Taiwan is rated as one of the freest societies in Asia, which makes it an attractive location for NGOs, journalists, and activists from neighbouring countries where local governments are cracking down on independent media and civil society, such as Hong Kong, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But are the Taiwanese authorities ready to turn the island into a welcoming and safe haven?
Taiwan, which only 35 years ago still lived under martial law and imposed heavy censorship on its own people and media, is one of the freest countries in Asia, as demonstrated in surveys conducted by organisations such as Reporters with Borders (RSF) or Freedom House. Besides Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, and now Timor Leste, which are rated as enjoying high levels of media freedom, most countries in Asia have a poor record when it comes to freedom of expression. In some cases, the situation is, in fact, worsening, as is the case in China, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Vietnam, not to mention North Korea.
Given its location at the intersection between the north and south of Asia, Taiwan is well positioned to become a place of choice for exiled journalists and activists from across Asia looking for a place to seek refuge but also remain active online and continue to inform their home audiences. It is important to note that while Taiwan has accepted asylum seekers in the past, it currently has no law defining or governing asylum, while at the same time a majority of Taiwanese do support the creation of such a law, as it would also benefit Taiwan's image internationally.
For more on this issue, read: Taiwanese documentary showcases forgotten story of a Vietnamese refugee camp from the 1970s
To understand whether Taiwan is capitalising on this opportunity to increase its international visibility, given that it is not recognized as an independent country by the vast majority of the international community, Global Voices spoke to Cédric Alviani, head of the Taipei-based office of Reporters without Borders that covers East and Southeast Asia, and soon the Pacific region.
The interview took place in person in Taipei and has been edited for style and brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): In what way is Taiwan attractive for foreign media considering moving here?
Cédric Alviani (CA): The idea of Taiwan as a hub suitable for international media and NGOs is relatively new. Over the past several decades, Taiwan has of course developed quality key infrastructures such as high-speed trains, harbours, and airports, making it a very competitive place for business in the region. But in my view, what makes the difference is that the country’s English proficiency has improved a lot, which makes it much easier for foreign journalists and NGOs to operate: younger generations now speak quite fluent English while administrations all offer English-language services.
Additionally, and as opposed to Hong Kong, Taiwan is a real democracy, with transfers of political power, healthy public debates, a high-performing social security system, anti-discrimination policies, gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights. When our organisation decided to open an East-Asia bureau, Taiwan was the obvious choice over Hong Kong: we did not need to get permission from the government, we just had to follow the regulations.
Other countries in the region could have taken on this role of a welcoming hub for media, such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, but over the past decade their governments have become more authoritarian, which poses questions of security.
FN: So what is lacking to turn Taiwan into this hub, given the advantages you just mentioned?
CA: The Taiwanese authorities have not been very good at promoting the island’s achievements internationally in terms of competitiveness. This explains why foreign decision makers who don't know the region well still consider Hong Kong as the place to settle an Asian office, even though operational costs are lower in Taiwan given local salaries. Also, bureaucracy creates a gap between political decisions made at the top and the reality on the ground. For example, when we opened our office in Taiwan in 2017, we had to force different ministries to talk to each other in order for us to get our registration documents.
There is no ill will from the government. For example, freelance foreign correspondents can now easily get a press card when they want to settle in Taiwan, which wasn’t the case before and is definitely a sign of progress. But despite the harsh situation in China, only 20 international NGOs and a few dozen journalists have established roots in Taiwan in the past three years, most of them without any specific assistance from the authorities. There should be hundreds!
But for this, the Taiwan government should be much more proactive by creating a task team to facilitate the transition, reaching out to international NGOs and media industry decision makers, and providing sufficient financial and administrative incentives to make it worthwhile for them to open representative offices on the island. This is particularly necessary for smaller media outlets and NGOs, which usually don’t have sufficient resources to conduct research and make investments.
Hosting hundreds of international NGOs and foreign correspondents would be an additional layer of protection for Taiwan, because they would be as many witnesses in case China engages in any violent actions against Taiwan, but the Taiwan government doesn’t seem to realise the benefits it would gain.
The case of exiled Hong Kong journalists is emblematic: only an estimated 20 of them could relocate to Taiwan, most of them with a student visa, as a consequence of the government’s inability or unwillingness to take in consideration their dramatic situation. As they couldn't easily relocate to Taiwan, many exiled Hong Kong journalists have been forced to move to more remote countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada, where it's much harder to cover news from Hong Kong due to distance and time differences.
We have called on the Taiwanese government to make more efforts, because as in all democracies, the bureaucracy creates a gap between political decisions made at the top, and the reality on the ground. Sometimes the government also does not acknowledge certain challenges, or does not address them in a timely manner. Finally there is also a lack of communication among different ministries, something we experienced when we registered: We had to force different departments to talk to each other to get our registration. Things could indeed be much better. We have counted about 20 international NGOs that are currently established and registered in Taiwan. But there should be 200! The Taiwanese government should be proactive and reach out to international NGOs and media. Indeed, the management of such organizations is often unaware of how competitive Taiwan actually is, and are concerned with the costs of moving to a new country. The government here should create a task team to reach out and facilitate the transition. Most foreign freelancers who are here, as well as foreign media, moved to Taiwan on their own without any specific support from the Taiwanese government. What is definitely good, and a sign of progress, is that freelancers can show samples of writing and usually easily get a press card and the right to stay in Taiwan. It used to be much harder in the past. I think what is missing is an awareness on the side of the Taiwanese government of what a great opportunity this represents when foreign media and NGOs decide to move here. When me moved here in 2017, we were offered an office in Taizhong in a newly developed space that was recycled to host NGOs. But we needed to be in Taipei, yet there was no concrete offer from the capital, despite initial talks, and we did the whole process on our own. Smaller NGOs might have decided to move depending on assistance provided that would understand their real needs. This shows a lack of political will, particularly in the case of Hong Kong given how much cheaper Taiwan is in comparison. Hong Kong journalists are unable to seek shelter in Taiwan because there is no one-stop shop system that can effectively help them, even though they are in real danger. The only way out for them – an estimate 20 now -is to register as students in Taiwan. Here again there is a lack of political will because there could be hundreds of reporters covering the region out of Taiwan. This would be an additional layer of protection for Taiwan because journalists are witnesses in case China engages in any violent actions against Taiwan.