Is Democracy the Problem?


Democracy skeptics are getting a wider hearing than ever these days. But on five crucial issues that ail us, the evidence shows that some democracies do better while almost all non-democracies do not.

In trying to explain the dispiriting descent of U.S. politics and governance into pervasive paralysis, conflict and sheer mediocrity, it is hard not to wonder if many of our ills result from intrinsic shortcomings of the democratic model itself—democracy design flaws, if you will. This outlook is gaining appeal not just because of what is happening at home, but because so many other democracies are encountering similar problems while authoritarianism appears to be enjoying a global surge of self-confidence.  As a result, not only are doubts about the value and wisdom of democracy getting a much wider hearing than they were a decade or two ago, so too are voices arguing that authoritarian regimes might be more capable and effective.

Democracy’s doubters tend to accuse democracy of suffering from at least five significant design flaws:

  • Short-termism: Due to their electoral cycles, democracies struggle to focus on long-term problems and usually remain mired in short-term policy approaches.
  • Pain aversion: To the limited extent they do manage to look to the long term, democratic politicians are averse to imposing near-term pain for long-term gain because of their need to keep voters happy for the next election.
  • Elite capture: By opening up decision-making power to competition among politicians who are constantly in need of money for elections, democratic systems are prone to becoming captured by the wealthy.
  • Division and conflict: Competitive elections foment or exacerbate destructive societal divisions, generating conflict and undercutting a strong sense of national unity and purpose.
  • Voter ignorance: Relying on ordinary citizens to choose leaders and make judgments among them based on policy performance condemns democracies to leadership and policy choices that reflect chronic voter ignorance and irrationality.

Certainly, these are all serious issues in the United States. Successive U.S. Administrations have proven woefully unable to focus sustained attention on a raft of major long-term challenges—whether it is infrastructure decay, the role of entitlement spending in the U.S. budget, or climate change—and unwilling to craft reforms that inflict short-term pain for the sake of long-term gain. The disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in the U.S. legislative process is a well-known reality. With respect to political competition producing divisions and conflict, the U.S. political system is indeed beset by a high degree of polarization and a correspondingly low sense of common purpose. And looking at the state of U.S. political leadership today, it would be hard not to see voter ignorance and irrationality as major concerns.

But should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics? In other words, are these problems in fact endemic to democracies? And are authoritarian governments largely able to avoid them, as some enthusiasts of authoritarianism claim?

The comparative empirical research on these questions is complex and does not always yield definite results. But at least some insights are available. They highlight that while many democratic systems do struggle with these issues, America’s political challenges in these domains are significantly of America’s own making. Moreover, most authoritarian systems do no better in these areas.


Although it is easy to understand why electoral cycles might incline or even condemn democracies to short-termism, in fact the empirical record is mixed with regard to how consistently democracies suffer from it, and how much autocracies escape it.

Climate change starkly demonstrates the challenge of finding the political will to take serious near-term steps to address a long-term problem. Western democracies are obviously struggling to respond adequately. Yet this does not appear to be a shortcoming particular to democracies. A recent systematic study comparing the climate change policies of democracies to those of autocracies found that democracies have done slightly better overall. It is established democracies, such as Germany and the Nordic countries, that have taken the most significant measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China has of course attracted attention in the past few years for its engagement on climate change, but it has come relatively late to the issue, and is unusual among authoritarian governments in doing so.

The strong resistance of the current U.S. Administration and many senior Republican senators and representatives to address the issue at the Federal level is not primarily a result of endemic democratic short-termism. It reflects some distinctive features of U.S. politics—above all, the ideological aversion on the part of many American conservatives to any increased regulatory role of the Federal government. Where this ideological aversion is not dominant—as in California, for instance—a democratically elected government is able to take at least some serious measures to address climate change at the state level.

Comparing how countries provide public goods offers another way to examine the relative balance of short-term versus longer-term considerations. The short-term tack usually entails providing popular but economically inefficient subsidies on essential goods like fuel, while long-term approaches emphasize investments in areas like public education and infrastructure. Democracies tend to resort less to subsidies than non-democracies and to invest more in public goods overall. In developing countries, democratization tends to lead to greater spending on education, especially primary education, which is a good long-term investment.

The idea that most authoritarian governments generally engage in savvy long-term economic planning and policymaking is an illusion. Many authoritarian systems, dominated by strongmen with grandiose ideas and unchecked by strong accountability mechanisms, pursue ill-conceived white elephant projects, like Egypt’s plan to build a new capital city on the banks of the Nile or Saudi Arabia’s to construct an enormous luxury resort along the Red Sea. China’s investment in long-term infrastructural systems is impressive, but some of this spending emerges less from long-term planning than from rent-seeking by corrupt local officials who have similarly created empty cities and highways to nowhere.

