Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Tale of Two Elections: Lessons from the Very Different Trajectories of Democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong in December 2021
A Tale of Two Elections: Lessons from the Very Different Trajectories of Democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong in December 2021

A Tale of Two Elections: Lessons from the Very Different Trajectories of Democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong in December 2021

Two elections, both postponed for months by authorities citing the difficulties and dangers of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, were held along China’s periphery in December.  In Hong Kong, elections for the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) legislature, originally scheduled for September 2020, took place on December 19, 2021.  In Taiwan, four referenda on a grab-bag of issues, originally slated for August 2021, were put to the public on December 18.  In both jurisdictions, most voters stayed home—generally not a great sign of democratic health.  The turnout rate was 30% in Hong Kong and 41% in Taiwan—much lower than in recent elections, which had been above 70% for Hong Kong’s 2019 vote for local-level District Councils, nearly 60% in the 2016 Hong Kong legislative elections, more than 70% in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential and legislative elections, and more than 50% in Taiwan’s 2018 referenda and local government elections.  Both elections were troubled and troubling exercises conducted under rules that had recently been amended in ways that served the interest of incumbent powerholders.

But there the significant similarities end.  The contrasts between the votes in Hong Kong and Taiwan at the end of 2021 resonate with different—and unequally severe—challenges facing American democracy as the United States reaches the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Referenda in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the referenda manifested several difficulties for democracy.  One  feature, all too familiar to democracies around the world, was the high level of political polarization.  Some observers characterized the outcome as reflecting voters’ party alignments or preferences more than their views on the specific policy questions that were on the ballot

Although the measures addressed diverse issues—nuclear power, banning imports of U.S. pork, rules for future referenda, and construction of a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in an environmentally sensitive area—voters appear to have treated them as presenting a single, binary choice.  The vote totals and shares were nearly the same across the four questions, with “yes” votes ranging from more than 47% to less than 49%, and “no” votes from more than 51% to less than 53%.  (For a referendum to pass, “yes” votes must total both a majority of the votes cast and 25% of the eligible electorate; the 2021 referenda all failed on both counts.)

Taiwan’s two principal political parties—the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT)—took opposing sides on all four measures, with the DPP urging rejection and the KMT calling for affirmative votes.  The KMT strategically framed the eclectic cluster of referenda as a general referendum on the incumbent government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP.  In urging their supporters to vote no on all four measures, Tsai and the DPP, in turn, reinforced this framing.

Had all (or even some) of the proposals passed, as some polling suggested they would, the KMT would have depicted the result as a repudiation of DPP rule and claimed a mandate for itself heading into the November 2022 contests for local governments (often referred to as the nine-in-one elections) and the January 2024 presidential and legislative elections.  With all four questions defeated, KMT Chairman Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan) apologized for the party’s defeat, and the party’s deputy secretary-general resigned.  Tsai and the DPP pointed to the outcomes as a vindication, if only a relatively modest one. 

Signs that politics—and political gamesmanship—loomed large, relative to deeply held policy differences, were a second, and related, cause for concern that democracy was not entirely well in Taiwan.  The KMT’s opposition to the import of ractopamine-treated meat from the United States, ostensibly over health and safety concerns, was a position previously held by the DPP (which, before it came to power, had criticized the KMT government under President Ma Ying-jeou for considering an end to the ban).  The KMT’s pursuit of the anti-import referendum tellingly came in the aftermath of Tsai’s August 2020 announcement that her government would end the ban on U.S. pork, in a bid to revive long-stalled negotiations for a trade agreement with the United States, as well as to strengthen the already-robust U.S.-Taiwan relationship and advance Taiwan’s long-frustrated attempts to join international trade accords.

