The Island the Left Neglected
December 12, 2018 5:57 PM   Subscribe

Imagine a small, peaceful, progressive island in Asia about the size of Maryland. Ruled until the Cold War’s very end by a military dictatorship, it is now a robust democracy, although it endures incessant hostility from its giant neighbor. Its people treasure their hard-fought equality, free press, and vibrant civil society. [By Jeffrey C. H. Ngo in Dissent Magazine]

On November 24 Taiwan held its mid-term elections, which are also called the "nine-in-one elections" because they involve local elections for nine different levels of local government from mayors to indigenous district representatives. In addition to deciding on 11,000 government posts across the island, the ballot and voting queues were even longer this year as voters were also asked a California-esque 10 referendum questions covering LGBT rights, nuclear energy policy, and the official name in international sports.

Election Results & Analysis
"People believe in democratic values — today democracy taught us a lesson." -President Tsai Ing-wen Previously
  • Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je's rap video
  • Taiwan's Constitutional Court finds restrictions against same-sex marriage unconstitutional
  • Taiwan-China leaders to meet for first time since 1949
  • The Sunflower Student Movement protests against China trade pact
  • posted by FJT (19 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
    Happily, it looks like same-sex marriage will still be happening, though the means through which it is accomplished are still unclear. The referendum does not override the court case which brought it into the realm of possibility in 2017.

    Great post, FJT!
    posted by mdonley at 6:14 PM on December 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

    This is interesting, thanks.
    posted by medusa at 6:29 PM on December 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

    “Despite having the world’s 21st-largest GDP and a larger population than that of Australia, our flourishing multicultural society is internationally silenced and played as a pawn of superpower politics.”

    Living in Taiwan, I find this quote from the article extremely accurate. There is an insidiously persistent and successful effort from China to marginalize Taiwan. Many young people feel this as a sense of malaise or betrayal; Taiwan's economic output is enormous (top ten in terms of GDP per square km!) yet its international influence is utterly non-existent. There is a serious brain drain to China where wages have leapfrogged those in Taiwan.

    I have a unique perspective because I grew up in the USA, and have lived in China and Taiwan for five years each. It's very hard to explain the magnitude of difference between Taiwan and China. It's like they're countries separated at birth, and one grew up to be a rapaciously successful and gauche Orwellian surveillance state, and the other one became a perfectly comfortable Canadian-style social democratic nation.

    Taiwan has frequent peaceful protests in front of the halls of power. It has the best Pride Parade in Asia. It has lively debate about the environmental impact of capitalism. It has a strong and independent media. It has an out-sized impact on the tech sector - I guarantee major components of the device you're using to view this page were both designed and manufactured in Taiwan and a better than 50% chance it was manufactured by a Taiwanese firm. Taiwan hasn't destroyed its environment like China has. These days, Taiwanese try to protect and learn from its aboriginal peoples and a few years back Tsai Ing-Wen gave the first official apology to them for centuries of injustice.

    Living in Taiwan I feel it is very familiar to the America I grew up in - multicultural, democratic, forward-looking, with solid infrastructure and an eminently functional government. It has aspects I wish America had: a culture of public safety, universal health care, gun control, high-speed rail, good soup dumplings...

    I think what I'm saying is that Taiwan is more American than America in many ways. It deserves respect and acknowledgement. Taiwan's abandonment on the world stage is a tragedy. The world needs more countries like Taiwan to shape the future, because the bright spark here could be snuffed out entirely if they forget about our Ilha Formosa.
    posted by Enkidude at 6:57 PM on December 12, 2018 [104 favorites]

    For Americans, you don't even need a visa to visit Taiwan, and the electrical outlets are American-compatible. Neither of those statements is true re China. Ask me how I know.
    posted by honey badger at 7:42 PM on December 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

    Wow, so interesting!
    posted by The Toad at 7:58 PM on December 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

    Omg wow, thanks for this. So much has happened since I was in the neighborhood in 06 and I have completely missed some of the sea change by only intermittently checking news blerbs. Great post.
    posted by midmarch snowman at 9:03 PM on December 12, 2018

    Thanks for this post, these links give a lot more context and a more three dimensional analysis than we typically see. Great stuff.
    posted by smoke at 9:26 PM on December 12, 2018

    I agree that it's for outdated historical reasons that the American (neocon) right is friendly to Taiwan and the left is not. The political reality, however, is that Taiwan's long-term position is increasingly perilous. There is zero possibility that China will ever give up its revanchist hunger for Taiwan. Zero. The history is incredibly potent.

