My Turn: Observations on China and Taiwan

  • A Taiwan Coast Guard officer stands guard under a Taiwanese flag during Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's visit to Pengjia Islet in the East China Sea, north of Taiwan, Saturday, April 9, 2016.  AP

Published: 6/4/2021 12:08:30 PM

Recently Richard Fein (“Taiwan and China: Will there be war,” May 26) joined The Economist, New York Times and various U.S. military officials in raising the possibility of China invading Taiwan. Having lived and worked in Taiwan for several months annually over the past few years, here are my observations.

First, a demographic fact: most people living in Taiwan today were not alive when Chiang Kai-Shek and his 30,000 followers fled to what was then an unconsolidated island territory after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao in 1949 (from 1895 until the end of World War II, Taiwan and the surrounding islands were colonized by Japan). The general response from my Taiwanese friends when asked if they worry about a Chinese invasion is a shrug, because “it’s been like this our whole life.”

A strong cultural bond between Taiwan and Japan remains. According to the Taipei Times, a recent poll showed that more Taiwanese would prefer being ruled by Japan again than by China. Numerous polls have found that an overwhelming majority of citizens identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese, notwithstanding the obvious linguistic connection (a bit like France and Quebec, which share a mother tongue but differ both culturally and even linguistically).

Xi Jinping, China’s president, loves to threaten Taiwan over the false issue of “reunification” (Fact: Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China), and pressures governments around the world not to recognize or trade with it, including the sale of needed vaccines.

He routinely sends jets to overfly Taiwanese airspace. In response to the invitation of a Taiwanese official to the Biden inauguration, Chinese military jets flew in from the West, soon to be chased out by U.S. and Taiwanese jets from the East. It’s a regular occurrence, as is industrial espionage.

As the New York Times recently reported, Taiwan is the leading chip producer in the world while China lacks a homegrown industry. China’s solution has been to send agents to buy off Taiwanese software engineers (a problem so pervasive it’s now a federal crime). Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea is also well documented.

And then there’s nearby Hong Kong, which serves as an abject lesson for Taiwan, where Xi’s heavy-handed suppression of free speech normalized punishment or disappearance of demonstrators with no due process. In response, Taiwan recently made it easier for Hong Kongers to obtain visas.

China takes advantage of the openness of Taiwan’s democracy to foment cultural disruption of various sorts, like supporting pro-China politicians (directly or through surrogates) and harassing Taiwanese religious institutions. A billboard across from the most beautiful pagoda in Taipei says, “Tibetan Buddhism is not Buddhism.”

Nonetheless China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and many Taiwanese companies have offshored their factories to the mainland where politically connected industrialists take advantage of cheap — even forced — labor. Readers may find it valuable to watch the documentary “Complicit,” by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, to learn about the plight of child workers in those factories — notably Terry Gou’s Foxconn.

Many musicians I know commuted regularly to Shanghai and Beijing pre-COVID to work at places like Shanghai Disneyland. Taiwanese workers also receive a lower tax rate in China; part of a broader non-military strategy of Xi’s to subsume Taiwan into China through inextricable economic linkage. So it’s complicated.

Then there is the personal antipathy between the authoritarian dictator for life Xi and his politburo of identically clad middle-aged men and Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen: unmarried, with a law degree from Cornell and a doctorate from the London School of Economics. During her term, Taiwan passed the first gay marriage law in East Asia, and the cabinet includes a trans minister. The annual Feb. 28 holiday and peace park commemorate the suffering of aboriginal minorities, gay rights advocates and political opponents of Chiang Kai-Shek (Taiwan did not directly elect the president until 1996; and Shek was, like Xi, a dictator for life).

To reiterate, individual rights are nonexistent in China.

Finally, Taiwanese politicians cannot openly assert independence; yet collaborating too closely with China is anathema politically. The U.S. is defending Taiwan militarily, notwithstanding the misguided “one-China” policy we abide by.

There are only two things Xi cannot risk having become part of his legacy: losing a shooting war or having Taiwan become officially independent. So for the time being, we’re probably stuck with the shrugable status quo of incessant Chinese bullying of a democratic U.S. ally.

Speculation about impending military conflict may be good for circulation but not for political stability.

Andy Jaffe lives in Conway.

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