Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen raises a toast to soldiers while inspecting military troops in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on January 15. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

While the world is fixated on the external threat to Taiwan’s democracy posed by mainland China, there is an equally dangerous internal threat. Republic of China (ROC) President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has failed to advance government transparency and accountability while suppressing dissent.

This negative trend runs counter to the image of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as a crusader against the ROC’s formerly authoritarian government, and also clashes with the international community’s largely uncritical admiration of Tsai.   

Criticism of Tsai’s leadership is not a popular topic outside of Taiwan and mainland China.  Internationally, Tsai enjoys enormous public relations advantages. She represents Taiwan, the recipient of much global respect and sympathy as a Chinese democracy flourishing in the shadow of a menacing and authoritarian People’s Republic of China (PRC).

She is Taiwan’s first female president. And she justifiably gets credit for Taiwan’s exceptionally effective campaign to control its Covid-19 outbreak. 

In the United States, Tsai has fans across the political spectrum: from Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state in Donald Trump’s administration, to showbiz celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and Barbra Streisand. Shelley Rigger, perhaps America’s top scholar on Taiwan politics, calls Tsai “an extraordinary politician” who is willing to make tough decisions that will benefit Taiwan in the long run. 

Beijing vilifies Tsai as an advocate of Taiwan independence and calls her party “evil.” This allows Tsai’s government and other Tsai supporters to dismiss criticism of her as Communist Party of China (CPC) propaganda. 

When, for example, the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) published an article last December characterizing Tsai’s government as a “dictatorship,” the Taipei government said the article should be ignored because the publication is “pro-China and a mouthpiece for the government in Beijing.”

The obvious problem here, however, is that the source of the criticism and the intent behind the criticism do not necessarily make the criticism incorrect.

Previous ROC presidents followed the norm of appointing professional experts rather than politicians to senior government positions. 

Conversely, Tsai has appointed Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Taipei, as premier; Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), who failed to get re-elected mayor of Taichung City, as minister of transportation and communications; Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), who lost the Kaohsiung mayoral election, as vice-premier; and Lee Chin-yung (李進勇), who unsuccessfully sought re-election as Yunlin County magistrate, as chairman of the Central Election Commission.

This practice is destructive not only because it injects partisan politics into the technocracy, but also because it makes the losers of popular elections inordinately influential within the government – and more powerful than many of the officials who won their elections.

Political neutrality is especially important in the leadership of the Central Election Commission, Control Yuan, and National Communications Commission, which are watchdog agencies over government and media. Tsai, however, has appointed as leaders of these agencies longtime DPP party leaders who merely canceled their party membership before taking up their posts.

Referenda are arguably the apogee of democracy. Tsai was among those who praised the 2017 law that lowered the threshold for holding referenda in Taiwan. “The people are the masters,” she said then. 

Voters approved seven of 10 referendum issues in the November 2018 elections, but the results were largely in opposition to major policies of the Tsai government. Tsai reacted by shrinking this aspect of Taiwan’s democracy. 

In 2019, she supported another round of revisions that again constrained referenda, allowing them only once every two years and requiring the vote on referenda to be held on a different day than elections, which likely lowers turnout for the referendum votes.

Three of the referenda involved national energy policy.  The DPP’s opposition to nuclear power had led to greater reliance on burning coal to generate electricity. This led to chronic shortages and increased air pollution, and lung cancer became the second leading cause of death in Taiwan. 

The majority of voters rejected the DPP’s commitment to phase out nuclear power by 2025 and approved gradually reducing reliance on coal. Nevertheless, the Executive Yuan first said the 2025 target date remained in place. Only after strong public criticism did the Executive Yuan relent and say the 2025 deadline was no longer in effect.

Two months later, however, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced the government still planned to close Taiwan’s three operating nuclear power plants and would not open the never-used fourth plant. To force the issue, Tsai’s government began shipping out of Taiwan the fuel rods needed to operate the fourth nuclear plant, which is safer and more efficient than Taiwan’s three operating plants. 

Despite welcoming public input in this case, Tsai disregarded it when it clashed with her preferred policy.

