As a dual citizen of the United States and Taiwan, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last few days contextualizing for my American friends the controversy behind Donald Trump’s recent call with President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan.
I have found that many otherwise progressive allies and journalists have been unintentionally or ignorantly parroting pro-Beijing talking points in the course of criticizing Trump. These are people who would otherwise proudly proclaim, “Free Tibet,” “Free Palestine,” and “Black Lives Matter.” We need more progressive voices in support of Taiwan. If you care about democracy and human rights, then I urge you to become a friend of Taiwan as well.
It’s time for Taiwanese people to speak up and tell our own side of the story. If you can’t stay until the end, here are my main points:
- Criticize Trump all you want, but don’t blame Taiwan. We are just a small democratic nation caught in the crossfire of dueling empires.
- The US and Taiwan have a weird official/unofficial relationship, but we are friends, trading partners, and military allies. The Trump call doesn’t change that substantively in any way.
- Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. It didn’t “break away,” despite what Beijing’s rhetoric and misleading media coverage may lead you to believe.
- There is no such thing as “hurting China’s feelings.” Countries don’t have feelings. People do. The Chinese government is not democratically elected and is thus not accountable to the will of its own people. In any case, most regular Chinese people don’t really care about Taiwan. It certainly doesn’t affect their day to day lives. The Taiwan issue is just a way for the Chinese government to draw attention away from domestic issues like human rights or the economy.
- For the most part, Taiwanese people don’t have a beef with Chinese people, we just oppose the Chinese government’s aggressive military postures and diplomatic stances.
Two of my own grandparents were from China. The guy who invented America’s beloved General Tso’s Chicken was a Chinese refugee/immigrant who settled in Taiwan. Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup, considered by many to be our national dish, was brought over by Chinese immigrants.
We have a lot in common culturally, but we also demand to be treated as equals in international society. Taiwan welcomes Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan, but China won’t even allow Taiwanese passport holders to visit otherwise publicly accessible United Nations buildings on US soil.
In case you missed what the Taiwan-Tsai call controversy was all about, check out this brief comedic recap by Taiwanese animators. Or feel free to skip ahead.
Criticize Trump, but don’t bash Taiwan
I am a progressive myself (well to the left of Bernie Sanders) and decidedly not a Trump supporter. There are plenty of places to legitimately find fault with Trump, but I don’t think this call with Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan’s democratically-elected president, is one of them.
Taiwan is a small island country that has been in the crossfire of dueling empires for centuries. We have been colonized by the Dutch, the Spanish, Imperial China under the Qing (Ching) Dynasty, Japan, and most recently the Republic of China.
Republic of China you say? Why does Taiwan call itself that? It’s a long story that I will summarize below, but for now, it is important to note that the People’s Republic of China has never occupied or ruled the land we now call Taiwan.
In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos tries to succinctly summarize the context of the Taiwan-China relationship like this:
Some background: Taiwan broke away from mainland China in 1949, and the two sides exist in a tense equilibrium, governed by decades of diplomatic agreements that serve to prevent war in Asia.
The second part of Osnos’ statement about a tense equilibrium governed by decades of diplomatic agreements is correct. But the first part about Taiwan breaking away from China is dangerously deceptive, and even without intending to, shows a pro-Beijing bias.
The People’s Republic of China’s official talking points state that Taiwan is a “rogue” or “breakaway province,” but in reality, Taiwan has never been part of the state known as the People’s Republic of China. Nowhere in Osnos’s article does he point out this fact. In failing to do so, one might infer that China’s aggressive posturing is a legitimate attempt to reclaim something previously lost.
Just because the People’s Republic of China is a successor state to the now-defunct Qing Empire doesn’t give it legitimate territorial claims to land it has never itself actually controlled.
Saying that Taiwan “broke away” from the People’s Republic of China is as absurd as claiming that Canada is a “rogue province” of the United States because they also speak English there, we were once both part of the British Empire, and the US tried to invade Canada a long time ago.
Taiwan is a friend, not a political pawn. Certainly not a pustule.
While it is fair to point out that Trump may be guided or manipulated by neo-conservatives, looking for a fight with China, let’s not inadvertently blame Taiwan.
