Is Taiwan Really a Beacon of Freedom?

"The Terrible Inspection," a woodcut by Rong-zan Huang depicted a scene from the the February 28 Massacre, which "marked the beginning of the Kuomintang's White Terror period in Taiwan, in which thousands more inhabitants vanished, died, or were imprisoned. This incident is one of the most important events in Taiwan's modern history, and is a critical impetus for the Taiwan independence movement." (Wikimedia)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In our earlier roundup of reactions to Trump’s phone call to Taiwan, we noted this popular comment from a reader:

Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them.

This next reader vehemently disagrees:

I was born in Nanjing, China, the once capital of China and headquarters to the KMT [Kuomintang] party of Taiwan and China. But I immigrated to the USA at age 6. To say that Taiwan should be put on a pedestal in Asia as a sign of democracy is patronizing and ridiculous. Let me take you back to the history of China and Taiwan.

***

The KMT party founded modern China in 1911 and ruled it with an iron fist until the communists ran them out of the mainland. As I said, I am from Nanjing, and there are still monuments there to the KMT that honor Chiang Kai-shek. He is not hated or blamed for the corruption of the KMT. He had good intentions. It was the people around him. Taiwanese people still make yearly pilgrimages to where it all began.

A major reason for the KMT’s defeat to the peasants and farmers is because of their mismanagement of China’s military and economy, and their utter disdain for the poor. The poor were suffering tremendously. Their utter disregard for the lives of the common man was shown in the Nanjing massacre.

People read about the Nanjing massacre and study the history of it, but that was my people and my hometown that happened to. The KMT knew the Japanese were coming, so they decided to take their elite military and flee the capital, leaving the civilians, poor farmers, and peasants to the mercy of the Japanese imperial army in hopes of slowing the Japanese down while they regrouped. They didn’t evacuate the city; they abandoned it. Who does that? What government doesn’t protect the lives of their people? Who sacrifices the lives of 300,000 innocent women, elderly, children to save their own skin? That’s unforgivable.

Mao the great “despot” was a mere librarian. He could read and was educated. He made many mistakes, no doubt there. People like him usually were sided with the elite ruling class, something the peasants couldn’t do back then, since they had no access to an education. The KMT had no interest in trying to educate the common Chinese peasant. This is why education is so important to Chinese people to this day.  

China’s communist win shocked the ruling elite of the world. (If China was a democracy under the KMT, there would have been no reason to have a Chinese civil war.) It wasn’t some sort of devious plan to take over the world. The people just wanted to have a chance to better themselves in life. We see the disdain the civilized elite have for the common man around the world today.

When the KMT led by Chiang arrived in Taiwan, they enslaved and massacred the aboriginals and other settlers. They committed the 228 atrocity in Taiwan, cruelly putting down any signs of rebellion. They wrote a constitution that claims mainland China, Tibet, and the 9 dash line (remarkably, the KMT are the ones whom drew the 9 dash line and have also protested The Hague ruling in the south seas). The 9 dash line originates with Taiwan, yet the CCP [Communist Party of China] gets bashed for it alone. See the hypocrisy.

There is a reason why our government has not spoken directly to Taiwan in 37 years. It’s a democratic country today, but Taiwan was under martial law from 1949 until 1987. They were elitists that had no regard for the common Chinese person. If people support Bernie Sanders, then they would also have supported the peasants of China. It is the same concept.

Somehow the USA still supported that regime that massacred, enslaved, stole the natives land, imprisoned innocent people. Now they claim democracy. It doesn’t do away with the sins of their past to the Chinese people and aboriginal Taiwanese people. Taiwan has never apologized to the People of China who died and suffered in poverty and abandoned by the KMT. Yet the ROC constitution says they are the rightful rulers of China and their goal is to retake the mainland. Yeah. Really.

In fact, the Taiwanese are still very elitist and arrogant to mainlanders. There are deep ethnic and racial divisions in Taiwan because of the errors of their past, believe it or not. So it is hard for the people of Asia and mainland China especially to look towards them as a beacon of democracy. Spare us all.

How can the USA support the KMT and antagonize the CCP? Both parties are pretty bad. Chinese history is complicated and messy. But the CCP cared for the common man.

***

Trust me when I say Asia doesn’t look at Taiwan like a shining democratic beacon. They are actually currently still manipulating their currency. Corruption is rife in Taiwan as well.

Taiwan’s parliament is the laughingstock of Asia. They are always brawling with one another. Another day, another televised fight. Once a legislator actually ate a bill to prevent it from being passed. She. Ate. It. They bite one another, punch one another. Just straight up barbarism. The CCP doesn’t do this. That’s not how you get people to respect you.

***

Trump criticizes Bush for destabilizing the Middle East. What is he doing? By recognizing the president of Taiwan with his phone call, he has in fact delegitimatized the ruling party of China and president Xi. China cannot have two presidents. Is Trump’s foolish and brazen enough to try to facilitate a regime change in mainland China?

Westerners know that China claims Taiwan to be a part of China. They often miss the fact that Taiwan considers China to be a part of Taiwan too. This is a civil war. To Beijing, Trump is interfering in the Chinese civil war. It hasn’t been legally resolved yet. China will not take this slight as if this is nothing. This is an honor issue to the Chinese people and Beijing.

Beijing let Trump have a pass with his phone call to Taiwan and said it probably was due to inexperience. Then Trump decided to go on Twitter. Then Bob Dole came out and said he arranged the call and they spoke about China and stability in the region. Oh boy. It is on like Donkey Kong.

Honestly, this Trump call and especially his tweets have just made life much harder for Taiwan. China will retaliate and has already announced, in a state controlled newspaper, that Taiwan should be punished. The paper is also calling for the Chinese government to close their American embassies and pull the diplomats out to prepare for war.

Are there any holes in that history you’d like to fill? Or would you like to defend Taiwan’s role in the region today? Please send us a note and we’ll aim to include: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader John:

Your reader’s attempt to delegitimize Taiwan’s democracy by conflating Taiwan with the KMT is an insult to the Taiwanese democracy activists who struggled and sacrificed against the KMT for decades. It is to the courage and steadfastness of activists during martial law, such as the Tangwai movement, that Taiwanese owe their democracy. And it is thanks to the vigilance of subsequent generations of activists—from the Wild Lilies of the 1990s to the Wild Strawberries of the 2000s to the Sunflowers of the 2010s—that Taiwanese have kept their democracy so far. And they have organized, as one does in a democracy, to change the constitution that your reader criticizes.

Your reader claims to empathize with those who were in Taiwan before the KMT and suffered oppression at its hands. As a descendant of those people, I can tell you that we don’t want the disingenuous sympathy of someone who has the gall to hold us responsible for our oppressors' crimes against us. Seventy years ago, the Taiwanese were handed over to the authoritarians of the Kuomintang, and they don’t care to repeat the experience with the authoritarians of the Chinese Communist Party.

Matt also reacts to the first reader:

Oh boy. (I’m not Taiwanese, but I’m married to one.) Is this person REALLY comparing CKS to Mao? Mao was one of history’s most brutal dictators with 10s of millions of deaths to his credit. Read Dikötter’s trilogy to get all the tragic details.

Whether the CCP wanted to “take over the world” or not, the Soviets sure did, and they were THE major supporter of the CCP.

The claim that Chinese people care about education because the KMT didn’t care about it is ludicrous; the imperial exams and education in general have been a big part of Chinese history for 100s of years.

The Taiwanese democracy may be messy and rough, but name one other Asian democracy that is better? Korea? Philippines? Google “election tourists Taiwan”; mainland Chinese come to Taiwan to view the elections because they don’t have such a thing.

Another reader fisks the first one:

The first several paragraphs describe the atrocities committed by the KMT, from the time they were in power in China up until the 228 massacre. I wholly agree the behavior of the KMT during that time period is not worth excusing. But note that the situation in Taiwan is considerably different today. The KMT is no longer the sole party imposing martial law upon the country; they are one of many active parties in a democracy. The democratically elected president of Taiwan is from the DPP.

Getting into the specifics of Taiwan today, your reader writes: “Now they claim democracy.” This is not a claim; Taiwan is practicing democracy.

Then this:

It doesn’t do away the sins of their past to the Chinese people and aboriginal Taiwanese people. Taiwan has never apologized to the People of China who died and suffered in poverty and abandoned by the KMT.

Remember, this reader already spent a lot of time talking about the horrors of martial law imposed by the KMT by the people of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan did not choose to commit the crimes that the KMT did in China. Taiwan was a colony of Japan at that time. It strains credulity to make the Taiwanese responsible for this. The people of Taiwan were victims of the KMT as well.

“Yet the ROC constitution says they are the rightful rulers of China and their goal is to retake the mainland.”

This was imposed upon the Taiwanese people during the period of one party, non-democratic rule. This is not what the Taiwanese people want. This issue has been endlessly surveyed. The majority of Taiwanese people identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, and have no interest in unification with China, much less taking over China. However, most people in Taiwan will not take the political action to outright declare Taiwan’s independence from China out of justified concern about retaliation from China.

Then this:

In fact, the Taiwanese are still very elitist and arrogant to mainlanders. There are deep ethnic and racial divisions in Taiwan because of the errors of their past, believe it or not.

This is just plain ignorance of history. As a matter of fact, for a long time the mainlanders who came to China with the KMT were very elitist and arrogant to the Taiwanese. The state-controlled media continually pushed the message that speaking Mandarin was a sign of erudition, and Taiwanese, which is spoken by a large number of population in Taiwan, was continually denigrated and suppressed during the time of martial law. The KMT during that time also shut the people of Taiwan out of the political process, claiming that they could not hold a legitimate election until they retake China. Naturally, much of the power and the resources that go with the power, accrued to the mainlanders who came to Taiwan along with the KMT. So yes, there is tension to this day between the Taiwanese and mainlanders, but the reason is very much opposite.

“So it is hard for the people of Asia and mainland China especially to look towards them as a beacon of democracy.”

Easily refutable. Look at what is happening in Hong Kong. There is now a lot of sympathy and communal feeling between the people of Hong Kong who are trying to hold onto their rights and the Taiwanese people.

Then this:

How can the USA support the KMT and antagonize the CCP? Both parties are pretty bad. Chinese history is complicated and messy. But the CCP cared for the common man.

… conveniently ignoring that the party in power in Taiwan right now is NOT the KMT.

And finally this:

Westerners know that China claims Taiwan to be a part of China. They often miss the fact that Taiwan considers China to be a part of Taiwan too. This is a civil war.

Taiwanese people have zero interest in taking over China. The KMT once had delusions in that regard, but that is simply not the reality today. Taiwanese people would really just like to be left alone to run their democracy.

The reader seemed to be parroting the usual talking points from China’s government, and I’m quite familiar with their practice of siccing their blend of useful idiots and paid commentators on whoever doesn’t toe the party line.

Update from the very first reader:

It is absolutely ridiculous that someone had the nerve to call me a CCP parrot or someone paid to comment negatively about Taiwan. That simply isn’t true. I am a real person. I am not a paid troll or bot. But hey I would love to be paid; is The Atlantic hiring?

I am an American citizen. Completely educated in America. I can barely even read Chinese. This just another way for people to attempt to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger. I backed up my commentary with facts, articles, and history. The other person just threw insults and insinuations. No links, nada, to back up what they are saying.

Arguing that the DPP is in the presidency in the present now. Doesn’t mean that somehow all the crimes of the KMT are absolved. Let's be real. Tsai has only been in office since May 2016.

There would be no DPP no Taiwan without the KMT. The DPP has had elected legislators in the Taiwanese parliament since 1996. I said they claim democracy, because they do claim it. But their authoritarian constitution regarding mainland China hasn’t changed at all! What's up with that?

I can say I don’t like guns or the Second Amendment. It doesn’t matter. The constitution is the law of the land. Plenty of people in America say it, but it doesn't change the law.

It’s like how some people today in the USA say “oh slavery isn’t my fault.” No it isn’t your fault, but you wouldn’t be where you are today without the contributions of the slaves. Instead of being sympathetic and acknowledging the plight of slaves and slavery, people run around saying it wasn’t me. Nobody said it was you, so stop freaking out when people mention it. This is how Taiwanese people react when anyone mentions what the KMT that founded their country did to the people of the mainland.

The KMT only makes up about 20% of Taiwan’s population. But that 20% holds the most wealth and influence in Taiwan. The DPP wants to prosecute the KMT for their ill gotten gains from their pillaging of Chinese relics and wealth when they fled the mainland. The KMT of Taiwan are calling it a witch hunt.

I can empathize with the struggle of the aboriginal people and the other settlers of Taiwan that were there before the KMT arrived to cruelly put them down. The KMT perfected and honed their cruelty on the mainland. So the non-KMT Taiwanese and mainland Chinese people have that in common.

The real question is do people believe it is China that is preventing the Taiwanese constitution to be changed? Or are there some other factors involved as well? It’s easy to blame China for everything. Everything is Obama’s fault. Soon everything is going to be Trump’s fault. But it’s not that simple. From my understanding, many Taiwanese people and KMT party want to maintain the status quo.

No unification, no independence. In order to maintain Taiwan’s economy. As Taiwan is an export-driven economy and 40% of their exports go to the mainland. Do people really believe that China alone can stop the ROC from changing their constitution? Or are there other factors as well that Taiwanese leadership doesn't discuss? By blaming China, that gives the leadership of Taiwan an easy pass.

Meanwhile in Taiwan, the KMT are still holding onto the one-China policy and pushing their party to unite in that talking point. Taiwan needs to unite for independence first before trying to change the constitution right? Before claiming that the CCP is the one who is oppressing them from independence.

Thanks for reading.

Signed by a real person.

Another reader enters the fray:

I am an American who has resided in Taiwan for the past 11 years. I have a Taiwanese wife, a child, and a home here. I do not pretend to be an expert on international relations; I am simply a common everyday working immigrant in a foreign country, albeit one that most people around the world no longer classify as “a real country.”

Although its official title is the Republic of China, few references to that moniker continue to exist in the media. Out of convention, the country and its people are commonly referred to as Taiwan and Taiwanese, respectively. It would be prudent to point out the President-elect Trump did not receive a phone call from the “President of Taiwan”; he received a call from the democratically elected President of the ROC, and President Tsai’s constituents are called Taiwanese.

This is somewhat similar to the President of the USA being elected by North Americans. I am pointing this out because, despite the diplomatic convenience in applying a “One China” policy, the fact remains that there still are two “Chinas”: ROC and PRC.

There is a convention in referring to Taiwan—ROC—as simply “Taiwan.” Unfortunately, this convention plays into the hand of the PRC (aka Red China), which refers to it as the “Province of Taiwan, PRC.” Until such time as the People’s Republic of China (along with the world body) chooses to recognize the Taiwanese People and the democratic government they enjoy as being what it always has been, a separate entity from the PRC in every way shape and form, this de facto country should still be referred to as the ROC.

I am pro-Taiwan and I am pro-Independence, insofar as asserting the principles of self-determination and a maintaining a pre-existing political situation (respectively), for the residents of Taiwan.

One more reader for now:

My initial reaction to the Trump-Tsai call and Trump’s (expected) Twitter follow-up was hesitant joy. After all, this was the first time direct contact occurred between the two countries composing my Taiwanese-American nationality in nearly 40 years, not to mention the fact that Trump recognized Taiwan (as opposed to Republic of China, Chinese Taipei, etc.) and our president (as opposed to “leader of the region”).

In the aftermath, however, the hesitant part of that reaction overpowered the joy part. It is Trump, after all. His track record of flip-flopping to the point that many see him as a demagogue instills great fear in me for what this means for Taiwan-U.S.-China relations. While yes, he has preached a hard stance against Beijing, how long will he stick to it? Not only that, but with China’s economic influence permeating the world, how much say will the U.S. have on world relations? Not to mention, if Trump only brings Taiwan into the picture to aggravate Beijing, this will end up hurting Taiwan if he ends up changing his stance, leaving Taiwan vulnerable to an angry China.

Also, I wish to comment on media rhetoric. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on Taiwan, despite little knowledge about its place in the world and how it got there. Conservatives praise it as “the only democracy on Chinese soil”—despite the fact that saying “Chinese soil” implies that Taiwan is part of China, which it hasn’t been since the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, which only panders to China; the correct term would be “ethnically Chinese.”

Liberals point out Trump’s lack of expertise—despite the fact that Taipei Times, a Taiwanese newspaper, announced the day before that the call was occurring, and communication between both sides occurred before the call happened. This is especially of note since the current Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, ran on a stance of maintaining the status quo by not provoking China through moves towards independence, meaning it makes no sense for her to agree to an “on-the-whim” call that would change the state of Taiwan-U.S. relations.

Additionally, both Trump and the media are responsible for making it seem like the call was solely Taiwan’s move (with Trump saying “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME”), which creates an environment where a heated and radical response from China towards Taiwan would be expected, compared to the initial response of “it’s just a little move by Taiwan.”