The KMT-supported referendum in favor of restarting the controversial fourth nuclear power plant reversed a position that the KMT-led government under President Ma had adopted (albeit reluctantly) in 2014.  The 2021 referendum—like a 2018 KMT-backed predecessor—took aim at the Tsai government and DPP agenda of phasing out nuclear power by 2025.  The companion question on building an LNG terminal saw the DPP taking a position that seemed to be at odds with its traditionally pro-environment posture, supporting a project that resembled one that the DPP had previously opposed, and the KMT (which now backed the anti-LNG terminal referendum) had supported, when the KMT was in power in the 1990s.  For the KMT, both referenda sought to tap into the politics of discontent over shortages of electric power, which had become a major inconvenience to the public and, on some accounts, a source of significant concern for Taiwan’s electricity-intensive and economically vital semiconductor manufacturing sector.

The ballot measure that called for conducting future referenda at the same time as Taiwan-wide candidate elections, was similarly redolent of jockeying for partisan political advantage.  (The rule would have applied only to referenda that election authorities certified within six months of a scheduled election, but a political party promoting a ballot question could largely control such matters of timing.)  This referendum sought to reverse reforms passed by the DPP-controlled legislature in mid-2019, which mandated the fourth week in August in alternate years (when elections of candidates for office are not held) for referendum votes.  After its wipeout loss in the 2018 elections and with the 2020 presidential and legislative elections looming, the DPP had pushed for passage of the amendments  conjoined elections for office with a record-high number of ballot questions. 

In the 2018 cycle, various civic groups and the major political parties had larded the ballot with ten referenda addressing contentious issues—and Tsai administration policies on those issues—such as marriage equality and LGBTQ rights (five measures), energy policy (three measures, including one on phasing out nuclear power), food import safety (specifically, whether to lift a ban on products from the Fukushima nuclear disaster area), and whether to use the name “Taiwan” (rather than “Chinese Taipei”) in the Olympics.  The results rejected traditional DPP positions and the DPP-led government’s policies (particularly on energy and environment issues), or reflected and exacerbated divisions among DPP supporters (especially on LGTBQ issues).  The lesson, plausibly drawn, was that the referenda had benefited the out-of-power party, and that the amendments the DPP-controlled legislature had enacted in 2017 to drastically lower the threshold for initiating referenda had backfired.  For the beleaguered KMT, the 2021 proposal to resynchronize referenda and candidate elections thus held out the promise of using ballot questions to motivate voters opposed to various policies of the DPP-led government to go to the polls and, at the same time, vote for KMT candidates—in a reprise of 2018. 

The KMT’s enthusiasm for referenda was a reversal of its much more skeptical and, indeed, hostile position during its long tenure in power.  The DPP’s post-2018 doubts about liberal rules for referenda were similarly newfound.  During its long years as the principal opposition party, the DPP was an ardent proponent of the referendum process, explicitly as a mechanism for expanding and deepening democracy, but also because of the prospect that DPP-backed ballot questions could help mobilize its supporters to turn out and vote for DPP candidates. 

In two pivotal elections when the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian held the presidency—as an incumbent seeking reelection in 2004, and at the end of his second and, under the constitution, final term in 2008—the ballots included DPP-backed referenda that implicitly but pointedly asserted Taiwan’s state-like status in the international system (calling for Taiwan to acquire defenses against China’s missiles and to pursue peace negotiations with Beijing on an equal footing in 2004, and calling for Taiwan to seek UN membership under the name Taiwan in 2008).  These measures (as well as another proposal on investigating KMT assets) resonated with the concerns of the party’s base.  In 2008, the KMT countered, and addressed its core voters, with its own versions of pro-UN representation and anti-corruption referenda.  