Moreover, many authoritarian regimes are in fact subject to electoral cycles and myopic thinking, even though their elections are uncompetitive or semi-competitive at best. From Russia and Turkey to Venezuela and Zimbabwe, it has become strikingly common for authoritarian leaders to seek to legitimate their rule via elections. Such dictatorships suffer from many of the symptoms of short-termism and boost government spending by two percent on average during election years. Remarkably, these results hold even when no opposition is contesting the election, since autocratic leaders frequently feel pressure to demonstrate their popularity to fend off challengers from within the ruling elite.

Pain aversion

The tendency of U.S. politicians to avoid any fiscal or other such economic reforms that involve near-term belt-tightening has become a major problem for the fiscal health of the United States. Quite a few politicians talk a good game about the need for budget austerity, but when push comes to shove reveal themselves to be deficit doves. Of course, the United States is hardly alone among democracies in its chronic inability to inflict short-term pain for long-term gain. Many peer democracies, including Belgium, France, Italy, and Japan, have in recent decades struggled to cut budgets and reduce high levels of public debt. The issue bedevils some developing democracies as well. India under its current Prime Minister, for example, has been allowing deficits to expand in worrisome ways.

But not all democracies are pain averse. Last decade, Germany and Sweden imposed significant economic reforms that involved various amounts of near-term pain for the sake of putting their economies on a better long-term footing. After the 2008-09 financial crisis, British voters elected a conservative government that promised and then implemented tough across-the-board budget cuts, of a breadth and depth almost unthinkable in the United States. Political economists thus highlight that it is not democracy but rather particular features of U.S. politics—such as intensifying polarization and the economic overconfidence that having the world’s reserve currency brings—that have fueled America’s relative fiscal irresponsibility.

In fact, studies of the imposition of austerity plans in the developing world during the 1990s and 2000s have concluded that democracies generally did better than autocracies at putting such plans into effect. The example of Poland, with its harsh but effective austerity plan in the 1990s as it moved away from communist rule, is a positive example on the democratic side. Of course, some especially harsh autocratic governments have also proven able to impose tough austerity measures, relying on their capacity to repress objections to their doing so. In the 1980s, for example, Romania’s communist strongman, Nicolae Ceauşescu, forced the country into an extremely punishing process of paying down external debt for the stated goal of improving the country’s long-term economic health.

But many authoritarians chronically avoid obviously needed reforms out of the fear that the near-term pain those measures would produce might unsettle their hold on power. Egypt, for example, avoided cutting or removing subsidies on food, fuel, and other basic goods for decades under Hosni Mubarak. The Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez and then his successor Nicolás Maduro has not dared to impose a desperately needed tax on gasoline, which costs less than $1 for a full tank (Maduro’s recent new gasoline policy seeks to crack down on smugglers rather than actually cut subsidies). Even China, which has long suppressed consumer benefits for the sake of long-term growth, struggles with this issue in myriad ways, including keeping numerous “zombie” firms afloat through various economic breaks rather than facing the anger that would be produced by cutting them off.

Elite capture

The United States clearly has a problem with elite capture of political power. Multiparty competition American-style has come to involve enormous amounts of money flowing into the system from wealthy individuals and corporations aimed at safeguarding their interests. Political representatives at the national level are far wealthier than average Americans. Many legislative and executive policies manifestly reflect the interests of the wealthy more than the poor, including numerous tax benefits specifically designed to help certain groups of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations.

The distorting and often corrupting role of money is almost always an issue in democracies, but certain legal and economic policy choices specific to the United States are aggravating this problem. These include tax breaks and other policies that contribute to high levels of inequality, especially the rapid expansion in recent years of a class of superrich citizens; a campaign financing system that allows enormous amounts of funding through political action committees; and lobbying rules and practices that open up the legislature to private interests to a remarkable degree.

Some other democracies such as Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden do more to limit the flow of money in politics, avoid the dominance of wealthy people in legislatures, and craft national economic policies that limit inequality and represent interests more equally across different economic classes, especially in the fields of health care and education. Thus while the competitive pluralism intrinsic to democracy does naturally tend to pull money into politics, it is also true that some democracies are capable of taking measures to avoid or at least blunt elite capture. And of course some key institutions in democracy, including alternation of power in response to voter choices, respect for a free press, and independent rule of law also help fight against it.

The idea of sober, disinterested authoritarian politicians unswayed by money and devoted to a fair representation of interests is an appealing trope put forward by authoritarianism’s adherents, but is largely a myth. Only a few authoritarian regimes, notably Singapore, achieve anything close to it. Elite capture is in fact a defining feature of many authoritarian regimes. Russia is a textbook case. So too are Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf monarchies, and the Central Asian autocracies, among many others. The lack of public accountability mechanisms, and the centralization of power that obviates checks and balances, make authoritarian regimes intrinsically vulnerable to capture by entrenched interests.