There are thousands of Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan. Taiwan has a right to defend itself, and in fact, despite lacking “official” diplomatic ties, the US and Taiwan are military allies. The US-Taiwan relationship is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which may require the US to intervene militarily if the People’s Republic of China attacks or invades Taiwan.
The US regularly sells military hardware to Taiwan, and in terms of more peaceful trade, Taiwan is the US’s 9th largest trading partner. Trump’s phone call may have had symbolic, and even shock value, but that does not change these economic and political facts.
Harvard PhD and Guggenheim Fellow Norman Pollack recently published a piece entitled “Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics,” wherein he appears to have missed the last 30 years of Taiwanese history and forgot to notice that we are no longer an authoritarian police state ruled by a Washington-backed dictator.
Having one’s country of birth called a “pustule” is rather offensive. If Dr. Pollack had substituted “Israel” for “Taiwan,” he would have easily been branded an antisemite and run out of his academic perch. Yet it seems acceptable for Pollack to rattle off his misinformed opinions and malign a democratic country of over 23 million people. The Taiwanese people should not be dismissed or collectively punished for the misdeeds perpetrated by the previous ruling party. But perhaps we are just pus in the pustule for Dr. Pollack.
We aren’t just a pawn in a Cold War chess game. Taiwan has not been a military dictatorship for decades. We are a free people looking to be masters of our own destiny. Pollack and others like him could do well by educating themselves by learning about the progress Taiwan has made and save the vitriol for the American neo-cons and legacy Cold Warriors. The vast majority of Taiwanese people just want to keep our de facto independence, vibrant democracy, and live in peace.
Conservative Republicans have traditionally supported Taiwan because of lingering Cold War attitudes, but support of contemporary Taiwan, now a vibrant democracy, should be a bipartisan issue.
It has also recently come to light that the Taiwanese government allegedly paid Bob Dole’s lobbying firm to make the Trump-Tsai phone call happen. Before freaking out about lobbying and foreign influence in Washington, remember that almost every country does this.
The $140,000 amount allegedly paid by the Taiwanese government is a drop in the bucket compared to say, how much China or say the Israel lobby spend in Washington. And it’s chump change compared to what Wall Street lavishes on lobbyists. Hell, even the potato lobby spent more this year.
Hate the game, not the player. We don’t have to like lobbying, but blame Washington insiders for pay-to-play politics, not Taiwan. The Taiwanese people are the underdogs here, and we don’t get a say in how the game is played.
But if there is only one China, how come Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China?
This is a complicated story. Here’s a short version.
China was once an empire. Just over 100 years ago, the emperor was overthrown, and the Republic of China was formed.
When all of this was happening, Taiwan was part of the Japanese Empire. The overthrow of the last Chinese emperor and the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) had nothing to do with Taiwan.
Fast forward towards World War II. The Republic of China has been fighting a domestic communist insurgency when the Japanese invade China for real. Japan had occupied parts of what is now Chinese territory before that. Meanwhile, Taiwan is still part of the Japanese Empire and not involved in China’s civil war.
Fast forward some more. The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders. The US occupies Japan. The Republic of China, which fought on the side of the Allies, occupies Taiwan on behalf of the Allied Forces.
Meanwhile, the civil war in China is looking bad for the ROC. The Communists win and force the Republic of China to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile there.
The Communists establish the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the ROC continues on in Taiwan with the illusions of being the rightful rulers of China.
The first few decades of the ROC in Taiwan were pretty brutal. Political dissent was violently suppressed and many innocent people died. Remember that the vast majority of Taiwanese people didn’t ask or want to be in the crossfire of this conflict that started in China. They were passed from one colonial master, Japan, to a new one, the Republic of China.
But since the early 1990s, Taiwan has transitioned to a free and democratic society. The ROC is still the official government of Taiwan, but it has transformed from its previously authoritarian incarnation and become a vibrant democracy. Of course, democratization is not the same as decolonization, but that’s a story and a gripe for another time.
Earlier this year in 2016, the Taiwanese people elected our first female president, Tsai Ing-Wen, who spoke with Donald Trump last week. President Tsai is a British- and American-educated badass negotiator, career public servant, and proud single cat lady. Earlier this year she issued an apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. I think if you supported Hillary Clinton, you would definitely be with her too.
