told me as she looked at me piercingly. “The last time I saw him, he told me: ‘Go everywhere and tell everyone.’”
Right now, Taiwan is a beacon for democracy in Asia. Why on earth would the people of Taiwan want to swap their hard-won freedoms for the myth of “one country, two systems”? When I was asked on Radio Taiwan International about the difference between mainland China and Taiwan, I replied quite simply that when China is embarking on its worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution, and Taiwan is holding conferences on religious freedom and appointing a special ambassador for the issue, it’s the difference between night and day.
That prompted the question: if mainland China is “night” and Taiwan is “day,” where is Hong Kong? Without batting an eyelid, my response was “dusk.” Maybe that is too optimistic.
They say of a woman that, if she is married, she stands by her man. In my view, if it believes in freedom and human dignity, the world must stand by Taiwan.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch, deputy chairman of the U.K.'s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and East Asia team leader at human rights organization CSW.