Fostering divisions

The tendency of competitive democratic politics to entrench and sometimes intensify basic divisions within a society is something that genuinely puzzles many observers from China, Russia, and other non-democracies. They often scratch their heads over why Americans think it makes sense to have a political system that seems to sharpen societal divisions rather than emphasizing consensus and unity.

It is easy to invoke the standard answer—that competitive pluralism helps ensure that diverse interests in a society are well-represented by the government and encourages different groups and perspectives to forge productive compromises and hold each other accountable. But it is hard to offer that answer without acknowledging that polarization is indeed a serious problem in American democracy, one that has reached a fever pitch in recent years, fostering legislative gridlock, reducing public trust in the judiciary and other key institutions, and fueling social tensions and anger.

It is not hard to see how democratic electoral competition can pull a country into polarization. Competing parties often have incentives to accentuate differences between them rather than to emphasize common ground, to caricature and even demonize their opponents, and more generally to appeal more to emotion than reason in their quest for votes. And the past several years have seen a marked rise in polarizing political dynamics in democracies in different parts of the world. In Europe, angry populists are drawing harsh lines in the sand against well-established parties. In India, the ruling party has played up Hindu nationalism in ways that aggravate divides within the society. Brazil has just been through its most polarizing election in many years.

Yet polarization is not an inevitable feature of democracies. Most European democracies enjoyed multiple decades of relatively unpolarized political life in the second half of the 20th century, and considerable common political ground among competing parties. Canada proved able to navigate the potentially polarizing divide in the society between English and French speakers through democratic means. Indonesia’s democratic progress of the last two decades was built on overcoming the many regional, ethnic, and religious divisions in the society rather than aggravating them. Where polarization is rising in democracies, it is usually not a product of the political system itself, but public anger over poor socioeconomic performance, or deep divisions over social changes like immigration. In the United States, specific institutional features that are not intrinsic to democracy but rather particular to this country—like primary elections and a first-past-the-post electoral system that discourages the emergence of small or new parties—have incentivized movement away from the center. Thus, blaming democracy for polarization is too blunt and unfocused a charge.

With respect to authoritarian regimes, some do give an impression of purposeful unity and consensus. Over the last ten years, for example, many Russians have genuinely favored the tremendous centralization of power around President Vladimir Putin and his wielding of that power in various nationalistic endeavors. And many Chinese feel comfortable with a political system that emphasizes unity and consensus. But even to the extent that some authoritarian governments achieve such unity, the costs are high in human terms—the repression necessary to maintain it involves torture, imprisonment, expulsion, and other brutal measures, as well as a deadening of society through the suppression of ideas, voices, and associations. The Uighurs of China experience authoritarian consensus in a very different way than many other Chinese.

Moreover, numerous autocracies also face serious internal conflict and divisions. When one particular group in society imposes order by suppressing the views and interests of other groups, whether ethnic, religious, or tribal, autocracies often generate substantial conflict. The eruption of internal conflict in Uzbekistan in the mid-2000s, the Shi‘a protests in Bahrain of 2011, and the eruption of protests in Hong Kong in recent years all highlight this fact. Iran has been roiled by significant protests, reflecting serious societal divisions that its authoritarian system is not able to resolve. The most severe cases of countries collapsing into all-out civil war in recent years, such as Syria and Yemen, have been those in which authoritarian leaders fight tooth and nail to subjugate groups they have long excluded politically. And of course, autocratic regimes frequently scapegoat unpopular minorities and direct campaigns against them for political purposes. The worst examples of internal ethnic, religious, or political violence—such as the genocides in Cambodia, Myanmar, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda—have occurred in undemocratic countries.

Voter ignorance

One of the most basic design elements of democracy is the mechanism of performance accountability that is supposed to come from citizens voting. In simple terms, it is assumed that voters know what they want, are capable of identifying what policies will help them get what they want, and vote for candidates who pursue such policies and deliver results. Yet in Democracy for Realists, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels offer a comprehensive critique of this view, which they bruisingly label the “folk theory” of democracy. They demonstrate that U.S. voter behavior is determined primarily by partisan identities that voters assume, based on various sociocultural factors, especially race, faith, and peer groups. In other words, voters’ policy preferences are shaped by their partisan identity, rather than independent thought on any particular issue. They also find that most voters are far too ignorant of political actors and policies to accurately associate specific policy choices with particular parties or candidates. Partisan loyalties are relatively fixed, but voters are enormously inconsistent on specific issues.

