Op-Ed Commentary by Chris Devonshire-Ellis – December 13th, 2021
I have travelled to Taiwan on numerous occasions, and always enjoyed its Chinese culture, hospitality, great food, and overall ambience: like many areas of China, Taiwan is kaleidoscopic, a different twist on the Han Chinese culture, just as Hong Kong is different to Shanghai, Beijing different to Xi’an, and Kunming different to Chengdu. The Taiwanese people are welcoming, industrious, and warm-hearted. But do they live in a country?
It’s a question raising much debate these days. Wikipedia suggests it is. The Taiwanese President says it qualifies. China itself says it is a Province, and at present, only 14 states (including the Vatican) maintain full diplomatic relations. The United States, which has just hosted a ‘Summit For Democracy’, invited Taiwan, whose governing, pro-independent “Democratic Progressive Party” party only achieved 34% of the total votes cast at the last, 2020 election and holds office only due to a slim coalition. Subjecting Taiwan to some fairly assertive moves in claiming to be independent when only having achieved a third of the vote strikes Beijing as subversive. Sabres are being rattled.
Taiwan has struggled to make diplomatic headway since 1971 when the United States broke off relations and recognized China, and it is not part of the United Nations, WHO and most other global institutions. Instead, it survives in a diplomatic grey area, with unofficial ‘representative offices’ supposedly engaged in trade being the main political forum for global engagement. Some 50 countries, of the total UN number of 193 maintain these. These relationships wax and wane yet remain roughly the same in terms of numbers. Lithuania was the latest country to establish a Representative Office in Taiwan, while Nicaragua has just closed its Taiwan mission and opted to recognize China instead.
Taiwan has the farthest flung and most remote diplomatic relations in the world, with the average distance between Taiwan and a country it has formal relations with being 14,772 km – one way.
Distance Between Taiwan And Its Diplomatic Ties
|Recognized By||Distance (km)|
Comparison with Hong Kong
When mainland China began to open up its economy in the early 1990’s the Taiwanese economy and overall standards of living in Taiwan were superior to China. However, like China it was not especially democratic, with the ruling Kuomintang possessing a stranglehold over Taiwanese rule. In fact, although Taiwan has elections, it lurches from the current ‘Democratic Progressive Party’ in recent years back to the Kuomintang. The former are pushing a Taiwanese national identity as separate from China, even though 95% of Taiwan’s population is Han. The DPP view their difference as being democratic as opposed to China’s One-Party State, although it should be pointed out that within that, internal democratic procedures do apply. The Kuomintang on the other hand view the Taiwanese as Chinese and although have political differences with Beijing are more aligned in terms of political stability.
However, the current on-going battle between these two parties for governance of Taiwan has not been especially kind to its economic development. During the ten-year period 2010-2020, Taiwan’s GDP grew by 39.22%. Hong Kong, a relatively comparable market, yet semi-democratic Chinese territory saw its growth rate climb during the same period by 51.75%. (data from Statistica).
In fact, while Taiwan’s population at 23.41 million is three times larger than Hong Kong’s 7.5 million, its GDP is about double that of Hong Kong’s, while Hong Kong’s actual GDP per capita is US$17,000 higher than Taiwan’s per annum at US$49,036 against US$32,123. Put simplistically, Hong Kong is rather more productive than Taiwan.
The change has been in the political arena and moves to align Taiwan with a version of democracy and dependance on US ‘values’ as opposed to China’s model.
From the perspective of Taiwan’s somewhat fractured political base, and the hard economic data, it would suggest Taiwan’s progress under this system is rather lagging.
A Taiwanese Identity
There are additional problems with what the Taiwanese President means when promoting a separate, Taiwanese identity. With the takeover of the island in 1945, the fleeing Republicans surging into the island have seen the actual indigenous population of Taiwan now shrunk to just 2% of the total population. The vast majority of Taiwanese are Han and share the same culture as mainland China.
Claiming a national identity is additionally problematic when one considers the contents of the three different National Museums in Taipei. Most of the contents are not of Taiwanese origin but were looted from mainland Chinese cities by the Kuomintang during the Civil War and were shipped back to Taiwan. The ‘national culture’ on display in these museums is of mainland Chinese, not Taiwanese origins – it represents the world’s largest theft of cultural items and subsequent rebranding of cultural history from one people to another, ever.
The purpose of why Taiwan exists and the point of it must therefore be open to question. With ‘democratic values’ enough to gain a seat at the US Summit for Democracy when a voting share of just marginally over a third asked to be ruled by the current government makes Taiwan’s claim to independence and being representative of the people very tenuous. No attempt has been held to hold a referendum on the matter. The assumption is that the end to the Chinese Civil War 76 years ago is the defining statement of Taiwanese intent. But is it?
The lagging behind of Taiwanese growth over the past decade suggests that the chopping and changing of differing political opinions – a democratic ‘right’ – hasn’t actually been brilliant for the Taiwanese economy is another pointer – although it remains a stick with which Washington likes to use to belittle Beijing.
The questions that need to be asked are less “Democracy” as the only way ahead, but what types of democracy there are and what works best under different conditions. The United States isn’t a full democracy, it is heavily influenced by unelected business interests. The United Kingdom isn’t a full democracy, it has an unelected House of Lords and a hereditary Monarch that oversee the popular vote. The European Union has imposed its will on Sovereign nations. China may have a One-Party system, but within that structure, decisions are made by a democratic process involving some 5,000 academics, politicians, analysts, and businesspeople.
So, what is the point of Taiwan? It’s a question that requires some thought and analysis before the island can truly get into stride and cease having to mess about with the absurdity of its diplomatic allies being 14,000km distant. Are Taiwan’s democracy, its culture, economics, history, freedoms, and nationality really different, or superior to that of the Chinese? Or is it time for a change?
Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal commentary, belong solely to the contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Asia Briefing Limited or Dezan Shira & Associates.