Similarly, Tsai’s government seems to have ignored and possibly suppressed public opposition to the government’s plan to build an LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal across the Datan red algal reef near the coastal city of Taoyuan. Environmental activists said Tsai promised to halt reef-damaging construction when she met with them last June, but a few weeks later they discovered construction had destroyed part of the reef.

Despite strenuous efforts by the activists to get enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, pro-DPP media declined to cover the story. The activists relied on social media for their publicity. They eventually succeeded in getting the referendum Tsai apparently didn’t want.

One commentator alleged that Tsai was committed to building the terminal because of a deal she made to buy LNG from the United States to compensate for lost US sales to the PRC due to the trade war. 

A lack of transparency clouds the Tsai government’s attempt to promote renewable energy.  State-owned Taipower operates wind farms that supply one-third of Taiwan’s wind-generated electricity. The other two-thirds comes from private-sector wind farms dominated by foreign companies.

The price of electricity supplied by the foreign companies is 10 times Taipower’s price. The Tsai government has not explained this huge price discrepancy, creating suspicions of a secret and perhaps corrupt financial arrangement.

In July last year, the Taiwan legislature passed the Farmland Water Conservancy Law advocated by the Tsai administration. The law confiscates land from farmers, imposing government ownership over 17 water conservancy associations that previously were privately owned.

The government emphasized it would assume the debts of these associations, but in fact this is a huge financial boon to the government, as the associations collectively held US$70 billion in cash and US$150 billion in real estate. Tsai now has the power to appoint the administrators over this large cache of land and cash, which provides an additional method of rewarding important political supporters. 

The importation of US beef and pork into Taiwan is highly controversial. A particular concern is that US meat contains ractopamine, an additive that is banned in 160 countries over fears that it may harm humans who consume it.

A majority of the Taiwanese public opposes allowing the sale of meat containing ractopamine. Nevertheless, through both presidential executive order and action by the DPP-controlled Legislative Yuan, Tsai relaxed the restrictions on importing US pork that may contain ractopamine starting this year.

Her apparent motive is improving Taiwan-US relations by clearing the way for a bilateral trade agreement. Her critics argue that the health of the people should not be sacrificed for international politics.

Perhaps the most serious development under Tsai’s rule is the muffling of dissent. Last December, the National Communications Commission (NCC), led by Tsai appointee Chen Yaoxiang (陳耀祥), refused to renew the broadcast license of popular cable TV network Chung Tien Television (CTiTV), in effect pushing it off the air. This was the first denial of a license renewal application since the inception of the NCC in 2006.

Although the NCC is supposedly neutral, political motivation is widely suspected in the non-renewal because much of CTiTV’s content aligned with Chinese government views and was critical of Tsai and the DPP. CTiTV’s owner has a business empire in the PRC. Of the accusation that CTiTV is under Beijing’s control, however, Chen Yaoxing said an investigation revealed no evidence of CTiTV receiving funding from the PRC government. 

Instead, the NCC said CTiTV lost its license for large numbers of complaints (some viewers objecting to its content) and for broadcasting factual inaccuracies. According to the NCC’s guidelines, the latter is supposed to apply to news rather than political talks shows, but in CTiTV’s case most of the cited violations were from opinion programs. Many involved false statements uttered live by guest commentators that the show’s staff quickly tried to correct.

CTiTV was one of the few major media networks that provided critical analysis of the Tsai government’s behavior and policies. Even DPP elder statesman Lin Cheng-chieh (林正杰) was among those who criticized the decision to shut down CTiTV as suppression of freedom of the press.

Tsai’s supporters may credit her for forcing difficult but wise decisions upon a shortsighted public. At some point, however, this kind of governance shifts from democracy to paternalistic (or, in this case, maternalistic) authoritarianism.

Democratic backsliding is harmful to Taiwan both internally and externally. The island is deeply split by competing national identities. The sense that either side is attempting to force its agenda upon the other will make this rift harder to bridge.

Internationally, Taiwan partially compensates for its small size relative to the PRC by being the “good” China. Drifting toward a political system in which power is less accountable to the public will degrade Taiwan’s respect and prestige. Tsai’s accomplishments should not exempt her from criticism where she is eroding Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy. 

Brittney Chin-Chen Roy

Brittney Chin-Chen Roy teaches Chinese studies at Academia School, Honolulu.