When Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China in 1949 accompanied by some 2 million ethnic Chinese unwilling to buckle to Mao Zedong, he imagined that, in time, he would retake the mainland, eliminate the Communist threat, and unite the country as he had dreamed of doing since he was a young man fighting fractious warlords. On a rock in Kinmen County, a group of islands governed by Taiwan less than five miles from the mainland, Chiang had etched, as a reminder: “Forget not that you’re in Ju.” In 284 b.c., backed into his last stronghold in the City of Ju by the State of Yan, General Tian Dan of the State of Qi took 1,000 oxen from the city’s residents, clothed them in silks to look like dragons, attached razors to their horns and flaming reeds to their tails, and set them loose upon the opposing army. Qi devastated the enemy troops and over the next five years retook its lost territory.
Chiang’s vision never materialized. But his modern-day Ju didn’t fall, either. Today, Taiwan, formally the Republic of China (ROC), is the fifth-largest economy in Asia and one of the 20 largest economies in the world; it is the globe’s high-tech headquarters; and it is a vigorous democracy — all of this after nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, and while constantly threatened by Mao’s successors in Beijing. People regularly call Taiwan a miracle, and they’re right.
Now, just 20 years after its first presidential election, Taiwan is in yet another transition — from a boisterous emerging democracy to a stable, consolidated state readying itself for an independent future.
In January, Taiwanese voters elected not only a president, Tsai Ing-wen, from the “opposition” Democratic Progressive party (DPP), but for the first time gave the DPP control of Taiwan’s national parliament, the Legislative Yuan. The DPP won 68 of 113 seats, while the Kuomintang (KMT), effectively in power since 1949, was reduced to just 35 seats.
There are domestic reasons for the change, of course. Taiwan’s economy has struggled to recover from the global recession, and 2015 was its slowest year of economic growth since 2009. Wages have stagnated, especially among younger workers, who, President Tsai said during her inaugural address, “feel helpless and confused about the future.” An aging population is straining Taiwan’s capacities for long-term elder care. And the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 has intensified an ongoing fight over Taiwan’s nuclear-energy industry and over how Taiwan should balance economic development with concerns about environmental degradation.
But the diplomatic dance with Beijing is at the heart of Taiwanese politics. The regime on the mainland — the Communist Party of China, unchallenged since 1949 — does not recognize Taiwan’s legitimacy. In its eyes, Taiwan is a renegade province, sooner or later to be brought to heel. There is one China, and it is the People’s Republic. This is how the PRC interprets the “1992 Consensus,” the outcome of a semi-official meeting between representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan begs to differ. The KMT maintains that the ROC, not the PRC, is the legitimate government of China, while the DPP tends to eschew the Consensus altogether on the grounds that it failed to define the most important terms — for example, “China.” In the hope of an eventual reunification of Taiwan and mainland China under ROC rule, the KMT and minor like-minded parties — the “Blues” — generally support a conciliatory approach to relations with Beijing. The DPP and other “Greens,” who believe that Taiwan is de facto independent and hope to make it someday officially so, are more antagonistic.
The DPP’s landslide victory has much to do with former president Ma Ying-jeou’s approach to Beijing. Many voters think Ma allowed Taiwan to drift too far into the mainland’s orbit. Indeed, Taiwan’s recent economic woes are in part a consequence of its dependence on the mainland; 40 percent of Taiwanese exports go to mainland China and Hong Kong. Many Taiwanese fear that, rather than conquer Taiwan, the mainland will simply absorb it. As a result, Tsai has announced a “new southbound policy,” which aims to diversify Taiwan’s economy by creating stronger relations with India, Australia, Japan, and other countries in the region. Tsai hopes that Taiwan can join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, too.
The PRC is likely to try to keep Taiwan isolated, to the extent that it can, but it can do only so much. What Taiwan has to offer, the world wants. Over the last three decades, Taiwan has made itself an indispensable part of the global technology supply chain. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of semiconductors — the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which supplies chips to Apple, was ranked 53 on the Financial Times’ list of the 500 most valuable companies in the world in 2015 — and it is home to Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, whose clients include Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Taiwan is also working to integrate its key industries with the global desire for “sustainability.” In 2009, Singtex, a Taiwanese textile producer, figured out how to create water- and odor-proof fabrics by combining coffee grounds and plastic bottles. Its “green fiber” fabrics are now used by Nike, Adidas, Izod, and dozens of other major brands.
What happens next will depend greatly on Tsai Ing-wen’s skill in negotiating with Beijing, which is reflexively unfavorable to the DPP. Her inaugural address, delivered in late May, was interpreted by most observers as being both conciliatory toward Beijing and designedly vague. She declared that Taiwan would be a “staunch guardian” and “proactive communicator of peace” focused on keeping open the lines of communication that widened during the previous administration. But she also emphasized her responsibility to “safeguard the sovereignty and territory of the Republic of China.” What that balancing act looks like remains to be seen.
Beijing, though, should be open to compromise. The DPP’s victory is not a fluke. Demographically, the number of people with close ties to the mainland — that is, natural KMT voters — is decreasing; a distinct Taiwanese identity is taking hold, especially among young Taiwanese; and Taiwan’s economic and political self-sufficiency is impossible to deny. In fact, Taiwanese voters 30 years old and younger have known nothing else. For these reasons, among others, the DPP’s share of the vote has been growing steadily for two decades, and in all likelihood Beijing will have to work with the DPP for years to come. If Tsai’s party proves even modestly successful in achieving its stated aims, Taiwan is poised to follow an American-style course — two dominant parties of approximately equal strength alternating in office — but with the long-term advantage to the independence-minded.
Of course, Taiwan’s shifting domestic politics raise a troubling question: Could Beijing do the unthinkable and attempt to retake Taiwan by force? Xi Jinping, China’s president, who has spent the last four years consolidating power, has implied that the 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles Beijing has pointed at Taiwan are not an empty threat, and more than a few experts have suggested that, given China’s economic troubles, party leaders might not object to a bit of foreign adventurism as a diversion.
Any such exploit has long been deterred by America’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” — i.e., Q: Would the U.S. come to Taiwan’s aid? A: Maybe — but it is difficult to imagine President Obama, or a President Clinton or President Trump, intervening. Furthermore, Taiwan would have no recourse at the United Nations — it’s not a member — and it is largely friendless (its 22 diplomatic allies include such military behemoths as Belize and Tuvalu). If the PRC decided to do to Taiwan what Russia did to Crimea, it probably could not be stopped.
But Taiwan is not Crimea. It is a rollicking, energetic country of 23.5 million citizens, the vast majority of whom see Taiwan not as an appendage of the regime in Beijing but as a self-governing state, an economic powerhouse punching orders of magnitude above its weight, and a confident people in command of their own destiny.
And it has long been that way. The story goes that in the early 1960s, when Taiwan determined to erect the National Palace Museum in Taipei to house and display the more than 5,000 crates of artifacts and Chinese art smuggled off the mainland during the high years of the Chinese Civil War, the Rockefeller Foundation got in touch. It volunteered to fund the entire project in exchange for one piece from the collection: a celadon bowl in the shape of a lotus blossom, from the Song Dynasty’s Ru kiln, one of 70 such pieces left in the world, 21 of which reside in Taiwan. Celadon ceramics were said by the emperors to be “like the blue of the sky in a clearing among the clouds after rain.” Naturally, Taiwan refused.