A third feature of the 2021 contest suggested other reasons for concern about the state of Taiwan’s democracy.  KMT arguments—including by former President Ma—linked the ballot questions to a broader denunciation of DPP rule as undemocratic and, by implication, illegitimate.  The details of the indictment included: the DPP had ignored the democratic will of the voters who had approved a 2018 referendum against ending nuclear power (one that largely paralleled the 2021 proposal); President Tsai’s executive decision to lift the ban on U.S. pork (which another 2021 ballot question targeted) had bypassed the democratic legislative process; the separation of referenda votes and candidate elections (which another of the 2021 proposals opposed) undermined popular democracy by putting the referenda in an “iron cage” that consigned them to lower turnout contests; and the DPP-run government was undermining competitive two-party democracy by abusing its powers to disadvantage the KMT.  The last of these claims alleged abuse of a transitional justice process–which had been meant to address abuses during the era of KMT authoritarian rule—to demonize the present-day KMT and silence its advocates, and to put the KMT at a severe material disadvantage by freezing KMT assets as “ill-gotten”—a problem compounded, in the KMT’s critique, by the Tsai government’s impermissible use of state resources to help defeat the KMT-backed referenda in 2021.

Whatever one makes of the merits of such complaints—and although charges that a rival party is “undemocratic” are hardly without precedent in democratic Taiwan’s long-contentious and consistently feisty politics—the KMT’s accusations are consistent with the behavior of a party so lacking in confidence in its ability to win through “ordinary” or “normal” democratic politics that it turns to questioning the legitimacy of the process.  The KMT does have some reason to be pessimistic about its electoral prospects.  In 2016, it lost control of the presidency for only the second time, and for the first time ceded control of the legislature to the DPP—a situation that continued after 2020 with Tsai’s reelection and the DPP’s retention of a reduced legislative majority.  Infighting between President Ma and the  leader in the legislature, Wang Jin-pyng, had weakened and divided the KMT before the 2016 campaign.  The party’s selection of a presidential nominee was a mess in 2016, when a floundering candidate (Hung Hsiu-chu) generally seen as second-tier and too “pro-China” was replaced mid-cycle by a more prominent and conventional standard-bearer (former New Taipei mayor and the party’s current chairman, Eric Chu).  It was no better in 2020, when the party eschewed establishment leaders to gamble on another unconventional choice—the populist, somewhat Trump-like, Han Kuo-yu who lost in a landslide.  At the time of the 2021 referenda, the KMT was on its third chairman in less than two years. 

Yet, mortal peril for major political parties in Taiwan is easily exaggerated, and any perceived imperative to sow doubts about the strength of democracy are correspondingly less compelling.  The KMT still commands the loyalty of a relatively large share of voters, and has the apparent potential to re-expand its support among an electorate that includes many who do not strongly support either major party.  Not long ago, it was common to hear that the now-ruling DPP faced possible doom after its lopsided losses in 2008, and had little prospect for winning in 2020 after severe setbacks in the 2018 local elections. 

Elections for the Legislature in Hong Kong

While the December 2021 referenda in Taiwan may show a degree of dysfunction in a well-established democracy, the legislative elections held the next day in Hong Kong reflected a thorough dismantling of incipiently democratic processes and dashed long-standing and repeatedly frustrated calls for democratization.  The elections for the legislature were conducted under new, radically transformed rules adopted in 2021 by China’s National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee, with the collaboration of the SAR’s pliant executive branch and its legislature, already devoid of pro-democracy members through ouster or resignation.

The directly elected seats in the legislature dropped precipitously from 35 out of 70 to 20 out of 90.  The number of members chosen by an Election Committee rose from 0 to 40.  The Election Committee had long been a reliably “pro-Beijing” or “pro-government” body, the principal function of which was to nominate a slate of candidates for SAR Chief Executive who were acceptable to Beijing and its Hong Kong allies.  The composition of the Election Committee itself was revised before the 2021 election to reduce the small share of seats previously held by pro-democracy elements.  This was achieved principally by replacing the seats held by District Councilors—positions that had gone overwhelmingly to pro-democracy candidates in the 2019 local elections—with pro-establishment government appointees, and by adding seats for Hong Kong members of China’s national legislature, principal united front body, and other “national organizations.” 