One last note. For those seeing this solely as the “Taiwan issue” (even though Taiwan is a strategically located ally that peacefully transitioned to democracy with a larger population than Australia and a populace that is active in its democracy and progress), we must not forget who was partially responsible for putting Taiwan into this situation in the first place: After WWII, Japan withdrew from Taiwan. Our people enjoyed a short-live freedom. Then, in their fight against communism, U.S. forces installed Chiang Kai-Shek and his forces into Taiwan to fight the communist Chinese. While not Communist, Chiang Kai-shek instituted a 38-year period of martial law, taking more than 30,000 lives, countless assets, and draining Taiwan of its resources in the process. Moreover, Chiang’s determination to rule China caused him to instill a system in Taiwan where children came to lose their identity as Taiwanese, such as with, according to my parents, punishments for speaking our native Taiwanese at school.

But most importantly, this Chinese dictator in Taiwan set the stage for the Taiwan-China conflicts that now, through the great media star Donald Trump, everyone is talking about.

Update: We keep getting really smart emails from readers, namely this one:

I worked for the State Department at the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan—the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)—as a contract employee during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of my bailiwick was to cover Taiwan’s economic relations with China and Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. During the rest of my career, I’ve worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and Taiwan for news organizations such as Bloomberg. I’ve lived in Taiwan for more than 20 years and am now a permanent resident here.

For more than 70 years, the U.S. has had a deeply flawed policy on Taiwan and China. Taiwan has never been part of China, but the U.S. rather oddly supports the peaceful unification of the two sides. The U.S. needs to recognize Taiwan as an entity—and ideally a sovereign nation—that is independent.

Taiwan has ruled itself effectively as an independent nation for nearly 70 years, and, in stark contrast to China, today has one of Asia’s few vibrant democracies. Taiwan is a staunch ally of Japan, South Korea, and the Western nations.

Yet virtually every article in the international media puts Taiwan in an entirely different context. Almost every news report about Taiwan has several boilerplate phrases stating that “China views Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to retake the island if it declares independence,” and “under the one China policy, the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with China since 1979, when the U.S. broke off official relations with Taiwan.” These tired old descriptions give international readers a mistaken impression that Taiwan is somehow part of China.

Any people who would like to understand more about Taiwan’s recent history should read the book Formosa Betrayed by the former U.S. diplomat George Kerr. His eyewitness account of the takeover of Taiwan by an army led by China’s Nationalist Party during the waning years of WWII explain much about why Taiwan still has an unclear status today. At that time, one faction in the U.S. government was contemplating the takeover of Taiwan as a U.S. asset, much the same as Okinawa is today. (Before WWII, Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years. For centuries before that, Taiwan was under the control of various European nations.)

Today, Taiwan has emerged from its colonial past and is Asia’s fifth largest economy. The island makes a third of the world’s semiconductors, used in everything from Apple iPhones to space satellites. Although few people know where Taiwan is on a world map, the island is of key importance technologically and militarily to the world.

Unfortunately, China’s government has done everything possible to marginalize Taiwan and exclude it from participation in international organizations such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In APEC and other international fora, China has forced Taiwan to accept a designation as “Chinese Taipei.” On April 20 this year, the authorities in Beijing forced a Taiwanese delegation out of a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Europe. China has kept Taiwan out of other international organizations such as the World Health Organization and Interpol purely out of political considerations. To help contain global outbreaks of disease and to prevent crime, Taiwan should be allowed to participate in these organizations.

The U.S. needs to develop a policy on Taiwan that reflects its independent status and the key role it plays in the world. It can start by supporting Taiwan’s membership in more international organizations under a name such as Taiwan. Eventually, the U.S. could consider restoring diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Donald Trump has taken the right step in receiving the recent phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen about a week ago. Trump’s gesture is completely in line with the U.S. policy of deliberate ambiguity in its foreign relations. It is time for the U.S. to adopt a Taiwan policy that is not completely in line with China’s expectations and more consistent with U.S. interests in order to gain more latitude and bargaining power.

Former U.S. Ambassador James Lilley accurately described Taiwan as the “cork in China’s bottle.” He, like China’s leaders, recognized Taiwan’s strategic importance. It is time now for the U.S. to re-evaluate its policy on Taiwan and newly recognize Taiwan’s importance.