For most Taiwanese people, the ROC currently serves as a good-enough political vehicle for democratic rule of the people. In terms of civil rights, Taiwan leads the way for LGBT equality in Asia. In other words, support of a democratic and free Taiwan should be a no-brainer progressive issue too.
Repeat: Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.
Figurines of Taiwan’s former authoritarian presidents, relics from another time
But what about “China’s Feelings” again?
Kevin Hsu speaks truth to that matter in his op-ed in Quartz, “Liberal Americans Should be Celebrating Trump’s Taiwan Call, Not Condemning It”:
First, we should never run around shrieking about China’s “hurt feelings.” Self-styled politicos sometimes seem to care far more about perceived slights than Beijing itself does. Applying knee-jerk censorship on behalf of China — without even waiting for a request — legitimates the Communist regime’s claims in advance, meaning they have already won.
Furthermore, in taking this call — from Taiwan’s first democratically elected female president, one might add — Trump did not violate any deep or profound canons of decency. He simply acknowledged the leader of a society that has long had friendly ties to the United States. Does this merit so much apocalyptic flak?
The so-called “One China” principle, policy or consensus are just white lies devised by diplomats and policymakers to keep the peace. This is how diplomacy works, but let’s save those delicate word games for the politicians and diplomats.
David A. Graham also addresses the “One China” principle in a piece published in The Atlantic called “So, Why Can’t You Call Taiwan?”
Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.
The roots of this particular fiction date to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was routed by Mao Zedong and the Communists, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. The U.S., in Cold War mode, continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan as China’s rightful government, and so did the United Nations. But in 1971, the UN changed course, recognizing the People’s Republic of China — or as it was often called then, Red China — as the legitimate government. In 1979, the United States followed suit. Crucially, the communiqué proclaiming that recognition noted, “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
Graham’s history lesson is helpful for readers’ understanding of the present controversy, but unfortunately, he leaves out the detail that Taiwan has become a democracy and changed a lot since the “status quo” was established in 1979. Nobody in the ROC claims to want to “take back Mainland China” anymore. China has grown more powerful and more belligerent, while maintaining an authoritarian grip on its own people.
Like many other commentators, Graham also leaves out the part about how Mao Zedong and the Communists never actually ruled Taiwan.
Repeat, Taiwan was not and has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.
In a free society like ours, there is no need for the press to report on the “One China” principle as a universal truth. We can call it what it is, a rhetorical and diplomatic compromise, but there is no need to report on it as a matter of fact. Yes, there is one China and one Taiwan. As ordinary citizens, we can just keep calling China “China” and Taiwan “Taiwan.”
Also, the next time the Olympics roll around, you don’t need to call the Taiwanese team “Chinese Taipei.” Just saying “Taiwan” will suffice. Otherwise we might need to start saying “Chinese Beijing” and “American Washington” just to make a point. ;-)
What can you do to help?
Public attention will likely soon turn to the latest Trump outrage, but let’s consider this controversy as a teachable moment and the beginning of a longer term relationship between you and Taiwan.
If you want to be a ally to the Taiwanese people, then I encourage you to learn more about us and our history beyond the current controversy. The Taiwan Bar animated series is an entertaining way to learn about Taiwanese history (mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles).
Talk and engage with your Taiwanese friends. Share this article and help clarify misunderstandings about Taiwan.
We also welcome you to visit sometime. Whether you like food, nature, or vibrant urban life, Taiwan has a little bit of everything and is a gateway to the rest of the region. We also make some kickass whiskey.
Maybe the Obamas could come for a visit too after they leave the White House. Now that’s a stretch, but for small country like Taiwan, we like to dream big. We learned that from our American friends.
After all, Taiwan has gone from a colonial backwater and Cold War staging ground ruled by despots to a powerful economy and vibrant democracy. Is a little bit of respect in international diplomacy too much to ask?
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About Author: Lee-Sean Huang is a Taiwanese American designer, educator, and activist born in Kaohsiung and currently based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Foossa, a community-centered design practice. He has taught at New York University, the Parsons School of Design, Cornell University, the School of Visual Arts, and the College of Staten Island. He has a degree in Government from Harvard and a masters in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University.