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Liberalization, Economic Dependence, and the Paradox of Taiwan’s Press Freedom

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

As a successful third-wave democracy in East Asia, why did Taiwan’s press freedom improve along with democratization in the 1990s but instead deteriorate after the second peaceful turnover of power in 2008 which symbolized democratic consolidation? Considering the liberal view in international relations, why did Taiwan’s press freedom make significant improvements accompanying Taiwan’s close economic connections with the US during the Cold War, only to become eroded when Taiwan recently developed deeper economic ties with China?

This study offers a political economy explanation of the development and degradation of freedom of the press in Taiwan from 1949 through 2015 from both international and domestic perspectives. At the international level, it argues that a state’s press freedom should improve or deteriorate, when it depends economically on a liberal or repressive hegemon. Material self-interest and norm diffusion are proposed as the causal mechanisms to connect economic dependence to the degree of press freedom. At the domestic level, the argument is that a state tends to have a low or high level of press freedom, when its government plays a more or less interventionist role in the market economy. State control and market co-optation are proposed as the mechanisms to establish the causal linkages between the state’s economic role and the level of media freedom.

With archival and interview data gathered in Taiwan, historical institutionalism has been adopted as the analytical approach and both multiple within-case comparisons and process tracing as the research methods to investigate the case of Taiwan. Filling the gaps within existing scholarship, the case study supports the proposed theory and implies that 1) state power is not the only threat to freedom of the press, but corporate organizations and market forces may also play a role in curtailing or circumscribing it, 2) cross-national economic connections do not always benefit domestic practice regarding human and civil rights, but may cause damage to it on occasions when relations of economic interdependence involve more powerful authoritarian countries, and 3) norms may not only diffuse from liberal contexts to repressive states, but repressive norms are also likely to diffuse from more powerful authoritarian countries to more liberal but politically and economically weaker countries via the mechanism of transnational corporations.

Given the growing concerns about the potential impacts that China’s economic rise might have on human rights and democracy around the world, this study especially deserves attention from democratic countries which have increasing economic linkages with China.

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