They also argue that voting based on past policy performance (like economic performance) does not provide any kind of clear check on governmental behavior. Voters are too ignorant of the overall facts, such as underlying economic conditions, and too swayed by extremely specific and often minor factors (like gas prices) to exert such control in a regular and rational fashion. Even if a large share of voters did possess significant amounts of economic knowledge, assessing responsibility or causality for economic performance is extremely complicated, something about which even the most well-trained experts can strongly disagree.

Achen’s and Bartels’s work, which draws not just on their own research but many dozens of specific studies by other researchers, is focused on the United States. There is no similar comprehensive study of this set of issues that looks comparatively across democracies. There are, however, some comparative studies of civic literacy of citizens in different democracies. While they show that the United States does tend to fall on the lower end of wealthy established democracies when it comes to civic literacy and voter ignorance, they indicate that significant levels of voter ignorance are a reality in most democracies. In other words, the shortcomings of voting as a mechanism for enforcing governance accountability are a design issue that all democracies face.

Yet contending views on this point exist. In their recent book, Democracy in America?, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens take serious issue with it. They contend that while individual voters do lack fully informed opinions about most issues, the collective or aggregate policy preferences of all Americans are not so problematic. The aggregation process leads to collective policy preferences that are reasonably stable over time and that in fact reflect a certain amount of deliberative process, “because individuals form their opinions through a collective social process that brings deliberation and information to bear on the issues of the day.” They argue that the expressed preferences of Americans deserve much more respect from policymakers than they currently get in the largely captured American political system and that voter majority rule “tends to produce public policies that benefit the largest number of people and promote the common good.”

Furthermore, the evidence for the idea of government by technocratic decision-making, that isolating policy decisions from citizens’ control broadly produces better policies than incorporating citizen input through elections, is scarce. So too is the evidence for the notion that not allowing citizens to choose their leaders but relying instead on force, family lineage, or other such factors will produce better leaders than elections. Adherents of this view tend to focus on the very small number of authoritarian leaders who have governed well, and to ignore the very large number who have not. They compare the best of authoritarians, like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, to the worst of elected leaders in established democracies, like Silvio Berlusconi. But a more systematic look at authoritarian leaders and their policymaking during the last 50 years reveals an enormous number of cruel, ignorant leaders exerting their power in ineffective and unhelpful ways for the majority of their citizens. And the technocratic model requires a high level of state capacity—to allocate resources and implement policies in a well-calibrated fashion—that most countries saddled with dictatorial leaders lack.

Facing ourselves

Given the dispiriting state of U.S. democracy, it is hard not to give in to the temptation to blame the democratic model itself and start to imagine that non-democratic alternatives might do better in delivering basic governance. But this is misguided thinking. Chronic short-termism, an unwillingness to accept short-term pain for long-term gain, undue policy influence of the wealthy, a startlingly high level of division and conflict within the society, and voter ignorance and irrationality all do appear in many democracies. They are not, however, inevitable characteristics of democratic governance.  They can be limited, sometimes greatly, through smart policies and good leadership. Feeling the weight of these issues now, Americans should not lose sight of the fact that some other democracies have been doing better on these fronts and take seriously the need to overcome our country’s longstanding avoidance of learning from the domestic political experiences of other countries. Nor should Americans slip into thinking that authoritarians naturally or usually avoid these problems. Many authoritarian governments struggle with the same issues as much or more than the United States and other democracies do.

In short, Americans concerned about the state of U.S. democracy need to focus less on what they might believe to be shortcomings of democracy itself, and more on what specific and often distinctive elements of the U.S. political system are exacerbating these issues. Blame for our current political predicament belongs much less with the idea or model of democracy than with ourselves.


Thomas Carothers is senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of the Endowment’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.  He is a leading international authority on the global state of democracy and international efforts to support democracy and human rights. The author gratefully acknowledges research assistance for this article provided by Gareth Fowler and Andrew O’Donohue as well as research support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


By : Thomas Carothers
Date : January 16, 2019
Source : The American Interest

Is Democracy the Problem?

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The Rohingya crisis needs a local solution


Myanmar’s democratization process may help the suffering nation to save itself from turmoil and inhumane crises, and build a stronger and more secure country.

 As of now, more than 700,000 Rohingya women, men and children have fled from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, 2017, when Myanmar security forces began a widespread attack on the Rohingya people.

The government of Bangladesh has shown the utmost generosity giving shelter to the Rohingya people, despite its own constraints of population density and natural disasters. Prior to this, Bangladesh had to bear the impact of the major influx of the Rohingya in the 1970s and 1990s. Though repatriated after some chaotic negotiations, many returned to Bangladesh, feeling unsafe, insecure and undignified in Myanmar.

