Like in Australia, the debate about foreign interference in Taiwan usually centres on the shadowy intentions of China. But a very different source of overseas influence is blamed, at least in part, for Taiwan’s failed bid last month to become the first Asian nation to formally legalise same-sex marriage.
Not meddling from Beijing, but from some Christian groups in the United States.
“Social conservative voices are rising in Taiwan,” says Ketty Chen of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, “and they are found to have a growing and consistent relationship with evangelical conservatives in the United States”.
Support for change foundered. The proponents of marriage equality are said to have run a poor campaign, too focused in the cities, especially the youth vote, and largely ignoring rural areas.
The strength of these links became clear in the lead-up to Taiwan’s referendum on same-sex marriage in local elections on 24 November. Chen watched anti-LGBTQ campaigns gather momentum, benefiting from training in US mega-churches and with pamphlets that featured many of the same prejudiced tropes about “moral decay” threatening society that have spread across the world to undermine progress on gay rights.
“Disinformation campaigns not only come from China but also come from overseas groups that want to establish their agenda,” says Chen.
Taiwan had been a leader in Asia on marriage equality. Last year, the Council of Grand Justices, Taiwan’s highest court, made a landmark ruling, declaring it unconstitutional for laws to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. The decision was hailed internationally – including in Australia, then in the throes of its own debate on same-sex marriage and featuring claims by at least one conservative senator that support for marriage equality would leave Australia out of step with its Asian neighbours.
The court decision in May 2017 effectively put Taiwan’s legislature on notice, declaring a two-year deadline to resolve the law. This eventually led to the referendum last month – or rather, a series of proposed referendum, some for and some against, with President Tsai Ing-wen backing a change to allow same-sex marriage.
But support for change foundered. The proponents of marriage equality are said to have run a poor campaign, too focused in the cities, especially the youth vote, and largely ignoring rural areas. Fake news also caught hold, including damaging falsehoods that marriage equality would lead to incest or bestiality, an increase in HIV rates, and an end to population growth. Opposition to gender and health education in public schools also became another question put to a referendum.
Christians make up only a small percentage of Taiwan’s population, between 4-5% on most estimates, and as with any group, views within the Christian community differed on same-sex marriage. But what Chen describes as an “aggressive and successful” campaign against marriage equality, fostered by ties to groups in the US, exploited widespread traditional view about family values in predominantly Buddhist Taiwan, such as notions of “carrying on the bloodline”.
“Some of the (opposition) pamphlets or videos would say ‘when your son brings home your future daughter-in-law, do you want that daughter-in-law to be a man’,” Chen says.
The international connections are no secret. Local pastor Chen Chih-hung and then spokesman for the “Alliance of Religious Groups for the Love of Families Taiwan”, which played a prominent role opposing same-sex marriage, said in a 2014 interview that:
Christian churches in Taiwan are informed by churches abroad about what gay activists have been doing … We lack experience. They have told us how serious the issue is and what strategies [gay rights advocates] deploy … Christian groups take the lead on this issue since Asian religions haven’t traditionally seen homosexuality as a big deal. Churches in the US and Europe have confronted the impact of gay marriage directly.
In the final tally in the referendum last month, about seven million Taiwanese voted to restrict the legal definition of marriage to between a man and a woman, with three million supporting the inclusive notion of marriage as between two people.
Pei Chien Wu, 22, was a first-time voter in the 24 November elections. For her, the same-sex marriage question was the most important issue, and she was disappointed by the result.
“Soulmates should be allowed to marry,” she says.
Wu had no sense of connections from groups to the US in the debate, but she did see the anti-LGBT campaigns of Christian groups, especially using social media. This was not aimed so much at younger Taiwanese, she said, but an older generation who are just as active online.
Some of these campaign messages claimed Taiwan’s population would decline over the coming decades should same-sex marriage be legislated, Wu says.
But Wu’s priority on social issues is also an example of what is seen as an important shift. In the past, concern at elections has mostly revolved around the question of China, with unification or independence as the dominant issue – and these remain key issues. But as Teng Ming-hung from Yilan Community University put in a column for a local newspaper, as people focus on policy issues related to the economy and their livelihood, social issues loom larger.
In the end, whatever ties to the US campaign during the same-sex marriage debate, China’s pressure on Taiwan is far more pervasive. Another referendum also posed on 24 November to use the name “Taiwan” at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020 was defeated, with 55% voting for “Chinese Taipei” to remain the description for local athletes.
This debate was also subject to misinformation – some thought malicious and emanating from abroad – including claims a change of name would jeopardise the ability of Taiwan’s athletes to compete (the International Olympic Committee called it a “freedom of expression” issue while insisting its process would control naming questions).
China’s influence is also felt in a more insidious fashion. Beyond complaints about airlines using “Taiwan” as a country name, changing the time zone for an iPhone reveals “Taipei” is listed as a city without a country, compared to “Sydney, Australia” or “Jakarta, Indonesia”. In another example, a university professor complained this month that an Australian-based organisation had retrospectively doctored a 2003 paper he had written to alter references from Taiwan to “Chinese Taipei”.
Chen’s institute will soon release a report on China’s online information campaigns, which she said had sought to track the activities of online content farms that appear to post from servers across Asia but with digital fingerprints leading back to Beijing. “Dissemination of disinformation” is a phrase often used the discussion of the election results.
For the same-sex marriage question in Taiwan, the referendum result has again thrown the issue back to the legislature. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party holds the majority and could, in theory, simply do nothing for the next five months. The referendum is not binding. Stalling would mean the court’s deadline would pass, allowing its interpretation of the law to stand, effectively instituting same-sex marriage.
But politically, ignoring the clear preference of the population would be reckless, especially ahead of presidential elections in 2020. The government has indicated it will negotiate a special law to ensure restrictions on marriage are constitutional while resolving the status of same-sex couples for questions such as inheritance or adoption. Yet there is opposition to any legal status for same-sex couples.
Supporters of marriage equality are not completely disheartened. There is talk that like past social struggles, whether for women to win the vote or civil rights campaigns in the US, the inevitable setbacks only momentarily interrupt an eventual triumph. A translated editorial from local newspaper Liberty Times, typically supportive of the government, turned to a proverb:
The Taiwanese saying ‘Eat from a bowl too quickly and it will break’ aptly describes the current situation. Increased communication, patient persuasion, and incremental progress will eventually win the tacit approval and tolerance of the public and allow society to feel at ease.
Daniel Flitton travelled to Taiwan as a guest of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs