The Great Chinese Lie About Taiwan

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The Great Chinese Lie About Taiwan

Taiwan wants many things. War isn’t on that list.

The Great Chinese Lie About Taiwan
Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

As a left-of-center and proud liberal Canadian who vehemently opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and once shared a page with Fidel Castro in CounterPunch magazine, it is fascinating how often I have been accused over the years of being a “right-winger,” a “warmonger,” or an instrument of Western intelligence for arguing that the international community has an interest in and the responsibility to help Taiwan defend itself against Chinese aggression. The systematic use of such allegations, which have been used to discredit supporters of Taiwan, demonstrates the extent of the Chinese propaganda apparatus’ success.

The plot is actually rather simple: A nation of 23 million people that bloodlessly transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy in the 1980s faces the prospect of being taken over — perhaps by military force — by an authoritarian country of 1.4 billion people with an atrocious human rights record and increasingly expansionist tendencies. Unlike Israel, with which it is sometimes (wrongly) compared, Taiwan does not occupy another people’s land, nor does it have any intention to threaten its neighbors. In fact, its people are often accused of lacking martial spirit.

The majority of Taiwanese, including supporters and members of the “China-friendly” Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), either support de jure independence or the status quo (a euphemism for de facto independence). Only a small minority support unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which Taiwan was never a part of, and among them most would only be amenable to such an outcome once (and if) China democratizes. The majority of Taiwanese trace their ancestry back to China, which with other influences — Aborigine, Japanese, Western — has contributed to the island-nation’s extremely rich culture and made the land a culinary and artistic paradise that should be celebrated for its idiosyncrasies.

The island is among the world’s 20 largest economies, a key node in the global supply chain, and has great potential to make substantial contributions in the fields of science and technology — potential that is clipped as a result of pressure from Beijing, which has resulted in Taiwan being excluded from most international bodies.

The great majority of Taiwanese are not “anti-China” and in fact are in favor of normalizing ties and hope to see China prosper, though this should not be confused with support for political union with the PRC (in fact the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by various surveys over the years).

Above all, what Taiwanese want is the right — a right that we should add is enshrined in the U.N. Charter and trumpeted by world leaders as “universal” — to determine their future free of external coercion. Channeling that noble sentiment in his second inaugural speech, U.S. President George W. Bush said, “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.”

And yet, whoever argues that Taiwan should receive support — political and military — to ensure that its people are not forced into submission are immediately accused of conspiring to spark World War III or of serving the interests of a coterie of intelligence agencies and arms dealers. Chinese propagandists have their own reasons for making such claims (it’s their job), but they are not alone, as many Western publications (usually on the left) have leveled similar accusations against the pro-Taiwan “militarists.” This is odd, as we’d expect such publications to be in favor of defending democracies against tyranny.

The list of accusations that have been made against me for maintaining that Taiwan has a right to defend itself is a long one. Among them: “CIA agent,” “Western intelligence agent” (full disclosure: I was once an analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), “militarist,” “warmonger,” “neo-imperialist,” and “arms dealer.” I have also repeatedly been called a “China hater” and once spent several long minutes being screamed at by a caller from Shanghai who wanted me to explain why I “hated” his country so much. In reality I have nothing against China per se — I think it is an utterly fascinating place with a stupendously rich history. I am, however, firmly opposed to a regime that has exhibited increasingly fascistic tendencies. This is not a zero-sum issue: “loving” Taiwan does not mean that one “hates” China. Those who accuse us of hatred do so as part of an attempt to tarnish our motives by enacting the “China as victim” strategy (in this China has some things in common with the Zionists).

In a vitriolic (and inadvertently rather humorous) response to a recent article of mine arguing for a stronger deterrent strategy for Taiwan, a former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region repeated similar accusations in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, with the claim that I was trying to spark WWIII (he also added that I was “retarded” and with a “low IQ).

Given the simplicity of the moral balance and the great ideological “David versus Goliath” appeal that Taiwan’s predicament should have with the international community (at least among the community of free nations), we must therefore ask ourselves why Taiwan faces such a handicap and why its supporters, most of whom stand for the lofty principles of freedom and self-determination, are so often characterized as “troublemakers” and bloodthirsty right-wingers. This world turned upside down — peaceful Taiwan seeking to be left alone as “bad” and an irredentist/expansionist authoritarian-run country as “good” — is noting less than preposterous.

Taiwan has more in common with the Palestinian people than it does with Israelis, but even here the analogy is highly imperfect, as unlike the former, Taiwan does not engage in guerrilla warfare and terrorism to defend itself. And yet a good many people who should know better are openly disdainful of Taiwan, as if its freedom-seeking people were the cause of tensions in the Taiwan Strait instead of the real militarists across the Strait, those with the missile brigades targeting the island, the intensifying intelligence operations, and the major military exercises simulating an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Taiwan faces an existential threat, and yet according to the Beijing’s narrative and that of its cheerleaders abroad, arms sales to Taiwan are purely part of a containment strategy to keep China bottled in, with no accommodation whatsoever for the noble ideals that may in fact lie behind continued U.S. support for the island and its people.

Many of the people who buy into the great Chinese lie about Taiwan do so for a variety of reasons. Some regard Taiwan and its democracy as inconvenient; others benefit financially from supporting Beijing’s line or would see their investments suffer if they did otherwise; others yet would lose access to universities and officials in China if they stated their support for the defense of this fragile democracy caught in the powerful currents of history.

Whatever the merits of their arguments, I beg them to at least give those of us who are committed to the defense of Taiwan so that its people can chart their own future the respect that is our due. Be honest in your accusations. Call us bad for your investment portfolio — naïve or Quixotic, even. But please, don’t claim that our goal is to spark a war that would devastate the land that we have come to love and made our home. The idea that Taiwan is the antagonist in the equation is the figment of a well-oiled Chinese propaganda machine that has successfully exploited the selfish interests of others. There is only one side that says, “I await you on the battlefield of ideas, armed with my guns.” And that side isn’t Taiwan.