Unquestionably, this is one of the worst humanitarian crisis in human history and to understand the phenomenon, it is imperative we look back into Myanmar’s history. It began in the wake of World War II. Burma, as a part of the former British Empire, became entangled in the war. But the Burmese were divided in their loyalties. The Burmese ethnic group, seeking independence from Britain, allied themselves to Japan.

 Brief history

On the other hand, the Rohingya stayed loyal to Britain. Although Britain won the war in 1945, they eventually left the subcontinent. India gained independence in 1947 and Burma won its in 1948. Upon this principle of partition, Burma gained the State of Arakan which was home to two very distinct populations: the Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnic group, and the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, who had more similarities to their Muslim neighbors in Bangladesh.

In the newly independent country, Buddhists took over the reign leading the independence movement and the Rohingya became a very noticeable minority. Concerned with this situation, in 1948, some Arakanese Muslims petitioned the Constituent Assembly in Rangoon for the integration of the northern-most and majority-Muslim districts of Maungdaw and Buthidaung into East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.

Thereafter, the Rohingya have always been considered an outsider population, disloyal to the Burmese state. This was not too much of a problem when the Burmese state remained a Westminster-style democracy. Treated as full citizens of the country, the Rohingya elected representatives in the central government. All that changed in 1962, when a military junta took over the country in a coup d’etat. The military administration identified the Rohingya as a threat equivalent to the Shan, Kachin, Sagaing and Chin rebellions.More problems followed for the Rohingya when the military generals revoked their citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law and excluded them from the “native races” list in the 1948 Constitution of Burma. The Rohingya have since been subjected to, in gross violations of international law, various restrictions, including restrictions on their movement outside the districts of Arakan; being barred from public office and from electing representatives; a prohibition on marrying Buddhists; a limit of having a maximum of two children; restrictions on building new mosques and so on. Recently the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador and Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. She termed it “a gruesome genocide” and urged people to resolve this crisis through contentious effort. Recent reports also show that the Rohingya population that remains in Rakhine still faces the risk of violence as well as widespread discrimination. In this situation, it is unimaginable to think of dignified and voluntary repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh.

Paying attention to all scenarios, this author firmly believes in a local solution, in addition to concerted efforts coming from international bodies to end, the crisis. As the democratic deficit is the main problem in this crisis, Myanmar has to start the process of democratization again. To this end, it is helpful at this point to share an experience in joining a seminar on Islam in Myanmar that took place in Malaysia in 2012.

A profound seminar

In collaboration with Myanmar Muslim Intellectual Forum (MMIF), the seminar was organized by International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia, an independent Islamic think tank, which carries out research on pressing issues facing Muslims and non-Muslims. The seminar theme was “Democratization in Myanmar: Opportunities and Challenges for Its Muslim Community.” Tun Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, had inaugurated the seminar. Badawi hoped that through inclusive participation in education, economic life, and youth development, the Muslim community could play an active role in Myanmar’s moving in the direction of liberalization and democratization.

In the morning session, a researcher addressed challenges in relation to the education of Myanmar Muslims. He claimed that the educational standards of Myanmar Muslim community are far behind global levels.

From the primary to the tertiary level, as he recommended, Myanmar Muslims need a lot of improvement and need to adopt a cautious approach in utilizing the media and contemporary means and methods. Ironically, religious leaders in Myanmar still advise the community to pursue purely Islamic studies i.e., Quran and Sunnah. However, the coordination between Islamic studies and modern education is necessary for surviving in the highly competitive global arena. Hence, a modification of the education system combining both religious and scientific learning is very urgent in order to rise to Asian and global levels.In another session, the challenges in relation to the economic, social and welfare position of Myanmar Muslims were examined. Myanmar was defined as a resource-rich country, once famously known as the “rice-pot of Southeast Asia. It was particularly highlighted that the economic and social position of the Muslims in Myanmar were declined massively.

Poverty, high unemployment rates, homelessness, social dislocation is very common among Muslims. These problems are mostly technical and linked to the growth of the country’s economy and political development which cannot be solved by Muslims alone. He termed 2012 as a period of the democratization process. According to him, this was the best moment for the Muslims to participate hand in hand with the rest of the people and engage in the development of Myanmar for the betterment the country.

But in the last six years, how Myanmar moved away from this democratization process is a matter of serious discussion and debate. Above all, it is high time for Myanmar’s democratization process to get started once again, so this man-made crisis can come to an end before it’s too late.


Foyasal Khan is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the International Islamic University, Malaysia. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Dhaka


By : Foyasal Khan
Date : January 14, 2019
Source : Daily Sabah

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Why Taiwan is taking a hard line against unification with China — and what it means for the U.S.


