A few months ago I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in giving a talk at the Asia Society in Houston on “Taiwan in the 21st Century.” I readily accepted the offer, but for a long time wondered what I could talk about. After all, the subject was extraordinarily vague and we were not given any guidelines. Then the Sunflower Movement burst onto the scene, and I had my angle.
Very few incidents in the past six years have highlighted the level of incomprehension about developments Taiwan more than foreign reactions to the nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei. Since President Ma Ying-jeou initiated his rapprochement initiative with Beijing following his election in 2008, Taiwan, once regarded as a tinderbox that could spark armed conflict between a rising China and the U.S., appeared to have been neutralized. It no longer was a subject of interest, except among security experts and those whose principal interest in life is to inflate their investment portfolio. It didn’t help that international media companies were going through a rough period, which made it easy for foreign bureaus to freeze hiring, slash positions, or close up shop altogether. Taiwan was democratic, and the once-hostile relations with China were a thing of the past — at least superficially, and superficiality was as far as most media were willing to go when it came to the island’s politics.
However, soon after Ma began his second (and last) term in 2012 and Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped into Zhongnanhai, the domestic pressures in Taiwan and growing apprehensions regarding the impact of China on the lives of the nation’s 23 million people became more apparent. Protests — against pro-China media, land expropriation, revisionism in school material, layoffs, and a services trade agreement with China, among others — became standard fare. In many cases, the negative influence of China on the quality of Taiwan’s democracy, which was quickly losing its abstract quality, was among the factors behind the demonstrations (the first major one occurred in November 2008 during the visit by Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But despite the daily protests (sometimes several ones in a single day), the signs of emerging “soft authoritarianism” in the government’s reaction to civil society, or a not-unrelated desperate act of anger in which a man crashed a 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office, the world didn’t pay attention. Reporters, like this writer, who documented those incidents found it extraordinarily difficult to publish their work. More often than not, foreign editors said this was too much “insider baseball” and of little interest to readers who already had a plateful with North Korea’s nuclear program, Chinese crackdowns, death and destruction in the Philippines, coups in Thailand, and what not.
So all was not well, but global media, along with overseas experts and foreign governments, refused to take a look. Peace, even if it was illusory, was convenient. Problems, which often stemmed from Taiwan’s dysfunctional democracy and the efforts by various activists to fix it, were inconvenient. The U.S., above all, seemed uninterested in finding out about the growing instability in Taiwan, partly because its officials and thinkers were intellectually lazy, and partly because it was preferable to pretend that dynamics in the Taiwan Strait were moving in the right direction.
Consequently, when the Sunflower Movement, an amalgam of university students, NGOs, and academics, jumped over the fence and occupied the main chambers of the legislature on March 18, the U.S. reaction was one of surprise. Though long in the making, and almost inevitable to those who had been following civil activism over the years, the occupation was quickly deplored as both “irrational” and “violent.” Several U.S. academics, caught wrong-footed because they had not been paying attention to mounting pressures over the years, decried the “spontaneous” act and accused the activists of acting undemocratically. Unable to comprehend the nature and scope of the protests, many foreign governments and scholars blamed the incident on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or its former chairperson, Tsai Ing-wen. It was much easier to believe the conspiracy theories than to revise one’s assumptions about the state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait, even if the facts clearly proved them wrong (chief among them being the fact that the DPP’s failure to engage civil society was a contributing factor in the emergence of the Sunflower Movement).
The occupation was as clear a warning as could possibly be given that Taiwanese society and the nexus of Chinese irredentism, big business, corrupt officials and pro-unification forces were on a collision course. Despite the rapprochement, Beijing has refused to make an offer on the terms of unification that had any appeal to the majority of Taiwanese, and knowing this it continued to build up its military in case force were necessary to bring the island to heel. Events in Hong Kong, where Beijing had broken almost every single promise it made ahead of Retrocession in 1997, were a reminder to Taiwanese — even to those who had voted for Ma in 2008 and 2012 and who supported closer ties with China — that Beijing could not be trusted. The backtracking on reform in China observed under President Xi, and the systematic crackdown on all forms of dissent, further emphasized that point.
Notwithstanding those developments, the official line in Taipei and overseas was that things were moving in the right direction. Although an inevitable casualty of this accelerating rapprochement was Taiwan’s democracy, U.S. officials and thinkers seemed indifferent and had their minds set on the “bigger picture” of better relations with China, or management of tensions with the rising giant.
Despite mounting evidence of the Ma government’s resorting to borderline “soft authoritarian” measures to counter legal and entirely peaceful protests and the valid reasons behind the activism, the cards remained stacked against civil society. In fact, when I gave my speech at the Asia Society in Houston on May 17, a Taiwanese expatriate who supports the Ma government wondered out loud whether we would “occupy” the platform. Without giving us a chance to make our case, she had closed the possibility of any argument. We were clearly in the “irrational” camp, the miscreants whose crime was calling for government accountability.
Furthermore, and most unbelievably, despite clear indications that China is moving in the wrong direction on human rights and is increasingly belligerent towards its neighbors, Western officials and experts continued to disparage the Sunflower Movement and willingly swallowed (and echoed) propaganda from Taipei and its allies in the media that sought to depict the activists as criminals. For a nation that takes such pride in its commitment to defending democratic values worldwide, the majority of the best minds in the U.S. completely missed the boat and seemed totally unwilling revisit their assumptions. Some probably did so because of their complicated relationships with China; many, I suspect, were simply unprepared to admit that they had been wrong all along and that peace in the Taiwan Strait remained an elusive goal.
We’re at the eleventh hour, but it’s not too late. The West, and the U.S. more specifically, must awaken from what I would call the “Patrick Hurley mindset,” or the firm adherence to the view that all is well despite strong evidence to the contrary (the former ambassador was adamant that the differences between the KMT and the CCP during the Chinese Civil war were minor). Unless Washington quickly modernizes its views on the current realities in the Taiwan Strait, it will be caught unprepared when things go from bad to worse, as they most certainly will, in Taiwan. Both sides, the pro-China camp with its allies in the underworld and an impatient Xi, and an increasingly heterogeneous and militant Taiwanese civil society, are not yielding an inch. Consequently, it is highly likely that social instability will mount in Taiwan and that the state apparatus will feel compelled to adopt policies that harken back to a much darker period in Taiwan’s history. There are already plenty of signs that this is in the offing, with the adoption of policing measures that include preventive detentions, the close monitoring of Internet activity, and an assault on academic freedom.
The U.S. can pretend all it wants that the Taiwan “question” has been neutralized, but it does so at the risk of seeing the collapse of a longstanding democratic ally in a region of increasing important to its security. The day of reckoning in the Taiwan Strait is approaching fast, and the outcome could be very messy, as recent events in Crimea have made clear (the precedent set by Russian irredentism in Ukraine and the lack of response by the international community was not lost upon officials in Beijing). Let us hope that decision-makers in Washington and those who influence them realize soon that the cost of staying the course of ignorance about Taiwan can only result in the subjugation of a free people or a bloodbath for which U.S. forces within the region will be unprepared.
Rather than deride Taiwanese who are fighting to ensure their way of life — a way of life that is analogous to that enjoyed by Americans — U.S. officials and the academic community should fete their efforts and signal that it stands with them in their hour of need. Somehow the bar has been set higher for Taiwanese, which is perhaps a legacy of the country’s rare peaceful democratization. But their battle is no less venerable than that of other people who, facing the threat of authoritarianism, choose to take action rather than capitulate to greater forces.