Taiwan ranked as the eighth-strongest democracy in the world last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's new 2021 Democracy Index, and as the second strongest in Asia and Australasia, even as democracies elsewhere continue to struggle.
The news was welcomed by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who tweeted Friday that despite many challenges, "the people of #Taiwan have been resolute in their commitment to democracy."
In 2020, Taiwan, along with Japan and South Korea, moved up a category from "flawed democracies" to "full democracies," a group that last year counted just 21 members worldwide. The 2021 EIU Index, published Thursday, reported the worst declines in average global democracy scores since the index was established in 2006.
The global decline pushed Taiwan three slots up from its 2020 ranking, according to EIU Taiwan analyst Nick Marro, who helped compile the list. "Taiwan's movement in 2021 was mostly owing to change elsewhere. The score didn't really materially change for Taiwan last year. The status of democracy in Taiwan is still very much intact," he said.
Taiwan's democratic institutions have also shown resilience despite growing political interference from China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island 160 kilometers southeast of its shoreline. China typically employs disinformation campaigns, which have wreaked havoc in places such as the U.S., he added.
Beijing's influence over print media remains an area of concern as many Taiwanese news outlets show a bias toward the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party as well as China itself.
"Taiwanese democracy has to really fix its fourth estate," said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. "The Taiwanese media is very free. That's not a problem, but underfunding and the tendency towards sensational reporting is a concern. Those sorts of dynamics open Taiwan's press up to influence operations from China."
Beijing-backed disinformation campaigns targeting Taipei ramped up during a major COVID-19 outbreak on the island in 2021, although Taiwanese civil society responded with aggressive fact-checking through dedicated websites and social media accounts.
Taiwan's democratic resilience has been tested by domestic issues as well, such as a series of "revenge recall" elections that targeted legislators from small and pro-independence parties for their political beliefs rather than for poor performance in office.
Other areas needing improvement include rural representation and political participation by marginalized groups, such as members of the island's Indigenous community, Chong said.
EIU rankings are based on five key metrics: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. COVID-19-related measures such as lockdowns, however, adversely affected country scores worldwide as civil liberties and individual freedoms were curtailed.
Taiwan, which has had COVID-19 travel restrictions in place since early 2020, imposed a semi-lockdown from May to July 2021 following a spike in cases, but it has largely avoided the stronger restrictions of East Asian neighbors such as Hong Kong and China.
"All democracies have not done exceedingly well during the pandemic, but some of the democracies have fared well primarily due to timely measures taken by leadership," said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, who described Taiwan's successful COVID-19 strategy as a "landmark achievement."
"Taiwan is one such country that resorted to transparency, accountability, and the focus has been on minimizing the damage to human lives and [the] economy," she said.
Of the 167 states and territories surveyed by EIU analysts, 21 were categorized as full democracies — 6.4% of the world's population — while 53 were categorized as "flawed democracies," or 39.3% of the world's population. Thirty-four countries were grouped in the "hybrid regime" category (17.2%), and 59 countries were deemed "authoritarian regimes" (37.1%).
The United States, which the EIU has categorized as flawed democracy since 2017, dropped one spot to number 26.
Afghanistan and Myanmar slid to 167 and 166 respectively, displacing North Korea from last place, a spot it had held since 2006.
Beyond the 2021 EIU Democracy Index, Taiwan regularly ranks highly in other global rankings measuring political freedom and equality — considered by many to be a remarkable turnaround for a society that lived under martial law from 1949 to 1987.