Forty years after China’s first call for unification with Taiwan, cross-strait relations remain rocky.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high-profile speech regarding Taiwan on Jan. 2 to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.” That 1979 speech was the Chinese government’s first policy overture to Taiwan, which replaced “liberation of Taiwan” with “peaceful unification” as the goal. Xi’s speech marking the occasion has generated heated debates about Taiwan-China relations.

Based on Taiwan’s official reactions so far, one can expect a stormy relationship between the two sides in the next couple of years — a battle that is sure to become part of the current tensions between the United States and China.

Right after World War II, the Chinese civil war resumed between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces and Mao Zedong’s communist guerrillas. Chiang was defeated and moved his Republic of China government to Taiwan, while Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland in 1949. The two sides remained bitter enemies and had no official contact during much of the Cold War. Relations gradually improved since the 1980s as Taiwan lifted martial law and the mainland started to open up.

Over the years, a distinct Taiwanese identity has grown while the Chinese identity has declined in Taiwan. Since Taiwan became a multiparty democracy, cross-strait relations have become more complicated. But when Ma Ying-jeou was in power in Taiwan from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan-China relations were stable and friendly, and cross-strait exchanges were dynamic.

That changed with the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president of the Republic of China in 2016, and the relationship between Beijing and Taiwan has been characterized by stalemate over the past few years. From Beijing’s perspective, 2019 was a fitting time to send a new message — and a new warning — to Taiwan. A man with a sense of historical mission, Xi has been seriously eyeing Taiwan as part of his “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. As he stated confidently in his speech, Taiwan must and will be united with the motherland.

In his speech, Xi reiterated Beijing’s long-standing policy toward Taiwan, with “national unification” as the objective and “One Country, Two Systems” as the model. In this sense, Xi’s speech is a continuation of previous official statements, which focused on Beijing’s intent for peaceful reunification and cross-strait exchanges while reserving the right to use force, if necessary.

But Xi’s speech also contained something new. First, he introduced more flexibility to the “One Country, Two Systems” model proposed for Taiwan. That’s important, because China operates under a “One Country, Two Systems” model elsewhere, in its relationship with Hong Kong and Macao. Xi is undoubtedly aware of the grim reality in Hong Kong, where frustration is growing over how Beijing has rapidly undermined the city’s political institutions, democratic activism and media freedom.

Not wanting to replicate that situation with Taiwan, Xi is making a significant policy adjustment. In contrast to the Hong Kong case, where the “One Country, Two Systems” model was imposed in 1997 without input from the Hong Kong people, what Xi is suggesting is involving the Taiwanese in developing a new model for Taiwan. The move injects a level of self-determination for Taiwan into the unification model.

Xi also proposed that representatives from different parties and walks of life in Taiwan should join Beijing in political consultations to discuss cross-strait relations and make political arrangements for Taiwan’s future. This might be the most intriguing and innovative part of his speech since it essentially kicks off the unification process by sidestepping the unpopular governing party. He did not set a timetable for unification, but this proposal, if implemented, would represent a giant stride toward Beijing’s goal of unification with specific steps being taken to prepare for the future.

It is unfortunate that the Tsai administration immediately and categorically rejected Xi’s proposal without much deliberation. Were the Tsai administration open to discussions, or willing to offer a plan to improve cross-strait relations, Taiwan could use its vibrant democracy as a tool to shape the future of the Chinese mainland. Beijing says anything can be discussed under “one China”; Taiwan certainly can and should raise its preconditions for unification. That would put tremendous pressure on the mainland to move toward democratization.

Tsai’s position toward the mainland hardened last year. Now she only uses “China” to refer to the mainland instead of the more conciliatory “Chinese mainland” that she used during her first year in office. In Taiwan, when politicians refer to the mainland as “China”, it’s a clear indication of their anti-China and pro-independence position.

Tsai’s shift toward a more hard-line approach has many possible causes: loss of five diplomatic allies of the ROC during her term so far; perceived “bullying” by Beijing in international arenas; her strategy to play the China card to deflect internal discontent toward her lackluster performance; and her party’s loss in local elections last year.

Though Xi has offered more flexibility in the unification process, it is clear that Beijing’s “wait and see” attitude toward Tsai is over. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has for the first time publicly lashed out at Tsai as a “separatist.” It’s almost certain that Tsai will become more hard-line before the 2020 Taiwan elections as she struggles to be reelected. Her leadership has been disappointing to most Taiwanese, including her supporters. To be tough on China and brand herself as a leader to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty may help her win back some votes.

Xi’s firm determination and Tsai’s strong resistance suggest that the Taiwan Strait will not be calm in the next couple of years. That has real implications for the United States. Tsai will strive to strengthen relations with the United States while maintaining an anti-China stance. And there is reason to believe Washington will be amenable to her overtures. President Trump signed several pro-Taiwan bills into law in 2018, including the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, moves that Beijing resents.

