A more hostile environment for journalists and NGOs in China and Hong Kong could make Taiwan an ideal location to open regional bureaus and offices.
Taiwan is arguably one of the world’s most misunderstood places. Even major media corporations often get it wrong. For example, last December U.S.-based ABC News mistakenly referred to Tsai Ing-wen as the president of Thailand.
This vibrant democracy of 23 million people is often either ignored by the world’s press or reported simply in the context of cross-Strait relations.
Things might be changing, however. In the past few years Taiwan has made headline news for some significant achievements. Defining moments such as becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019 and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic without having to resort to a lockdown are increasingly putting the country on the map.
The real game changer, though, could come from outside Taiwan’s borders. Growing hostility in China against overseas journalists and the passing of a draconian National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong last year are offering an unprecedented opportunity for the island to attract foreign correspondents and organizations to move here instead. This is good news, but questions remain over whether Taipei is doing enough to reap the potential rewards.
In March 2020, Beijing expelled foreign media from three major U.S. news organizations – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. In addition, in September two Australian reporters fled police harassment in China, leaving no Australian media with foreign correspondents there.
In both mainland China and Hong Kong, the authorities have either rejected or delayed approving journalist visas, while the NSL’s sweeping provisions that in principle make criticism of the government a national security crime endanger those working in media, think tanks, and NGOs. The risk is especially high for such professionals working for overseas organizations.
The German think tank Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) opened a Global Innovation Hub in Hong Kong in 2019, but after just one year it shuttered the new office and will instead relaunch it in Taipei this spring. Anna Marti, head of the Innovation Hub, says FNF concluded that since the NSL targets international political organizations and carries severe penalties, maintaining the office in Hong Kong was not worth the risk to the staff.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) saw the writing on the wall well ahead of the NSL. The French NGO opened its East Asian Bureau in Taipei in 2017. Today, it employs a staff of nine and runs projects on China and Hong Kong.
The decision to open the office in Taiwan was “a no brainer,” says Bureau Head Cédric Alviani. “In the context of an Asia that is mostly run by authoritarian powers, Taiwan is one of the very few democracies that can host international NGOs or international media.”
Alviani says that Taiwan over the years has become much more internationalized, making it more competitive with Hong Kong. He adds that its comparatively low costs in terms of human resources and office rental also makes Taiwan more attractive than either of the other developed East Asian economies, Japan and Korea.
His views are echoed by Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) in Washington, D.C., J. Michael Cole. “Taiwan is a free, safe environment, with open access, a free press, great infrastructure, enviable quality of life, and healthcare, and it’s located at the very center of the Indo-Pacific region,” he says. “Media, think tanks, and NGOs that conduct work on ‘sensitive’ issues like human rights, democracy promotion, press freedom, and other matters can do so in Taiwan with the knowledge that they will not be harassed, followed, or spied upon by the authorities or sub-state organizations affiliated with the regime.”
There’s another advantage too. Taiwan’s recent history, evolving from an authoritarian state to a liberal democracy while living under the shadow of threats of coercion or invasion, makes it a good subject for human rights organizations to learn from.
The Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy will decide whether to open an office in Taipei early this year, according to the center’s director, Jakub Janda. “We believe that European democracies can learn a lot from the experience of Taiwan defending itself from Chinese pressure, which Europe is now facing as well,” Janda says. He adds that given the current situation, “many European countries and institutions understand that they need more stable, friendly, and trustworthy partners in Asia.” Taiwan, he says, fits that bill perfectly.
According to Marti of FNF, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s bold initiatives in e-governance, accountability, and transparency were another reason that Taipei was first choice for the Global Innovation Hub’s relocation. “We think we can learn a lot from them,” she says, referring to the hub’s goal of fostering digital experiments to support open society and democracy.
Taiwan’s Department of NGO International Affairs (NIA) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) says that in 2020 the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) authorized the registration of six international NGOs, and between March 2020 and January 2021 nine reporters relocated to Taiwan from China.
More foreign reporters
Some of the media organizations that have relocated staff to Taiwan include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. UK broadsheet The Guardian also assigned correspondent Helen Davidson to Taipei late last year.
In theory, having more foreign reporters with boots on the ground should help Taiwan get more and better coverage from the world’s media. “A dateline, for one, puts Taiwan on the global map,” says GTI’s Cole. “More refined, detailed, granular, and sustained reporting about Taiwan from Taiwan will help tell its story – and show its importance – to the international community.”
According to Jonathan Sullivan, director of China Programs at the UK’s Nottingham University, the difference is already evident. “One of the major opinions was that Taiwan needed people to be based in Taiwan to understand the nuance of the situation there and to reconsider how to frame cross-Strait relations,” he says. “Since the influx of journalists in the last few years, you can see the coverage gradually changing.” He cites decreased use of terminology describing Taiwan as a breakaway or “renegade” province of China.
