NR Digital

Questions on Taiwan

by Jay Nordlinger
The wonderfulness and anxiety of a little-known country

Taipei, Taiwan — Taiwan is one of the most admirable countries in the world, but that does not mean it is a well-known country. Say “Taiwan” to people, and they might well respond, “Thailand?” Taiwanese diplomats in the West hear this all the time. Their country, however, is a model. It left behind dictatorship to become a liberal democracy, with a free economy, flourishing. A Chinese dissident I know says Taiwan is his “favorite place.” If Taiwan can have freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, multiparty elections, rotation in office, human rights — why not China?

I have called Taiwan a “country,” but this is a fighting word to some. It is definitely a fighting word to China’s ruling Communists. To them, Taiwan is a Chinese island, a renegade province, to be brought to heel sooner or later, in some manner. Chen-Shen Yen, a Taiwanese political scientist, sometimes appears on Chinese television. When he refers to Taiwan’s leader as “President Ma,” the Chinese censor beeps out the word “President.” This word carries the unfortunate connotation of Taiwanese sovereignty, or nationhood.

Most of the people I encounter, here in Taiwan, consider Taiwan a “country” or “nation.” Some are startled that the question is even asked. Some will tell you that “Taiwan” is merely a geographical label — a word denoting an island. “The country is the Republic of China.” Others like the idea of Taiwan, or Taiwanness — and they dream of a Republic of Taiwan, independent of the “People’s Republic.”

In her excellent book Why Taiwan Matters, Shelley Rigger, an American professor, reports an interesting story. There is a Web game called “ClickClickClick.” You click on a button, and this action registers a click for your country. The country with the most clicks, in a set period, wins. In 2007, this game swept Taiwan — and Taiwan, an island with 23 million people, won. This suggests a certain hunger for nationhood, or international recognition, or something.

One of the commonest questions here is, “Do you feel Taiwanese, or Chinese, or both?” Journalists have asked it, and pollsters have asked it, for years. A person’s answer depends on his family background, his own experience, his politics, his emotions — many things. One answer I hear a lot is, “I used to feel both Taiwanese and Chinese, but now I’m feeling more and more Taiwanese.” Polls show that this is a national trend. Two decades ago, about a quarter of people considered themselves Chinese; now that number is maybe 5 percent. Thirty percent considered themselves Taiwanese; now that number is around 50. A Taiwanese consciousness is being shaped.

What almost everyone shares is resentment at being excluded from international organizations. The word “isolated,” we might reflect, comes from “island.” Taiwan is denied a seat at the U.N., of course. It cannot even get observer status, such as the PLO has. More amazingly, Taiwanese journalists can’t get credentials to cover the U.N. China will not permit it — or, more accurately, the world’s countries permit China not to permit it. Taiwan would like access to the most modest and uncontroversial of bodies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization. But China and the world say no. Taiwan is allowed to compete in the Olympics under the awkward name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwanese womanhood is allowed to compete in beauty pageants under the same name. Otherwise . . . not much.

As Chong-Pin Lin, another political scientist here, says, China is bent on “the strangulation of our international space.” The PRC wants Taiwan to be a nonentity — a non-person, so to speak — in the world. (By the way, Lin is a protégé of Jeane Kirkpatrick.) Diane Ying, the founder and publisher of CommonWealth magazine, says that Taiwanese businessmen may well have a better acquaintance of the world than do Taiwanese government officials. They have more contacts, more opportunities. They’re apt to look down on government officials, whereas before it was the other way around.

I ask many Taiwanese what they would have America do for them. Almost uniformly, they answer, “Help us get into international organizations. Decrease our isolation in the world. Allow us to develop and participate like a normal country.” (The other help they desire: advanced F-16 fighter jets.)

Though they may long for international recognition, and something like normality, Taiwanese do not necessarily long for independence. Or rather, they are unwilling to declare independence if it will mean a Chinese attack. “Status quo” is a byword on this island. People are content with the way things are, for the foreseeable future. Better to live in a kind of limbo — “What are we?” — than to risk losing the current freedom. We cannot predict the course of human events. There may come a day when the Taiwanese feel impelled to “assume among the powers of the earth” the “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” But that day is not at hand.