The U.S. government will likely continue to play the Taiwan card when dealing with China, but Taiwan’s people must be cautious and sober. It is not inconceivable that someday Trump may decide to sell out Taiwan in order to strike a deal with China. Taiwan’s future is inextricably linked to China’s. Instead of turning away from China, Taiwan may wish to work with Beijing and seek a mutually acceptable outcome for the island democracy.


By : Zhiqun Zhu
Date : January 16, 2019
Source : The Washington Post

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The yellow vest movement is giving France’s social conservatives a new platform


Although France legalized abortion in 1975 and gay marriage in 2013, a subset of mostly Catholic social conservatives has long challenged these rights, and regularly mobilized over the years in favor of a more “traditional” view of marriage, gender, and parenthood. Some activists say both movements—social conservative and yellow vest—are fighting to place human dignity at the center of French politics. As a group calling itself the Catholic Yellow Vests explained:

“For nine weeks, the Yellow Vests have tirelessly denounced the…government’s scorn for French people. But the most fundamental contempt, the first cardinal contempt on which all other injustices lie, is the contempt of human life. How do you expect a society that does not respect human life when it is in its beginning to respect human life that works, travels, votes, pays, learns, cares, educates?”

Social conservatives also claim that they, like the yellow vests, have been left out of the democratic process. That’s because Macron’s government has repeatedly stated that it will not discuss abortion and same-sex marriage rights as part of the grand national debate it launched earlier this month.

“The crisis of the yellow vests is a crisis in democracy,” Fabien Bouglé, an anti-gay-marriage activist, told LCI (link in French). “And we were the first to experience it.”

Although France legalized abortion in 1975 and gay marriage in 2013, a subset of mostly Catholic social conservatives has long challenged these rights, and regularly mobilized over the years in favor of a more “traditional” view of marriage, gender, and parenthood. Some activists say both movements—social conservative and yellow vest—are fighting to place human dignity at the center of French politics. As a group calling itself the Catholic Yellow Vests explained:

“For nine weeks, the Yellow Vests have tirelessly denounced the…government’s scorn for French people. But the most fundamental contempt, the first cardinal contempt on which all other injustices lie, is the contempt of human life. How do you expect a society that does not respect human life when it is in its beginning to respect human life that works, travels, votes, pays, learns, cares, educates?”

Social conservatives also claim that they, like the yellow vests, have been left out of the democratic process. That’s because Macron’s government has repeatedly stated that it will not discuss abortion and same-sex marriage rights as part of the grand national debate it launched earlier this month.

“The crisis of the yellow vests is a crisis in democracy,” Fabien Bouglé, an anti-gay-marriage activist, told LCI (link in French). “And we were the first to experience it.”

Although France legalized abortion in 1975 and gay marriage in 2013, a subset of mostly Catholic social conservatives has long challenged these rights, and regularly mobilized over the years in favor of a more “traditional” view of marriage, gender, and parenthood. Some activists say both movements—social conservative and yellow vest—are fighting to place human dignity at the center of French politics. As a group calling itself the Catholic Yellow Vests explained:

“For nine weeks, the Yellow Vests have tirelessly denounced the…government’s scorn for French people. But the most fundamental contempt, the first cardinal contempt on which all other injustices lie, is the contempt of human life. How do you expect a society that does not respect human life when it is in its beginning to respect human life that works, travels, votes, pays, learns, cares, educates?”

Social conservatives also claim that they, like the yellow vests, have been left out of the democratic process. That’s because Macron’s government has repeatedly stated that it will not discuss abortion and same-sex marriage rights as part of the grand national debate it launched earlier this month.

“The crisis of the yellow vests is a crisis in democracy,” Fabien Bouglé, an anti-gay-marriage activist, told LCI (link in French). “And we were the first to experience it.”

Thibault is the perfect example of this phenomenon. The young protester was interviewed at the March for Life wearing a yellow vest that bore the symbol of a far-right Catholic group. He explained that “between the yellow vests and this March for Life, there is a constancy, which is the fight against commodification, against finance, against an imposed materialistic life, and a spiritual denigration.” This, he went on to say, “explains why so many people who did the yellow vest protests yesterday came back to Paris today…to go to the March for Life.”

Critics warn that social conservatives’ views are racist, homophobic, and sexist. The vision of a more “traditional” society centered around the nuclear, heterosexual family is also at odds with the views of most French people (links in French). But that doesn’t mean France’s new social conservatives should be deemed irrelevant.

