For the past twenty years, most of our computers have been made by Taiwanese companies, mostly Asus and to a lesser degree Acer. Our first smartphone was also Taiwanese, made by HTC. After that, we have had two Chinese phones made by Huawei and Xiaomi, respectively. Until now, we have not paid much attention to where these products have been physically made. That has now changed, due to the treatment of Hong Kong citizens, threats made to the government of Taiwan, and the increased militarization by China. The time has come to consider whether products made in China, or by companies owned – even partially owned – by the Chinese government, are in the world’s best interest.
If the choice is between cheap consumer electronics made in a dictatorship, or more expensive goods made in a democracy, I will opt for the latter, every time – except when my selfish nature gets in the way of my selfless ideal. Even without human frailty, most choices are a bit more nuanced. Of course, there is also an issue of sustainability, where the climate crisis is a major threat to human survival.
In this post, one of the first questions to be avoided is, what is a democracy? Instead, I will simply use the Democracy Index, first published in 2006 and compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Despite its British (read English) bias, it measures 60 indicators (proxies) in five categories, from which it scores/ ranks/ categorizes 167 countries. The four regime categories are: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. For further details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index
South Korea is the highest ranking flawed democracy, at #21 on the EIU Democracy Index, immediately below Costa Rica, but higher than Japan (#22), and the United States (#25). Taiwan is ranked at #32, between Belgium and Italy, and is also regarded as a flawed democracy. China is ranked at #130, and is classified as authoritarian, although not as bad as Saudi Arabia at #150, or North Korea at #167, the worst on the list.
A more long-term trend analysis of democracy is MaxRange. It offers a dataset spanning 1600 to 2015 that has over 90 000 country-year observations, and from 1789 over 600 000 observations in its monthly format. These rank political regimes on a 1 to 1 000 scale. A Swedish language summary concludes: 1. Democracy does not grow out of nations but spreads between them. Thus, all types of non-democracies can eventually become democracies. 2. Muslim countries are slower than others to embrace democracy, but this only applies during the post-Cold War period. 3. For the entire period 1789 to 2013, prosperity plays a much greater role than religion in democratization.
In an accompanying MaxRange video, mention is made that while established (strong) democracies are becoming less robust, because of political polarization, corruption and constitutional violations, more countries are transitioning away from dictatorship towards weak democracy. Between 2006 and 2014, this trend was strongest in countries in Africa and Asia, but weaker in Europe and the Americas.
Human rights are more complex. In part, this is because these rights can come in conflict with each other, and with the exercise of democratic rights. Again, I will avoid detail, and try to look at a bigger picture.
Kenneth Roth, in his essay, The Dangerous Rise of Populism: Global Attacks on Human Rights Values, appearing in Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, states: “Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Rights limit what a state can do and impose obligations for how a state must act. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting rights as protecting everyone, they privilege the declared interests of the majority, encouraging people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never themselves need to assert rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.” (p. 1)
Todd Landman, in Democracy and Human Rights: Concepts, Measures, and Relationships (2018) argues that despite many achievements, there remain tensions between conceptualisations of democracy and human rights over the degree to which one includes the other, the temporal and spatial empirical relationships between them, and the measures that have been developed to operationalize them. These tensions, in turn, affect the kinds of analyses that are carried out, including model specification, methods of estimation, and findings. He concludes that greater care is needed to specify, conceptualize and operationalize measures and inferences used in addressing democracy and human rights.
Human Rights Watch World Report 2019, writes the following about South Korea: The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is a democracy that generally respects civil and political liberties. However, it maintains unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and foreigners—especially refugees and migrants—continued to be a major problem in 2018.
The 2019 report does not have a chapter about Taiwan, and it doesn’t seem to be specifically mentioned in the chapter on China. Wikipedia reports the following: “The human rights record in Taiwan is generally held to have experienced significant transformation since the 1990s… [It] has a multi-party democracy. The 2000 presidential victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) … followed more than 50 years of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT) and marked the first transition from one political party to another in the Taiwanese history. This followed gradual democratic reforms since the 1980s and 1990s…. Freedom House rates Taiwan as among the most “Free” nations in Asia, with a 1 in both Political Rights and Civil Liberties (scale of 1-7, with 1 being the highest). This represents a significant improvement, as the 1973 rating was 6.5, rising to 2.1 by 2000.
The Human Rights Watch Report 2019 states the following about China: China’s growing global power makes it an exporter of human rights violations, including at the United Nations, where in 2018 it sought to block participation of its critics. China again ranked among countries singled out for reprisals against human rights defenders, and in March successfully advanced a Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on a retrograde approach that it calls “win-win” or “mutually beneficial” cooperation. In this view, states do not pursue accountability for serious human rights violations but engage merely in “dialogue”; moreover, there is no role for independent civil society, only governments, and a narrow role for the UN itself.
In terms of the climate crisis and sustainability, Greenpeace USA has written The Guide to Greener Electronics, an analysis of 17 of the world’s leading consumer electronics companies in terms of their environmental impacts, and where work still needs to be done. On a scale ranging from A (best) to F (worst), Fairphone is ranked best in the class with a B. This is followed by: Apple (B-); Dell, HP (C+); Lenovo, Microsoft (C-); Acer, LG, Sony, Google (D+); Asus, Huawei (D); Samsung (D-); and, Amazon, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi (F).
In terms of democracy, products produced in South Korea are preferable to those produced in Taiwan. Yet, the reverse is true if human rights are the focal point. In terms of environmental considerations, there appear to be no real winners, with the possible exception of Fairphone. Despite this, I will be looking much closer at where products are made, the human rights situation in those countries, and their democratic index ranking.