    China's power is waxing, not waning, and in any case pursuing a strategy to befriend and bolster a small power near the heart and dear to a great power is something you do during a sustained, aggressive rivalry and, as it happens, is usually calamitous, tremendously expensive, and ends in blood.

    In contrast to this, look at how well Taiwan has been doing without that kind of "support".

    Which is to say, the neocon favoring of Taiwan is of a piece with their disastrously stupid foreign policy. The US making a point of embracing Taiwan would deeply antagonize China and would force China to take a much more aggressive stance with Taiwan. Taiwan would be squeezed and destabilized by the resulting clash of policy.

    Right now China believes time is on its side and it need not move swiftly or forefully. It can mostly wait. This is to Taiwan's benefit, not only because they have breathing space, but also because it's always possible that something profound and unexpected could change, given enough time.

    I'd like to see, especially on the left, a very quiet, unofficial, careful friendliness toward Taiwan that says we'll try not to hurt you, we'd like to support you, but mostly it's best for everyone to keep our distance and maybe we can help around the margins, indirectly. Which is sort of the US's policy, anyway. Yes, it'd be nice if more people were aware that Taiwan isn't a reactionary military dictatorship anymore.

    What would be much more nice is if the US doesn't fuck everything up for Taiwan out of a ham-handed, self-serving desire to "help". I rather prefer that the American left's foreign policy isn't as stupidly self-defeatingly imperialist as the neocons'.
    posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:07 PM on December 12, 2018 [27 favorites]

    I'll just say this:
    Taiwan is one of the most underrated tourist destinations I've ever been too. I had a gig over there about 4-5 years ago and literally had no expectations of the country.

    The moment I landed in Taipei, I fell in love. As a food destination, it's one of my favorite places. The Taiwanese Dollar is almost exactly as the Thai Baht so it was easy for me to do conversions and honestly, food prices in Bangkok are about the same as Taipei. I was blown away from the variety of food there: fantastic seafood with fresh flavors, stone oven pork buns, hand-pulled noodles with braised beef, gua bao, small sausages served in larger in sausages, amazing dim sum, uniquely world class fried chicken. There are some flavor combinations that I'd never quite tried before.

    On top of that, Taiwan has beautiful beaches, mountains, hot springs, a great outdoor/hiking culture. The people are friendly, it's easy to get around. It's also very green, literally. Even Taipei is unexpectedly verdant and mountainous.

    Anyway, my point is, go to Taiwan. I arranged a few more trips there over the years and always tried to include an extra few days on either side of the job for exploring.
    posted by Telf at 4:18 AM on December 13, 2018 [21 favorites]

    Taiwan is lovely and you should go there if you can.
    posted by Urtylug at 4:46 AM on December 13, 2018

    There is zero possibility that China will ever give up its revanchist hunger for Taiwan

    This is the myth China wants the world to believe about every single demand, no matter how ridiculous or obscene, China makes on its neighbors and the world. Nothing is negotiable. China will never ever give up (Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkistan, Senkakku Islands, South China Sea). And because everyone is petrified of losing out on the China trade, the entire rest of the world capitulates.

    If countries around the world started loudly announcing that they don't even understand what the "one China principle" means and recognized Taiwan for the independent state that it is, nothing would happen. China's purported need to destroy its much smaller neighbor doesn't take precedence over its need to continue operating in a global system upon which it is completely dependent.
    posted by 1adam12 at 5:10 AM on December 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

    I was lucky enough to visit Taipei for a few days about a month ago, and the food, omg, is indeed awesome. And the people are terrific too. I second Urtylugs suggestion.
    posted by DreamerFi at 6:49 AM on December 13, 2018

    China's purported need to destroy its much smaller neighbor doesn't take precedence over its need to continue operating in a global system upon which it is completely dependent.

    This might have been true a decade or two ago, but right now? I'm not so certain. If China does invade and occupy Taiwan, will the rest of the world really abandon trade and dealings with them? I can imagine a lot of strongly worded statements being released, but at the end of the day it'll probably be business as usual. Furthermore, China has invested a lot of political currency into the One China Policy, especially domestically and in the Chinese diaspora; the CCP has a lot to lose if it lets Taiwan off.