For one, their next big fight is coming. The French government is preparing to update an existing bioethics law (link in French) in order to offer reproductive technology to lesbian couples and single women, and allow egg-freezing for fertility purposes. Social conservatives have already seized the unique political moment created by the yellow vests to lobby against those changes.


By : Anabelle Timsit
Date : January 22, 2019
Source : Quartz

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Afghanistan’s Forgotten Half


WASHINGTON, DC – When Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018, an end to America’s longest war seemed finally to be in sight. Now, following President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in late December that the United States will withdraw 7,000 of its troops from the country, the pressure on Khalilzad to secure a deal with the Taliban by spring has increased dramatically. Many now fear that Trump wants to leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences, least of all for the country’s women.

Afghan women’s progress is essential to that of Afghanistan as a whole. Yet women are suddenly as invisible in international press coverage as they are in much of Afghan society. Privately, many diplomats concede that women’s rights are simply not a high priority in talks with the Taliban: nice but not necessary, and, given the Taliban’s horrific treatment of women when they ruled the country in the 1990s, probably a non-starter anyway.

This line of thinking is wrong. The Taliban leadership know that they have a potentially disastrous image problem. The international community ostracized their government in the 1990s, owing in part to their treatment of women. To be accepted as a legitimate political movement and a viable partner in any future power-sharing deal, Taliban leaders believe they must demonstrate that they have changed their views.1

And so they have – if ever so slightly. They now say that girls can attend school in the nearly 60% of the country under Taliban control, so long as gender segregation is enforced. This is a modest improvement from a generation ago, when their government prevented nearly all girls from attending school and women from working outside the home.

While Afghan women have made huge strides since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, their gains are at risk, and much more remains to be done. In a recent survey of 15,000 Afghans, women said their biggest problems were lack of education and illiteracy. Investing in education and income-earning opportunities for women is vital. So, too, is redoubling efforts to improve women’s access to health care.

Afghan women face a one in ten chance of dying in childbirth. The situation is so dire that Taliban commanders have been known to request the government and NGOs to deploy more midwives to areas under their control. The number of girls in school is falling, legal protection for women is being rolled back, and women in public life are increasingly subject to harassment and violence. Addressing these issues is essential not only for Afghan women, but also for their children, their families, and the country.

The best way to ensure that women’s interests are represented in the peace talks is to include women at the negotiating table, giving them an equal role in the negotiation, design, and implementation of any peace process. While most foreign-policy professionals dismiss this suggestion as superfluous, or even frivolous, including women is a matter not only of principle, but also of effectiveness. Peace processes in which women participate are on average much less likely to fail, and any agreement reached is more likely to last.

Some might argue that the Taliban would never negotiate with an Afghan woman. But they already have. A group of Afghan women, all high-profile government officials and activists, met with representatives of the Taliban in Oslo in 2015. The Taliban explicitly requested and initiated the meeting, and later said they participated specifically to address concerns about their policies.

Shukria Barakzai, the Afghan ambassador to Norway who attended the dialogue and ran an underground girls’ school under the Taliban regime, says the women had no qualms about holding the Taliban to account for their past treatment of women. “It will be unbelievable to most people how tough we were on the Taliban,” Barakzai says. “But they listened patiently and respected what we were saying, and it was clear that this was not the same Taliban we faced in the 1990s.”

Since that meeting four years ago, however, little else has been done to facilitate dialogue between Afghan women and the Taliban. Western governments may publicly emphasize the importance of women’s rights, but they have done shockingly little to back up their rhetoric. The Trump administration, in particular, will not listen to these concerns, as Trump himself evinces little concern for women’s rights in the US, let alone Afghanistan.

The international community can and must step in. Under the current NATO mission, 39 countries have troops on the ground and many others provide substantial aid to Afghanistan. Their commitment will be required to support any peace deal. They should use this leverage to ensure that women are at the negotiating table, their issues are on the agenda, and their rights are upheld in any deal.

If that proves impossible, these countries could launch and support a parallel Track II dialogue, focused exclusively on women’s rights, that could inform the broader negotiations. They should also increase aid expenditures in critical areas such as women’s health and education.

To be sure, any peace deal with the Taliban is likely to include difficult and distasteful compromises. But an agreement that lacks guarantees regarding the treatment of half the Afghan population is not worth having. And a peace that is not partly negotiated by women is much less likely to hold. Women’s rights, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are not a foreign policy “extra.” They are essential to any serious efforts at conflict resolution.


Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-2011), is President and CEO of the think tank New America, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.

Ashley Jackson is a Research Associate with the Overseas Development Institute.


By: Anne-Marie Slaughter & Ashley Jackson
Date: January 18, 2019
Source: Project Syndicate


Posted in Gender and Human Rights, Latest Post | Leave a comment
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