The terms “Left” and “Right” don’t make much sense in Taiwanese politics. But “Blue” and “Green” do. The Blues are the Kuomintang (KMT), now in power, and the Greens are the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The former is more unification-minded — certainly more cautious, where China is concerned — and the latter is more independence-minded. Whoever is in power, “the government must walk a tightrope,” as Mab Huang says. (He too is a political scientist, once a student of Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek.) The government must keep China at bay, clutch it close, assert Taiwan’s rights, not be too loud about it, satisfy the United States — walk a tightrope while juggling guavas.

Since 2008, Taiwan and the PRC have signed 16 agreements with each other. These agreements concern such matters as trade and travel. In previous times, you couldn’t fly directly from Taipei to, say, Shanghai. You had to go in a roundabout way — via Hong Kong, for example. But now you can fly directly, in about an hour and a half. There is a stream of Chinese tourists to Taiwan. The PRC places restrictions on who can come — not just any citizen of the People’s Republic can up and visit Taiwan — but plenty do (more than a million last year).

By many accounts, the favorite activity of Chinese tourists here is TV-watching. They stay in their hotel rooms, glued to the political talk shows. They marvel at the robust, sometimes wild back-and-forth. They see the government criticized, examined, slammed. This is something alien to their experience. Visiting the Taiwanese capital’s great skyscraper, Taipei 101, they see Falun Gong practitioners, protesting the PRC’s persecution of their fellows. This, too, is alien.

Obviously, there are benefits to closer, warmer cross-strait relations. Taiwan can exercise its “soft power,” as an official tells me. Chinese can get to know Taiwan, find out about a different way of life. Most important, the risk of war is reduced. But there is a negative side to closer, warmer relations. “Absorption” is another byword, or buzzword. Will the PRC absorb Taiwan? Lin notes that “buying Taiwan is cheaper than attacking it.”

Take the case of A-mei, Taiwan’s most popular singer. She sang the national anthem at the 2000 inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian, of the DPP. China banned her for more than a year. Coca-Cola, in the finest tradition of American capitalism, dropped her as a spokesman. Other entertainers in Taiwan got the message, loud and clear. Patriotism is well and good, but who wants to be stuck in Taiwan’s market of 23 million, when there’s China’s market of a billion-plus?

A great many are concerned about the compromising of Taiwan’s media. The independent media have been a jewel in Taiwan’s crown, since the lifting of martial law in the late 1980s. But China throws its weight and money around, and both are considerable. Recently, a TV-station owner wanted to expand into China (or so the story goes). He fired one of his talk-show hosts, who was strongly critical of the PRC and in favor of Taiwanese independence. This was a gesture of goodwill to Beijing. There is also the danger of self-censorship. Say you’re a Taiwanese news outlet, eyeing Chinese ad dollars. You think you might pull some punches?

One outlet that is not much for punch-pulling is the Apple Daily, in whose lobby sits a bust of Hayek. That lets you know where its sympathies lie. (Beneath the bust is a quotation from the great economist’s Nobel lecture: “The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society.”) The paper’s editor, Wei-Min Ma, confirms something I have already heard: As planes from Taiwan land in China, flight attendants warn passengers to leave their copies of the Apple Daily behind. PRC authorities would not be happy to see them.

In any case, Taiwan can set an example, a democratic example, for China. Professor Yen says that the more sophisticated Chinese tell him, “You need to remain outside China for a while, to push us for democratic reform. If you become part of China, like Hong Kong, there will be no incentive for us to reform.” The above-mentioned Taiwanese official, who is involved in cross-strait relations, says, “We can show them three things: that democracy is possible in Chinese culture; that democratization and economic growth can go hand in hand; and that democracy need not mean chaos.”