“Taiwan, in its vulnerable position, relies on the understanding and support of people around the world, especially in advanced economies and democracies,” says Sullivan. “It is thus important that people reading about Taiwan get an accurate sense of what Taiwan is about and why it’s fighting to maintain its autonomy and way of life.”
Raising Taiwan’s profile internationally can also be expected to encourage more people to come here for work, business, and pleasure once the pandemic is over. “It increases Taiwan’s visibility, positions it as a player regionally, and will normalize its existence as an actual, physical location, inhabited by real people, which can be visited for conferences, business, or tourism,” says Cole.
Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, the U.S.-based pro-democracy NGO, also sees big potential for Taiwan. “If journalists who cover more of the economics and financial sector transfer there and become more familiar with Taiwan’s economy, this could also potentially result in more frequent coverage that could draw investors,” she says.
Cook also cites employment opportunities for aspiring young local journalists and other economic benefits from the establishment of more international media organizations in Taiwan, as well as an opportunity to improve journalistic professionalism and the overall media environment.
Nevertheless, observers say that Taiwan needs to make some changes in order to fully profit from this opportunity.
“The government is in the process of modernizing and streamlining regulations that have made it difficult for international NGOs to set up shop in Taiwan,” says Cole. “It’s slow going, but it’s happening.” If these efforts can be institutionalized, which he believes is beginning to happen, it “will have a beneficial effect on the willingness of foreign organizations to consider Taiwan as an alternative,” he says.
Wu Fen-man, senior executive officer of the NIA’s International Participation and Evaluation Section, says that MOFA and MOI have started working together to make it easier for international NGOs to establish operations in Taiwan. In addition, revised regulations lowered the threshold for registration for any organization that works on “democracy and freedom,” “human rights and justice,” and “peace and tolerance,” by halving the minimum required assets to NT$15 million from NT$30 million. Yet for some, such moves still fall short of the mark.
Last summer, The New York Times announced that it was relocating its Asia digital news operation from Hong Kong to Seoul, moving about one-third of the staff because of security concerns relating to the NSL. The fact that they chose Korea over Taiwan should have been a warning call, argues a Taipei-based media professional from Europe who wished to remain anonymous.
“In my analysis, less than 10% of the NGOs and media that could settle in Taiwan [are doing so],” he said. “Most Hong Kong- and Bangkok-based NGOs and media have no clue that Taiwan is so competitive. And if nobody reaches out to them, they will never come to Taiwan.”
The professional blames excessive bureaucracy, fragmented responsibilities, poor communication between bureaus, and a lack of leadership for this situation. He points to the website www.taiwanngo.tw, a bilingual portal launched by MOFA in December 2020, as the most substantial effort the government has made in this area. Yet, he asks, “who is going to connect to that website if you don’t know that Taiwan is a good place?” He urges the government to dispatch “credible people” to go out and sell Taiwan to think tanks and other organizations.
Wu counters that the NIA has already begun that task. “Besides receiving requests from INGOs which have already shown their willingness to set up branches here, we aim at reaching out to more potential organizations – especially those which are striving to defend democracy, liberty, and human rights – and providing them with incentives,” she says. “Our goal is to develop a friendly and sustainable environment in Asia that nurtures the long-term settlement of INGOs with shared values.”
MOFA has also been reaching out to expelled U.S. journalists. In a tweet last March, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu wrote: “As @nytimes, @WSJ & @washingtonpost face intensifying hostility in China, I’d like to welcome you to be stationed in Taiwan – a country that is a beacon of freedom & democracy.”
Gerry Shih, the interim Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, told CommonWealth Magazine last fall that after he realized that Korea was not an ideal base for him to cover China, he took up MOFA’s offer and moved here with his wife. “Taiwan is the best place from which to observe China,” he said.
Taiwan must also try to assuage fears among media companies that setting up a bureau on the island might provoke retaliation from Beijing. In that same CommonWealth article, an anonymous journalist suggested that The New York Times opted for Seoul because Taipei was too politically sensitive. Indeed, all reporters and media outlets contacted for this story declined requests to answer questions on the relocation of staff to Taipei.
While the intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists common in China is unheard of in today’s Taiwan, there are still some areas that the government could improve, says William Yang, vice president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC).
“We believe that government departments or agencies could be more open to interacting with the foreign press community, allowing more on-the-record briefings to be available so demand and appetite for stories about Taiwan could increase,” Yang says. He says that currently such briefings and interviews are not always easy for foreign journalists to arrange.
Taiwan must also get serious about improving English-language capacity, say commentators. “One thing that might make it difficult for media in general is the fact that English is not as widely spoken as it is in Hong Kong,” said Marti of FNF. While Taiwan’s 2030 Bilingual Nation policy aims to promote the island’s internationalization by boosting standards of English, it is not clear how this bold target will be achieved.
Other issues that need to be resolved are relatively low salary levels, limited career opportunities, and a brain drain leading to a shortage of available talent in the local workforce, says GTI’s Cole. “The presence of more international organizations will, I hope, compel Taiwan to become more competitive, with policies that are better aligned with the requirements of the 21st century.”