Taiwan is a mystery. While youngsters are staring spellbound at the sword of Damocles of an invasion of China, gangs are up to mischief in the capital. However, the parties cannot agree on a common line. In all of this, it is striking how relaxed most Taiwanese remain.
Which country can you most closely compare Taiwan to? With the USA perhaps because things are comparatively casual on the island compared to neighboring Korea and Japan, where traditional forms of politeness still determine how people speak and meet people?
Or with Italy, since gangs operate in Taiwan whose machinations are reminiscent of the southern Italian mafia? Or in China, albeit in a liberal and democratic variant? Because language and cultural heritage undoubtedly share the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Today’s Taiwan is not so easy to define. Comparisons that seem obvious do not show the full picture. One could leave it at vague brushstrokes if the quiet island state, uninvolved in the hustle and bustle of the world, were not the focus of world interest today.
At the latest since the visit of the US politician Nancy Pelosi at the beginning of August this year, it has arrived in every corner of the busy world that the island, known for its lush greenery, which passing Portuguese seafarers baptized “La Formosa”, “the beautiful”, the place of destiny of a new bloc confrontation, namely that between the free and the unfree world.
Taiwan’s most powerful friend is the United States of America, while Taiwan’s bitter opponent is the regime of Chinese ruler Xi Jinping. Everyone else is just onlookers, because a dispute over Taiwan’s future will be decided between these two countries.
In Taiwan itself, people have long since learned to live with the conflict, because just because the rest of the world has only just begun to take notice of it does not mean at the same time that the threat from China did not exist before. So anyone who travels to Taipei looking for signs of a country on alert will be disappointed.
There’s nothing to see, no soldiers on the streets, no signs pointing to secure air-raid shelters. This calm may irritate some observers: some media took an annual security exercise, in which the sirens sounded, as evidence of the increasing readiness of the Taiwanese to defend themselves.
In fact, during the summer there were courses offered by civil protection. The participants should be trained to behave properly in the event of a natural disaster, the island is often hit by earthquakes. It is welcomed that the content of these courses could also be useful in the event of war. It is difficult to find out how many courses there were and how many people took part in total.
In any case, the two major political parties in the country use them as a yardstick for the climate in the country: the liberal Progressive Party, whose color is green and which is represented by President Tsai Ing-wen, is seen as proof that the Taiwanese are ready are to defend their country. In the conservative, blue Kuomintang Party, which is traditionally closer to China and not open to “reunification” with the mainland, there are people who say they’ve never heard of such courses.
In November, regional elections are due to take place on the island, which ranks 8th in The Economist’s Democracy Index (for comparison: the Federal Republic of Germany is 15th, the USA is lagging behind at 26th place). These, too, are determined by attitudes toward China, although there are enough domestic issues that need to be tackled.
The youth of the country, who are often used as evidence of the sparkling, vital democracy in Taiwan, are starting to feel a certain tiredness in the face of this party wrangling, not with democracy per se, but with the annoying China issue.
A student at the National University of Politics (NCCU) says that for many in Taiwan, the first thing they want to do is get on with their day-to-day lives and sort out their economic situation before they engage with the achievements of democracy, if at all.
Another adds with frustration that the parties are misusing the China issue as a moral club or as a derivative of failed policies. The liberal party of President Tsai In-wen is particularly criticized because they are the natural place for the people of this generation.
If everything with China is explained, justified or omitted, so some of my young interlocutors tell me, then one either becomes blunted or feels morally clamped. How, then, are we to understand the overwhelming poll numbers for the politics of Tsai Ing-wen’s Progressive Party in the face of these tired-sounding statements about party democracy?
Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese-American journalist who edits New Bloom magazine, explains it this way: “It depends on how the polls are asked. In fact, fewer people are in favor of “immediate reunification” with the People’s Republic,” he says.
The White Wolves party is the only ultra-nationalist party to demand such reunification immediately. She is laughed at by the public. “But when they ask,” Hioe continued, “whether a reunion could happen in a more distant future, the vote looks different.”
A new, third force for youth could be the “White Party” founded by Taipei’s Mayor Ko Wen-je in 2019. He tried to stay out of the direct front line resulting from attitudes toward China and possible reunification. However, there are now more voices saying that he would lean towards the blue camp, the Kuomintang, should the oath come to pass.
Important issues remain in this tussle over the “China question”. For example the energy supply. Last year, a referendum led to the result desired by the DPP that no nuclear power plants would be built on the island in the future either. The main argument of the Greens in view of the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, was the numerous earthquakes that made nuclear power plants in Taiwan unsafe.
However, Taiwan needs energy-intensive production facilities for its semiconductor technology. At the moment, the country mainly imports gas. However, the contents of the memory only last for two weeks. So should the island be subject to a real, long naval blockade by the Chinese Navy, the blockade in August after Nancy Pelosis visit to Taiwan was only a foretaste, the lights on the island would go out after 14 days.
Taiwan is also seen as a prime example of digital democracy. Digital Minister Audrey Tang is the poster child of this fresh approach. She calls herself a conservative anarchist and inspires her listeners with such bon mots. At their initiative, citizens can contact their government once a year at a hackerton with suggestions for improvement. Ten million of Taiwan’s 23 million residents have already participated, a record result. “Yes,” says another student at NCCU.
“We can send those emails. They are then filed or stacked somewhere. Anyway, I don’t think anything is going to happen to it.” The 28-year-old Shi-heng Chen doesn’t have much time for such complaints: “Perhaps the young Generation Z is less interested in politics and democratic development. In my cohort, we still see politics differently,” says the market researcher, distancing himself from the Taiwanese who are only a few years younger and who currently populate the universities.
Perhaps the young, as in other countries in the free world, are more easily disappointed by politics because they expect everything from them and are not willing to make concessions, without which political life supposedly cannot work. At least that’s what Stephen Kuo, a lawyer from the southern city of Kaohsiung thinks. One of the largest container ports in the world is located in Kaohsiung. He would certainly be affected by a naval blockade by the People’s Republic.
One of the Chinese deterrent missiles launched by Beijing during maneuvers following Pelosi’s visit hit the port this summer. Kuo is now a judge in Taipei. Its court allows Taiwanese to file lawsuits against the government if they feel they have been treated unfairly. Kuo is proud of this, because the existence of such a court proves to him that Taiwan is a true democracy.
The constant threat from China weighs heavily on his stomach. “I feel like a Taiwanese. We are a cosmopolitan, small country. Our society is diverse and inclusive. The Chinese Communist Party dislikes this lifestyle”. Kuo is therefore concerned about the future of his two children.
Freddy Lim is one of the few politicians who can still inspire youth in Taiwan. Tattoos that adorn the arms of the former hard rock musician look out from under the rolled-up, white shirt sleeves. In the visiting room of his office there is a large, mounted poster that shows him in the middle of a stage, with a guitar and long hair.
Lim belongs to the Progress Party, albeit from its left camp. People there would prefer not to make any compromises in the direction of China, give Taiwan a new flag and also break with the history of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is called by its full name.
For Lim, the past has nothing to do with the future. This approach, combined with a laid-back biography and standout looks for an early forties, catches the eye. In protest, he stays away from the annual October 10 celebrations that commemorate the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. “Tsai In-wen invites me every year,” he says. “And I stay at home every year.” This attitude has no majority support either in the country or in his party.
In the event of an invasion by the People’s Republic, would the youth that Freddy Lim likes, be willing to serve their fledgling democracy with guns in their hands? According to one recruit, Jonathan, who recently completed his military service, yes. Currently, all young men have to enlist for four months and complete basic training. The young man doubts whether they will really be properly trained in such a short time.
“We learned hand-to-hand combat, with knives. Will that help us if the People’s Liberation Army invades here? I doubt that.” In fact, the population regards the military as backward. In the summer, it was even criticized by Washington. They are not satisfied with the speed at which Taipei is advancing the modernization of the army.
Even the loyalty of the generals is questioned by some observers: some of the decision-makers are old and clinging to the inherited idea that the ROC could reunite with the People’s Republic of China. But today’s Taiwan and today’s People’s Republic have nothing in common with the China over which the two civil war parties under Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tsedong fought three-quarters of a century ago.
The bitter battle ended in 1949 with Mao’s victory and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist followers, the Kuomintang, to the island of Taiwan. It is technically the last speck of Republic of China territory. Communist Beijing never ruled the island. There is therefore no factual claim to Taiwan.
The People’s Republic is one of the most repressive surveillance states in the world today. In Taiwan’s fledgling democracy, which began in the 1990s after four decades of martial law under Chiang Kai-sheks, no one minces their words.
What doesn’t really fit in with this young, digital democracy are the gangs that are up to mischief in the countryside and sometimes also in some districts of Taipei. The Taiwanese mafia operates in the vicinity of temples, which are essential for coexistence and the social fabric in communities, especially in rural areas. In Taipei they organize the big temple festivals and launder money in the shadow of the gods and extort protection money.
They may have their origins in the Japanese Yakuza, who came to the island with the Japanese occupying forces in 1895. The gangs also influence politics, says Brian Hioe, and a stance on the question of possible reunification with China. Occasionally, official spokespersons for these groups even make bizarre statements to the press. Most Taiwanese are also unimpressed by the gangs.
All in all, the people of the island do not give the impression of having panicked. The threat from the People’s Republic is perceived as real, but at the same time very few believe that an invasion by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is imminent in the near future.
So what is this Taiwan that calls the free world a democratic partner and friend? What does this small country stand for that the United States of America stands ready to defend against war-ready China should the worst come to the worst? In the end, the Taiwanese first have to decide for themselves who they are and who they want to be.
As a first step, it would be essential for the political parties to get together and work out a foreign policy together so that the big neighbors cannot always play them off against each other. But the Greens and the Blues constantly accuse each other of standing in the way of such a compromise. The result could be stalemate and disenchantment with politics. Beijing would play that into their hands.