There was a time, says Yen, when many Taiwanese emigrated, leaving their homeland for the United States, Canada, Australia (all “Anglospheric” countries, interestingly enough). But emigration has greatly slowed. Why? One reason, says Yen, is that there is less fear of a military confrontation with China. People are breathing easier. I can’t help thinking of what some Israelis say: If the Iranians acquire nuclear weapons, they don’t really have to use them to wreck Israel. The psychological effect will be devastating. People will stop coming, and will leave.

Yen says that Taiwan is something like Georgia, the ex–Soviet republic: close to its adversary and far from its help. He jokes that Taiwan should trade places with Cuba: It would be cozy to the United States, and thousands of miles from the PRC. Plus, “we have similar weather, we both love baseball.”

Taiwanese may fear war less, but the PRC still has 1,500 missiles pointed at them. That concentrates the mind, and hurts the heart. There are Taiwanese who are deeply resentful of those missiles pointed at them, by their “brother Chinese.” The question of the United States and its support of Taiwan is a sensitive and important one here. For decades, the U.S. has followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity”: “Will we or won’t we?” Will the United States come to Taiwan’s defense, in the event of a Chinese attack, or not? Early in his presidency — April 2001 — George W. Bush departed from this policy, saying that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. He later denied that he intended any change. I asked a White House national-security official, “Did the president simply slip, or was he trying to establish an American commitment?” The official gave me an amused look and, citing an old ad slogan, said, “Only his hairdresser knows for sure.”

I ask many Taiwanese the terrible question: “If China attacks, do you think the U.S. will defend Taiwan? Will Washington lift a finger?” A few say, hopefully, “I don’t know.” A few say, “It depends” — for example, on whether Taiwan “provoked” the attack by declaring independence. A few say, “I doubt it,” or, “Increasingly unlikely.” Someone says, “You’ll send us arms, but not men.” Most say, flatly and somberly, “No.” One woman says, “Particularly after Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think you’ll do anything.” Almost everyone goes on to say that China could gobble Taiwan quickly, presenting the world with a fait accompli.

But the Taiwanese official involved in cross-strait relations says, “Don’t forget that Taiwan is of some strategic value to the United States. Yes, we share political values, such as democracy, capitalism, and human rights. But Taiwan means something to the U.S. strategically too.” The Apple Daily’s Ma says that Taiwanese have the feeling that their country is just a pawn, a pawn in a grand game of East Asian chess, played by others. But Americans might remember something, he says: “Taiwan is as pro-American a country as there is. We are your friends. Taiwan is a model for China, and if China becomes democratic, that will be a great benefit to the United States. So, for more than one reason: Don’t abandon us.”

Charles Krauthammer has said that Israel’s survival depends on two things: the will of the people to live and the support of the United States. Some Taiwanese tell me that their own country’s survival, as a liberal democracy, depends on the support of the United States. The Taiwanese certainly have a will to live: Taipei is one of the most vibrant cities you will ever see. There are important differences between Taiwan and Israel, not least in military standing: Israel is stronger against its (many) enemies than Taiwan is against China. But the similarities are worth pondering.

Both countries wish for normality in a world that won’t give it to them. Both countries find themselves isolated in the “world community.” There are American scholars and analysts who say — not so bluntly, of course — “Let’s throw Taiwan to the wolves, because our relationship with the PRC is so much more important. Why should this one little island disrupt relations with a coming superpower? The tail must not wag the dog.” There are many who would be happy, or at least willing, to throw Israel to the wolves too — a tiny country in the vast Middle East, bringing on headache after headache.

Taiwan and Israel are small and vulnerable democracies, not able to count on other democracies to back them up. They are potential Czechoslovakias: feedable to the tiger, in the hope that the tiger will get full.

These are dark thoughts, but Taiwan is too booming, too boisterous, and too wonderful to allow dark thoughts for long. I will paraphrase that Taiwanese official: The ultimate disposition of Taiwan, or of the ROC–PRC relationship, is some distance into the future. Our children or grandchildren will have to handle the endgame. In the meantime, let us do all we can to achieve harmony across the Strait. Let us keep violence at bay, hang on, and keep going, until such time as the danger passes and we can get on with life.

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