TAIPEI, Taiwan — As a Taiwanese, I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to live in “the most dangerous place in the world.”
That’s what The Economist called Taiwan last year, and not without reason. The people of Taiwan have lived for decades under rhetorical Chinese threats to absorb the island. And as our huge communist-ruled neighbor has grown into a military power, these threats now have teeth, something China has repeatedly exposed in recent years through military exercises and violations of our airspace. in a growing campaign of intimidation.
We’re bracing for more pressure now after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s whirlwind visit to Taipei. China often reacts with fury when a US official visits Taiwan, but this time is different. Beijing has a particular hatred for Ms. Pelosi because of her frequent criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s political repression and human rights abuses, and President Xi Jinping of China, during a call with President Biden, had previously warned the United States not to intervene in Taiwan.
We are not afraid. After years of constant threats from Beijing, Taiwanese do not panic easily.
But we can’t be alone either. Ms. Pelosi’s visit was a welcome expression of American solidarity with Taiwan, and for my part, I am deeply grateful to her for ignoring Beijing’s threats of retaliation. But other democracies must also find the courage to stand with us.
Taiwan is essential to the whole democratic project. We are a vibrant democracy, the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, and one of the first to elect a female leader – our current President Tsai Ing-wen – who took office in her own right without the help of connections family policies. We are a thriving economy, with some of the highest living standards in Asia, and a center of the global semiconductor industry. We have maintained one of the lowest Covid death rates in the world without resorting to the harsh containment measures imposed by China.
If Taiwan were brought to heel by China, the world would lose a shining example of democracy and a liberal international economic order at a time when authoritarian tentacles like Russia and China are spreading.
In fact, it is precisely for these reasons that China is threatening Taiwan: because China is afraid of us. Each of Taiwan’s 23 million people is a living refutation of the Communist Party’s insistence that its repressive, authoritarian model is superior to democracy and the only mode of government suited to Chinese society. Seizing Taiwan would not only fulfill Mr. Xi’s nationalist goal of annexing the island, but also destroy evidence that blatantly contradicts Beijing’s communist propaganda.
These critical points are often overlooked. Taiwan is generally treated as a marginalized pawn on the chessboard of the great powers and portrayed as such by the global media. Ms. Pelosi’s trip was a perfect example. Most media coverage has focused on the tension his trip has created between the United States and China. Rarely does anyone bother to ask what the Taiwanese want. The answer: live our democratic way of life without outside interference, as any democracy would.
When Mao Zedong’s communist forces won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese nationalist regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and ruled under martial law. Civil liberties were curtailed and opponents of the regime suffered greatly.
Growing up in the 1980s, my classmates and I were forbidden at school to speak in the Taiwanese dialect we spoke at home. Chiang died in 1975, but his regime still clung to the fantasy that one day it would “reclaim the continent”. Our Taiwanese identity was considered a threat and removed.
It seems so far away. Through the efforts of post-Chiang democracy advocates and pragmatic leaders, Taiwan has peacefully evolved into a robust democracy with its own political, judicial and military system. We freely elect our own leaders and openly criticize them. People don’t talk about “reclaiming the continent” anymore.
Many Taiwanese grew up in a time of democracy and prosperity, and all of us, young and old, cherish our homeland as it is. China’s threats only make us appreciate it more.
This does not mean that we are completely optimistic about our situation.
We have watched with shock and sadness Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms – a disturbing glimpse into our own possible future. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised fears that China might do the same to us. Beijing insists there is no comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine, repeating its tired old gospel that Taiwan is an ancient and inseparable part of the Chinese homeland. But we have never been ruled by Communist China for a single day.
A majority of Taiwanese are pragmatic. We don’t want war with China. But we are ready to protect our house in the event of an attack. There are now talks of defense reform and extending the military conscription period from four months to one year. Some reservists attend weapons training camps to refresh their combat training. Others share information on how to pack an emergency kit and where to take shelter if the island is bombed.
A poll following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that 73% of Taiwanese were willing to take up arms to defend themselves against a Chinese invasion. Our determination to safeguard our beloved homeland should not be underestimated.
Not everyone in Taiwan supported Ms. Pelosi’s visit. Many just want Taiwan to keep its head down and refrain from rocking the boat. But that’s all the more reason to protect Taiwan: in a democracy, such differences can be expressed and debated openly, and compromises can be found. This does not happen across the Taiwan Strait.
China’s militaristic threat to Taiwan is a threat to freedom everywhere. Drawing a line in the sand here will require genuine and meaningful support from like-minded democracies, including signing bilateral economic agreements with Taiwan, allowing it to join regional trade organizations to reduce over-reliance on economic Taiwan vis-à-vis China, supporting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and more. gestures like Mrs. Pelosi’s visit.
All of these moves will not be easy and carry great risk, often because of the economic suffering inflicted by China. After Taiwan opened a representative office in Lithuania last year, for example, China used its economic clout to retaliate with a crippling boycott of Lithuanian products. China uses “divide and conquer” tactics to isolate countries that oppose it. But when democracies, including Taiwan, unite economically, diplomatically and militarily, they have a better chance of holding their own in the face of capricious revenge from China, which is also not free for itself.
Freedom is worth fighting for and all democracies will be strengthened by standing with Taiwan.
Yu-Jie Chen (@yujiechenw) is a Research Assistant Professor at the Institute of Law of Academia Sinica in Taiwan and an Affiliate Researcher at the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law. His research focuses on international law and diplomacy in the context of China-Taiwanese relations.
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