The remaining 30 seats—down from 35—were chosen by the peculiar institution of “functional constituencies,” which represent a hodgepodge of social and economic sectors in Hong Kong.  Here, too, the new electoral rules shifted against democrats by eliminating six seats representing the directly elected District Councilors, adding one seat for the sectors newly added to the Election Committee, and narrowing the eligible electorate for some seats.

For the mere 20 directly democratically elected seats, other changes systematically disadvantaged candidates from the pro-democracy camp.  A proportional representation-based, party-list system with five large districts was replaced by ten two-member constituencies in which each voters cast a single, non-transferable vote.  Under the prior system, candidates from the democratic bloc had won the majority of directly elected seats—and enough total seats to block government-backed bills—in the legislature by securing a correspondingly large share of the popular vote.  Under the new “first past the post” rules, the top two finishers in each district—at least one of whom very likely would be a candidate of a pro-establishment or pro-Beijing party—would secure a seat.

Other legal changes tilted the playing field still more decisively against pro-democracy politicians.  In addition to approval by the newly more pro-establishment Election Committee, all candidates had to be vetted by a new Candidate Eligibility Review Committee.  The review committee received findings concerning a potential candidate’s legal qualifications for office, including allegiance to the Basic Law and the SAR, from a Committee for Safeguarding National Security.  The latter committee received reports on would-be candidates from the National Security Department of the Hong Kong police. These latter two bodies were creatures of the controversial National Security Law for Hong Kong that China’s national legislature enacted in mid-2020.  The decisions of the national security bodies are not subject to judicial review in Hong Kong. 

The new vetting process thus provided a reliable mechanism for excluding candidates opposed to, or disfavored by, Beijing and SAR authorities.  In the end, its full deployment proved unnecessary.  Only one candidate was disqualified, for non-partisan reasons.  Pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly declined to participate in the profoundly undemocratic process—doing so in the face of dark hints that political parties boycotting the election might be shut down for being unacceptably unpatriotic under the National Security Law.

Lest all that not be enough to assure Beijing and Hong Kong authorities’ preferred electoral outcome, many of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures—including former legislators and leading prospective legislative candidates—were involuntarily taken out of the game.  Beginning in January 2021, more than fifty had been arrested, nearly four dozen charged, and prosecutions begun, on subversion charges.  The principal offense was having organized an informal “primary” by public opinion poll in July 2020 to select pro-democracy candidates for the legislative elections then scheduled for September 2020—something that would not have brought such prosecutions in Hong Kong before the proscriptions introduced by the National Security Law. Actions by authorities also led to the shutting down of the SAR’s most influential pro-democracy newspaper—Apple Daily—in the run-up to the legislative election (and the closure of a remaining notable pro-democracy journal—Stand News—days after the election).

The electoral outcome—dismal turnout and a foreordained near-complete sweep for pro-regime or pro-establishment candidates (with only one “non-establishment” winner)—was the latest, and an especially severe, blow in the long-running and recently mounting struggle over democracy in Hong Kong.  The drastic changes to Hong Kong election laws in 2021 and the adoption of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in 2020 were reactions to the political conflict that had been roiling Hong Kong in 2019-20, and to the dramatic victory of the broadly pro-democracy camp in the high-turnout District Council elections at the end of 2019.  

The popular movement of 2019-20 had begun in opposition to a proposed bill to permit extradition of Hong Kong suspects for prosecution in the mainland’s justice system.  It quickly evolved into a citizen agenda for police and government accountability (for violence against demonstrators) and more fundamental democratic reforms. The District Council vote was generally seen as a referendum on the 2019 protests—and the SAR government’s and Beijing’s repressive responses to them.  In that election, democrats tripled their share of the seats, secured a solid majority in all 18 districts, and won nearly 400 of the nearly 500 posts.

