When Democracy Is a Threat

The first time I covered a Taiwan “election,” 38 years ago, the island was a dictatorship under martial law, with members of the opposition more likely to be tortured than to gain power.

Government officials explained that modern democracy wasn’t fully compatible with Chinese culture, and one of my minders made a vague inquiry about paying me — apparently to see if a Times correspondent could be bribed.

Taiwan lifted martial law the next year, 1987, and helped lead a democratic revolution in Asia, encompassing South Korea, Mongolia, Indonesia and others. Taiwan now ranks as more democratic than the United States, Japan or Canada, according to the most recent ratings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the island is now caught up in boisterous campaigning for presidential and legislative elections on Saturday.

(The campaigning has mostly gone smoothly but not entirely so: As a gimmick, one Taiwanese party handed out 460,000 laundry detergent pods to win support. Some voters unfortunately mistook the pods for food.)

The stakes here are enormous, for President Biden has repeatedly said that the United States would defend Taiwan from a military assault by China, and the policies of the new government may shape the risk of such a confrontation. The importance of the outcome to China is reflected in Beijing’s efforts to manipulate it — and perhaps we Americans can learn something here about resisting election interference.

“What China has been trying to do is use Taiwan as a test ground,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told me. “If they are able to make a difference in this election, I’m sure they are going to try and apply this to other democracies.”

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