What you need to know
Only when the international community stops looking at Taiwan through the China lens will those motivations be fully understood.
Taiwan isn’t just an orphan: it is a misunderstood orphan. Due to its international isolation, a dwindling presence by foreign media personnel and a self-inflicted inability by successive governments (including the current one) to make the proper investments in public diplomacy, it is often ignored. And when it is not, what is said or written about it is quite often downright wrong.
One of the most oft-repeated fallacies in international media coverage and analysis of Taiwan is the notion that everything the Taiwanese do is in relation to China, that changing weather patterns in Taiwan, if you will, occur because a butterfly batted its wings somewhere in Guangdong.
This obsession with a supposed Taiwanese obsession with China misleads and operates on the assumption that Taiwan’s future cannot exist independently of China. This narrative presents a Taiwan that wakes up worrying about China and goes to bed fretting about what Beijing might do next, and one where the fortunes of politicians are made and unmade by the nature of their interactions with China. For the average reader abroad, it tells a simple and comprehensible story, shed of all the complexities that make Taiwan such an extraordinary place.
It doesn’t matter that the narrative is completely false, or that it quite unfairly negates the possibility that Taiwan is a normal, democratic sovereign state whose citizens face the same challenges and are haunted by the same worries as those of other regular countries.
Take, for example, an op-ed published in The Guardian on Sept. 25, which argues that U.S. President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has failed. The piece opens with Taiwan.
“Tsai Ing-wen [蔡英文] is new to the job and the strain is beginning to show,” the author writes. “Elected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory, she took office in May, buoyed by high approval ratings.”
So far so good. Then it goes downhill fast.
“Yet in a few short months, Tsai’s popularity has plunged by 25%. The reason may be summed up in one word: China.”
First off, there is nothing unusual about President Tsai’s drop in popularity. It is almost inevitable that soon after entering office, heads of state will be hit on the head with the reality of running a country and experience a drop in popularity, especially if their support was very high to begin with.
In reality, the 25 percent drop in support for President Tsai cannot, contrary to what the author argues, be “summed up in one word: China.” In fact, it can be summed up in not one but two words: not China. Like anywhere else, what contributed to President Tsai’s support levels are primarily domestic matters, from a stagnant economy to urban renewal, broken promises on same-sex marriage to lackluster Cabinet appointments, labor issues to the New Southbound Policy that increasingly doesn’t sound so new — in other words, the regular stuff of regular countries.
But no, we won’t have any of that; this doesn’t fit the story. Legitimate sources of discontent won’t do. So it’s back to China, the great determiner of things, the center of gravity for the Taiwanese.
“Suspicious that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party, which also won control of parliament, harbors a pro-independence agenda, Beijing suspended official and back-channel talks with its ‘renegade province’ and shut down an emergency hotline.”
If I’m reading this correctly, we are to infer that Beijing’s shutting down of some channels of communication with China has contributed to President Tsai’s — new as president but certainly not, as a former head of the Mainland Affairs Council, to dealing with China — drop in popularity. That conclusion can only be logical if we subscribe to the notion that the Taiwanese are obsessed with China. How could they not want Taiwan to be talking to it! Catastrophe!
The op-ed continues: “More seriously, for many Taiwanese workers, China also curbed the lucrative tourist trade, which brought millions of mainland visitors to the island during the accommodating presidency of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九]. Cross-strait investment and business have also been hit.”
Naturally, normal and rational people elsewhere would probably be angry at the country that unfairly punishes them for exercising their democratic rights and refusing to be dictated to by a foreign power. But not in Taiwan. Somehow that discontent has to be directed at President Tsai; she is to blame if authoritarian China has decided to act as a 12-year-old schoolyard bully.
All of this only makes sense if the assumption is that the Taiwanese want to deal with China at any cost and that their obsession with the mighty Chinese yuan trumps everything else. But such a view doesn’t stand close scrutiny. On any given day, no matter where they are, the Taiwanese aren’t concerned about China, let alone obsessing about it. Do they want cordial and constructive relations, both economic and political, with China? Of course they do. Are they aware of the “contradictory pressures,” as the author calls them? Of course they are. But all of that is secondary to their daily experience and worries, no different than, say, Canadians’ relationship with the U.S. down south.
And they are also willing to pay the price of keeping their freedom. If the Taiwanese public were indeed angry at President Tsai over her handling of cross-Strait affairs, then we would expect to see large street protests and, crucially, widespread support for such direct action within society, as was the case during the Sunflower Movement occupation of the legislature in March/April 2014. Instead, one protest by representatives of the tourism industry earlier this month fell flat, and the small ones that have been organized to pressure the Tsai administration into recognizing the so-called 1992 consensus and “one China” have been the remit of marginalized pro-unification grouplets whose numbers cannot possibly account for the 25 percent drop in President Tsai’s popularity.
The clash of two nationalisms in the Taiwan Strait remains a potential source of major conflict between nuclear-armed superpowers, a flashpoint where liberal democracy faces off against resurgent authoritarianism. The least the rest of the world can do is to get Taiwan — what motivates its people, what leads to a leader’s demise — right. Only when the international community stops looking at Taiwan through the China lens will those motivations be fully understood.
For Taiwan, the sun doesn’t rise and set with China, no matter how much Beijing would want this to be the case.
First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang