The groveling apology from John Cena on Monday just for calling Taiwan a “country” is a vivid reminder of how the Chinese Communist Party uses its economic leverage to the hilt to compel Americans to play along with the CCP’s rhetoric and policy on Taiwan — i.e., that it is rightfully part of the People’s Republic of China and not an independent nation. It uses that leverage elsewhere, as well, to compel Americans to follow the Party line on Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. The simple act of Americans speaking the truth terrifies the CCP, which is exactly why we ought to do it. It encourages dissidents from the CCP everywhere. It also shows the world that the CCP does not yet control the United States.
These are dark times for Taiwan. A democracy of 23.5 million people, its population is larger than Chile’s, larger than that of any American state but California or Texas, and larger than the populations of Sweden and Israel put together. It has nine-tenths the population of Australia, which spans an entire continent. Yet, in order to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, the United States during the Carter administration withdrew diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. The U.N. does not recognize it. Congress, in 1979, passed the Taiwan Relations Act to guarantee that we would continue to sell arms to Taiwan and maintain an unofficial embassy even without formal diplomatic recognition. But the PRC has intensified its economic pressure on the world’s nations to look away from Taiwan as the menacing signs of a possible military attack on the island mount.
At this writing, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is the front-runner to win the Democratic primary in June — and the general election in November — to be mayor of New York City. Being mayor of the city is a dead-end job, as former presidential contenders Bill de Blasio, Mike Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, and John Lindsay and gubernatorial hopeful Ed Koch could have told you. No mayor has gone on to be elected to higher office since before the Civil War, even as New York City has sent a real-estate developer (Donald Trump), a police commissioner (Teddy Roosevelt), and a customs collector (Chester Arthur) to the White House. But the mayor is still a figure of national, even global, prominence. He can use that platform to grab a lot of headlines, as Giuliani did in 1995 when he kicked Yasser Arafat out of a Lincoln Center concert for world leaders.
Yang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. His parents now live in its capital of Taipei, which he says he visits annually. He has, by now, eclipsed Elaine Chao as the most prominent Taiwanese American in politics. If he speaks out forcefully in favor of the continued independence of Taiwan, his voice will resonate. It is clearly an issue that concerns him.
Yet Yang’s voice on Taiwan has mostly been muted. Perhaps he is instinctively hesitant to cross Democratic Party orthodoxy, which counsels a dovish approach to the PRC. Perhaps he now fears a stance that could divide the city’s Chinese-American voters at a time when Yang’s electoral success depends on the city’s Asian-American vote acting as a bloc. Taiwanese-born former mayoral candidate John Liu, who endorsed Yang, says he hopes that Yang will be “our Shirley Chisolm,” a reference to the first black woman in Congress. A Tina Nguyen profile in Politico casts Yang as a pan-Asian superstar:
Yang’s campaign . . . catapulted him into a rare status matched only by basketball star Jeremy Lin and “The Walking Dead” actor Steven Yeun: an Asian American male celebrity known for some tangible thing other than being Asian American. He’d become recognized on the street by fans as he went grocery shopping, he’d taken hundreds of photos at campaigns with Asian American children, whose parents would then tell them: “See? You can do anything.” “I was a bit surprised [by] how many Asian Americans said to me, I never thought that someone who looked like me would ever be able to run for president and be taken seriously.”
Taiwan News had its own theories early last year on Yang’s reticence:
A lot of Taiwanese people feel rather proud that Andrew Yang is running to be president of the United States. He is like the Jeremy Lin of politics. . . . This makes his failure to congratulate Tsai Ing-wen on her recent election victory all the more curious. The election has put Taiwan in the global headlines, and politicians of all backgrounds all over the world have been lining up to offer their congratulations, much to Communist China’s ire. In the USA, it is true that more Republicans have been welcoming Tsai’s re-election than Democrats. But Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has issued a congratulatory statement and so too have two of Yang’s rivals for the Democratic nomination: Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.