The 2019-20 conflict over democracy was not new.  It echoed the Occupy Central / Umbrella Movement of half a decade earlier, when democracy advocates and supporters had taken to the streets, and seized public spaces and government offices, to call for democratic procedures for selecting Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (the head of the SAR’s executive-dominated government) and to oppose Beijing’s increasingly heavy hand in ruling the former British colony.  The 2014 movement itself had been an especially dramatic installment in a longer-running push for democracy that dated to late colonial times and had influenced the drafting of Hong Kong’s Basic Law—the mini-constitution for the SAR that promised progress toward fully democratic elections, albeit at a pace and to an extent that fell short of many Hong Kong democrats’ goals.

On the other side of Hong Kong’s sharp political divide, the steps taken to throttle democratic institutions and thwart popular democratic aspirations through the changes in the legislative election rules for 2021 and the adoption of the National Security Law in 2020 echoed and amplified earlier moves.  For example, a solid majority of the pro-democracy candidates elected in the 2019 District Council elections were disqualified or driven to resign within months after taking office.  In 2020, four sitting pro-democracy legislators were disqualified, ostensibly for violating prohibitions on asking foreign forces to intervene in Hong Kong affairs or acting in ways that “endanger national security.”  Their 15 pro-democracy colleagues resigned from the legislature in protest. 

In 2016, six elected pro-democracy legislators (including two who were “localist” or pro-independence) were ousted because—in an act of protest—they misread their oaths of office, which included affirmations of loyalty to the Basic Law and the SAR as part of the PRC.  The disqualifications in 2016 deprived democrats of their ability to block legislation, and the removals and resignations in 2020 left no significant non-establishment representation in the body.  Hong Kong election authorities’ pre-election disqualification of candidates—six in 2016 and a dozen in 2020 (when the election was still scheduled for September that year)—had further diminished the prospects for democratic and localist victories.

While SAR government institutions and courts have been key protagonists in the attack on democracy and democratic ambitions in Hong Kong, so, too, has the authoritarian regime in Beijing.  In addition to their influence over the SAR government and its allies, the central authorities in Beijing have episodically and increasingly exercised direct power to shape the SAR’s political order.  Actions by China’s national legislature variously dictated and authorized the new election rules for 2021.  The national security-based disqualification of legislators in 2020 followed a resolution issued by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, adopted in the wake of the NPC’s enactment of the National Security Law.  The National Security Law laid the basis for the arrests of leading democrats and the disqualification of democratic legislators and potential candidates. 

The oath-taking-based disqualifications followed the NPC Standing Committee’s exercise of its authority to “interpret” Hong Kong’s Basic Law.  The Standing Committee earlier had exercised its interpretive power to reject Hong Kongers’ calls for accelerating democratization of the Chief Executive selection process in 2004.  And a decision by Beijing shortly before the territory’s 1997 reversion to China had ousted a legislature that had been elected in 1995—under markedly democratic rules adopted by the outgoing British colonial authorities—and that was to have “ridden the through train” to become the SAR’s first legislature.

Lessons for the United States

The problems for democracy arguably on display in Taiwan’s 2021 referenda—partisan polarization among a disaffected electorate, quests for political advantage that overshadow pursuit of consistent policy agendas, and a major party that seemingly lacks confidence in its ability to win majority support and is thus tempted by the siren song, or Faustian bargain, of denying the democratic legitimacy of the party in power—will sound familiar to Americans.  Indeed, Taiwan seems to have a comparatively mild case of much of what ails U.S. democracy. 

Far more ominous are signs that the United States may be afflicted with a variant—for now, at least, less virulent, but more self-inflicted—of the much more serious plague that has devastated the hope, promise, and practice of democracy in Hong Kong: powerful political actors, including government officeholders, introduce fundamental, and fundamentally anti-democratic, changes in the rules of the political game, in order to assure their own hold on power and to exclude democracy-supporting opponents whom they portray as threats to the nation who cannot possibly win and wield government authority legitimately.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.