    As such, I'm pretty skeptical about the viability of Taiwanese independence. It seems like the only way it could happen is if there's massive political change in China, and in the right direction.
    posted by destrius at 7:51 AM on December 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

    China's purported need to destroy its much smaller neighbor doesn't take precedence over its need to continue operating in a global system upon which it is completely dependent.

    First, as destrius notes, that works both ways. Will the rest of the world really be willing to give up Chinese trade and investment for Taiwan's sake? The recent examples of Russia's belligerence and conquest/occupation of its neighbors paint a pretty negative picture on that front, and Russia isn't nearly the economic powerhouse that China is.

    Second, what you're calling for is a gamble that China can be forced to back down, or that it won't feel it has to act to save face both domestically and internationally after decades of fiery rhetoric and policy. That gamble isn't going to be made with your life or mine, it's going to be made with the lives of the people of Taiwan. As Enkidude notes above, the current situation is in Taiwan's favor, and all your position could possibly do is at best shake up the international order so that Taiwan has a slightly higher profile then it does now, at worst it would mean a lot of people dying.
    posted by Sangermaine at 10:19 AM on December 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

    If countries around the world started loudly announcing that they don't even understand what the "one China principle" means and recognized Taiwan for the independent state that it is, nothing would happen.

    Are you kidding? Look at what the CCP is doing in Xinjiang right now, look what they've done in Tibet, heck look what they've done in Hong Kong.

    Additionally, look how the west reacted when Russia - a sanctioned country with relatively little trade with the west - invaded Ukraine and just took a third of the country. Look at how the west has reacted to the South China Sea fiasco.

    If the west started making noise about Taiwan, the CCP would definitely escalate, and the west would definitely do nothing. It would be a disaster.

    Whilst sanctions would indeed cripple the country, you forget most of its leadership came up in a time when China was an international pariah. They wouldn't hesitate to go back there if they retained their power, and they would, the whole country had been constructed to manage itself.
    posted by smoke at 12:07 PM on December 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

    Thanks for the response everyone. This post was originally kind of intended to be more about Taiwanese independence and nationhood, but with the election and the potential resurgence of the Kuomintang (the island's pro-reunification and more conservative party) kind of shifted the focus more on recent events. Even though the election results this time conflicts a little bit with the argument made by the main article, I still feel it's very important that Taiwan gets to hold elections.

    I also wanted to mention that I saw the Dissent article originally from the blog Lao Ren Cha, which has been a good source both for daily-life stuff in Taiwan and also books and articles about the country.

    And finally, if anyone wants to learn a little more about the KMT's martial law era and Taiwan's modern history I would recommend reading Shawna Yang Ryan's Green Island. It's a historical novel and I am currently reading through it myself.
    posted by FJT at 12:18 PM on December 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

    Isn't Taiwan a full redline for the US military? It was when I served. The plan was to immediately deny China the ability to move troops over water or air, which we still have the capability to do.
    posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:06 PM on December 13, 2018

    The question is what does a "red line" mean anymore. There was supposed to be a red line over the use of chemical weapons; we let Assad use them, get away with it, and at some time in the not-too-distant future I expect we'll probably recognize him as the legitimate leader of Syria. Both the US and the UK made promises to Ukraine that we'd defend them in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons; they were invaded and nobody did a thing.

    The West has zero credibility.

    If the Taiwanese want to remain an independent state, they'll need to figure out how to hold China off on their own, I'm afraid. I wouldn't trust any promises anyone else would make in their direction, certainly.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 8:28 PM on December 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

    If China does invade and occupy Taiwan

    That's a big "if". For one thing, invasion would pretty much instantly unite the entire island to resist. Even though the pan-Blue pro-reunification side is friendlier to China, I believe an invasion by the "motherland" would pretty much put an end to any misguided belief about being "one family" separated by the strait.

    But also don't get the impression that the pan-Green independence side wants a fight either. Even though China wants to portray President Tsai as some sort of provocative separatist that's a danger to tasty bakeries, she's upheld the status quo.
    posted by FJT at 3:56 PM on December 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

    « Older The Cosplay of Nations 2018: Miss Japan Makes...   |   A Demon Underneath Newer »

    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments