Democratic Taiwan is increasingly threatened by the Chinese dictatorship: ruler Xi Jinping maintains the claim that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic. How is it living under the threat from the mainland? A portrait of a Taiwanese family.

In southern Taiwan, in the city of Kaohsiung, the elderly still well remember the last crisis between Taiwan and China in 1995 and 1996. At that time, the nomenklatura were cooking in Beijing because the Taiwanese president had dared to travel to America and there at Cornell University, where he had studied, to give a lecture on the successful democratization of Taiwan.

Even then, the People’s Republic had tried to humiliate and torment its successful, small neighboring country in the international arena wherever possible. In the course of the blockade of the island in the 1990s, a rocket also landed in front of the port of Kaohsiung. This container and cargo port was one of the top 20 in the world at the time and is of fundamental importance for supplying Taiwan with goods as well as for exporting Taiwanese products to the world. Whoever blocks the port blocks Taiwan’s lifeline.

The fears were corresponding this summer, when China once again cut off the island from the outside world, for a similar reason as in 1995. This time it was a visitor who came to the democratically governed island from the USA: Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives . In Kaohsiung, people worried that this time could be even more serious than 1995.

Jenny and Stephen Kuo live in the southern metropolis with their two children Laura (3) and Dean (6). With over three million inhabitants, Kaohsiung was until recently the second largest city on the island. When Taichung, a little further north, ousted the port city from this second place five years ago, a moderate earthquake went through Kaohsiung.

In the metropolis in the south where the Kuos live, cruise ships also dock, the port area, the “Pier 2” has become a hip art district in recent years. A new philharmonic hall was also built on the waterfront, two new cultural centers were built across the city, a new main train station, which is considered a masterpiece for its proven design, and a new tram line that runs from the port to the north of the city.

Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian is currently working on a project on “digital cosmopolitanism” at the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford and the Faculty of Philosophy at New York University.

Alexander Görlach was a Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in England. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. He has recently published the following titles: “Red Alert: Why China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy in the Western Pacific Is Leading to a Global War” (Hoffmann

From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Berlin.

Stephen is a lawyer, he took on a new job in the capital Taipei a few months ago. As a judge, he now works on the court where Taiwanese can appeal against government decisions. So if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly because a ticket seems too high, contact Kuo’s authorities. “Such a court is proof of our functioning democracy,” he says. “Something like that would be unimaginable in the People’s Republic next door.”

Kuo is proud of what Taiwan has achieved. The 42-year-old can only vaguely remember the time of the military dictatorship that ended in the early 1990s. But the tales of his parents and his own hazy memory of this dark era are enough to imagine how terrible life must be in the highly armed surveillance state next door.

“We Taiwanese are now a cosmopolitan country. We are interested in the world, in people from all over the world.” Kuo makes it clear that a small island is dependent on friends from all over the world given the military superiority next door. The situation in Taiwan, which worsened in August after Pelosi’s visit, worries him.

His wife Jenny is also worried, especially about the future of their two children: “They deserve to grow up in a safe environment,” says the 37-year-old math teacher. “They shouldn’t live with a threat and have to worry about their human rights being violated.” As her husband Stephen understands, Jenny also sees her as Taiwanese, not Chinese. “I’m proud to be from Taiwan,” they both say. They base this pride above all on the open, inclusive society that their generation has helped to build.

In the express train that Stephen takes every Monday morning from the tranquil port city to the capital, he rushes through almost the entire length of the island on his hundred-minute journey, which is mainly populated on the flat western side facing China. Should the Chinese army get serious and actually want to force the inhabitants of the island to their knees through bombardment, the routes of the express train, which always runs on time, would certainly be one of the first targets.

Red Alert: How China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific is leading to a global war

“Nevertheless, we remain cautiously optimistic,” he says, referring to a possible annexation of Taiwan by China. Stephen hopes that US President Biden’s announcement that he will defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion will ultimately deter Beijing from attacking the island.

Ruler Xi Jinping maintains the claim that the island is part of the People’s Republic. In truth, the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan. Military strategists say that a sea conquest would still be too risky for the Chinese army because they lack the right equipment and the training of the soldiers to land on the sometimes rocky coasts of the island.

The Taiwanese army also maintains posts at strategically important points, which should also not make it easy for the Chinese army, which is busy with the high seas, to simply walk to the beach.

The Kuo children learn English from an early age, both to communicate with visitors to the island and to be prepared should the family eventually have to leave Taiwan. A stay in the USA is currently planned because Stephen would like to go to one of the good law schools in the States after completing his doctorate in order to obtain another LLM degree there. After the course, which will last a year, you should go straight back to Taiwan. Much there, whether in the north or south, is reminiscent of the United States.

The people are relaxed, polite, but with fewer barriers than in South Korea and Japan, where a lot of value is still placed on old polite formulas that are foreign to Taiwanese today, and old people are generally regarded as more valuable than young people.

This makes Taiwanese society permeable and also gives young people opportunities for advancement that they don’t have in a society oriented towards age and seniority like in Japan. In general, the generation of Jenny and Stephen’s parents is amazed at many of the changes that are happening around them. It’s not as if the older generation is the engine of progress, but they mostly let the younger generation do it without struggling in between.

An escalation between China and Taiwan was just prevented again in the summer. The US sent two aircraft carriers through the waterway separating the democratic country from the mainland dictatorship to make it clear to Beijing that Washington will continue to stand in for Taiwan.

During the 1995/96 crisis, one aircraft carrier was enough to put a stop to the Communist Party. But today the Chinese army is further along than it was two and a half decades ago. Ruler Xi has at the XX. Party Congress in October that he remains committed to bringing Taiwan under Chinese rule, without violence if possible, but with violence when he sees fit.

The Kuos practice purposeful optimism. But ultimately, like most Taiwanese, they are aware that the survival of democracy on their island depends on being able to defend itself against Beijing in an emergency, with the help of the US, but in case of doubt also without it. The rocket that hit the water off Kahsiungs Port in August 2022 was a sad reminder of the seriousness of the situation, which is currently at its most tense since 1995.