So why hasn’t Andrew Yang? Some observers have speculated that Yang is under the influence of his foreign policy advisor Ann Lee. She is an adjunct professor of economics and finance at New York University and has been highly critical of the Trump administration’s hardline stance with China over trade. She clearly advocates a more conciliatory approach to the Communist regime there. But that would also mean a tolerance of China’s myriad human rights abuses. As one of the few ethnic Chinese politicians in the USA, it is inevitable that Chinese donors will be attracted to him as a candidate. But donations from anyone with links to China will always come with strings attached. Adherence to the Communist Party’s line on major issues, such as Taiwan, is likely to be one of them.
During his presidential bid, Yang took a somewhat dovish stance on China, though by no means an entirely subservient one. The Council on Foreign Relations summary of his views noted that “unlike many of his Democratic competitors, Yang does not believe an ascendant China is necessarily a threat to the United States.” Although in CFR’s 2019 interview with Yang, that remark comes off mainly as bravado, and his answer acknowledged that “the treatment of the Uighurs in China is unacceptable, and we need to be a part of the chorus of voices across the world calling the situation out for what it is.” He added that “it’s also troubling to see China take a more aggressive stance throughout the region, whether towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, or in the South China Sea.”
Asked in 2019, a visibly uncomfortable Yang told CBS that he wanted to prioritize “a positive continuation of the status quo” between the PRC and Taiwan, but mischaracterized the Taiwan Relations Act as “a mutual defense treaty”:
On Taiwan: Andrew Yang says the US should use its mutual defense treaty w/ Taiwan as a relationship "starting point" & advocates for "positive continuation of the status quo."
Yang says the "Taiwan issue" has persisted for decades, noting both his parents emigrated from Taiwan. pic.twitter.com/i6ZPnPH3lV
— Nicole Sganga (@NicoleSganga) October 23, 2019
One Taiwan-based blogger critical of Yang for not emphasizing his specifically Taiwanese roots branded this response “a mélange of unenlightened, status-quo, China-benefiting pap.”
The Taipei Times reported on a (virtual) Yang appearance at a forum in Taipei in October 2020, at which he was asked about how a Biden victory in the election would affect America’s policy toward Taiwan:
During the last four years, there has been an evolution in the way that many people view the US-China relationship. . . . I think that there would be a desire for a reset, as the US-China relationship became very fraught in some dimensions. . . . I believe that Biden-led America is going to be very engaged in international issues in a very different way from the Trump administration. Joe . . . wants to invest a significant amount of energy in changing the dynamics, and hopefully that is positive for reducing the level of tension in the Taiwan Strait. . . . Taiwan has to try to make itself felt in American politics regardless of the party in charge of the administration. There is going to be a re-evaluation of the traditional democratic approach to the relations with Taiwan and with China in 2021. That is an opportunity for Taiwan. It would be truly awful for one of the democratic success stories in the last number of decades to somehow change, and that perspective even transcends the US-China relations. That speaks to the fundamental principle of what America is and what it stands for.
Yang was then acting as a surrogate for the Biden campaign, so it is unsurprising that he avoided taking any strong stands that would be at odds with those of the candidate. But now, as a candidate for local office, Yang has no obligation to lay out a foreign-policy vision of his own. He could simply speak up forcefully — more forcefully than he has yet done — for Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent nation, and against the sort of kowtow that Cena and other celebrities and businesspeople feel they must make toward the CCP.
Is it fair to put that obligation on Yang, simply because he is of Taiwanese descent? In one sense, no; as a candidate for mayor, Yang should be judged the same as any other candidate, and the city would be healthier if its voters, the media, and the massively diverse field of candidates left identity politics at the door. But, of course, that is not how Yang or his rivals have approached things, and the practical reality is that Yang’s identity as a Taiwanese American means that his voice would carry longer and louder on this particular issue than, say, the voice of Nancy Pelosi. He should use that voice for his parents’ homeland.