What you need to know
There’s not much that Taiwan can do about China’s threat. But the government can address the economic and social sources of insecurity.
One lesson from Taiwan’s support for Donald Trump, which has erupted online and in the media, is the power and pervasiveness of insecurity on the island.
This insecurity centers on China’s threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong occasioned an increase in support for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Tsai Ing-wen, propelling her to a landslide reelection in January 2020. Most Taiwanese support for Trump is based on this same sense of insecurity, holding the belief that his unpredictability can act to counter to Xi Jinping’s authoritarian wrath.
Much of the support for Trump tracks with independence-leaning “deep green” members of the DPP. Not all are trolls like those who besieged the Facebook page of the American Institute in Taiwan to criticize Biden’s win, provoking the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intervene. Nor is the DPP government directly responsible for Trump’s broad support in Taiwan. But the excitement over Trump in Taiwan is an avoidable, regrettable byproduct of placing nationalist appeals at the center of political discourse.
Inequality is incompatible with security
In my conversations with Taiwanese young and old, the threat of China has become an all-purpose excuse for not changing anything. While this caution is perhaps advisable in diplomatic affairs, it surely shouldn’t lull Taiwan’s government into domestic inaction.
There is no shortage of opportunities for action that would make Taiwanese more secure and equal. One of the obvious moves would be reforming the neoliberal system under which businesses are free to outsource jobs overseas. We can’t on the one hand talk about national identity in Taiwan with pride but also accept that Taiwanese companies can pack and leave at will. Will changing policies to ensure that businesses comply with fair policies really harm Taiwan? On the contrary, it can empower workers and youth, and spur innovation.
National security and pride shouldn’t only be rhetoric. A national security strategy should include ensuring Taiwan’s wages increase to provide a sense of security, and for Taiwanese businesses to abide by such regulations. It should strengthen the Taiwanese ability, both increasing people’s economic security and the ensuing mindset changes, to not only galvanize around national identity, but to also be part of a bottom-up transformation.
While Taiwan can’t extinguish China’s threat, it is possible for Taiwan’s government to implement more equal policies to address the effects of insecurity borne out of the threat to nationhood. While Taiwan already has a world-renowned health insurance system, its unemployment benefits remain accessible by a low percentage of unemployed workers, wages are comparatively low, and work hours are among the longest in the world.
A more expansive national project
Taiwan’s government should therefore stop hiding behind the fear of instability and do more to push for higher wages and greater wealth equality, in part because this would help develop a fairer society in which clearer minds can prevail, as evidence has shown, and support Taiwan’s democratic transition. Coming from Singapore, I have seen how both national and economic insecurity have been used to tie people down toward voting for a single party, based on a fear that has been entrenched in people’s minds for the last six decades, thereby reinforcing authoritarian rule.
We cannot claim to be a democratic society, in Taiwan, the U.S., or Singapore, when we do not pay enough attention to uplifting the livelihoods of workers by increasing their wages, reducing work hours, and strengthening labor unions to fight against exploitation by businesses. Democracy cannot be a preserve of the elite with the time to deliberate over civic matters. To ensure that citizens are empowered with the ability and the sense of security required to participate in democracy is the job of the government. The U.S. election and its responses in Taiwan is an occasion to think about the need for further social development in Taiwan.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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