Taiwan – the Only Chinese Democracy

During the late 1990s, Taiwan was often touted as a best-case scenario of democratization. Despite internal national identity divisions, its authoritarian past, and the military threat from China, Taiwan went through a remarkably smooth and peaceful democratic transition. During the Asian values debate in the 1990s, Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui (Li Denghui) took a clear position on the side of liberal democracy. Taiwan’s first change of ruling parties through elections in 2000 was hailed as a historic landmark for Chinese democracy and signified that Taiwan was now potentially a consolidated democracy

The Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, maintains official diplomatic relations with only 17 countries in the world. Notwithstanding, it is an important player in the geopolitical conundrum of Southeast Asia and the global economy. At the same time, Formosa is an example of a successful socio-political and economic transformation.

Taiwan became a subject of international interest in 1949. In that year, following the defeat in the civil war with Mao Zedong’s communist rebellion forces, the government of the Republic of China was evacuated to the island, where some of the most valuable exhibits from the Palace Museum in Beijing were transported earlier. Only once has Taiwan appeared on the agenda of world powers. In 1943 at a conference in Cairo, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to give up Formosa (the name given to the island by the Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century) to the Republic of China. Taiwan was a Japanese province in the years 1895-1945 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Although having incited social resistance, Japanese rule was associated with the development of transport infrastructure, modernization of agriculture and electrification, as well as the introduction of universal education. 

On March 1, 1950, the Republic of China was formally re-established in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek escaping from the continent. Taiwan was a member of the United Nations until 1971 and held the status of Permanent Member of the Security Council as one of the founders of the United Nations. The USSR and its allies meanwhile considered Chinese representation to be the Chinese People’s Republic, which in fact controlled the continental part of China, while Taiwan was only the island of the same name along with the surrounding islands. Formally, however, Chiang Kai-Shek exercised dictatorial rule under martial law, and he regarded the Republic of China as the legitimate representative of all of China. Meanwhile, as a result of the geopolitical rivalry of the world powers then, Taiwan ceased to be a member of the UN, and all its agencies were replaced in lieu of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is, therefore, a special case as an example of the withdrawal of international recognition.

Renown expert on international public law, Lech Antonowicz, claims that the Republic of China is only the successor of the Chinese state, not its continuing international legal entity, because “the identity and continuity of the constitutional law do not coincide with the identity and continuity of international law”.

In the light of international law, the Republic of China is thus an independent state, that is, it has only empiric statehood. The formal and legal status places Taiwan in a group of countries with disputed sovereignty, along with, inter alia, Kosovo, Western Sahara, or Transnistria.

The political position of these entities’ sanctions not only the degree of international recognition but above all the economic potential and geographic location. The first of these factors generally determine the foreign policy of quasi-states. Taiwan again appears here as an exception due to the genesis of the uprising. It did not separate the borders of its territory from the home country, nor was it established as a result of the decision of an international organization. Unlike other unrecognized countries. For example, in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic of Transnistria in the case of the Republic of China, it is difficult to speak about the existence of a home state or a patron saint.

Geopolitical Issue

The geographical location of Taiwan as guard somehow to the most important waterway in South- East Asia does make the island a strategic object. The control over Formosa means strategic dominance in this region of the world in which one of the world’s major powers – China – plays the most important political and economic role. For this reason, but also because of the tradition of cooperation and the history of mutual relations, the US has on the basis of its relations with Formosa the possibility of exerting political influence on the People’s Republic of China. American support for Taiwan prevents Beijing from reuniting the island with the matrix, which is the political and ambition-driven goal of the Chinese communists as another element in the recovery of territories lost to foreign powers in the nineteenth century during the Opium Wars. Regarding Taiwan, the idea of ​​regaining power over the continent has evolved into the concept of pragmatic independence, assuming the coexistence of two Chinese governments in recognizing each other as “political actors.” In Taiwan, the idea of ​​exporting democracy to the continent has long since lost importance. The Chinese from the continent mostly appear as a society focused on the material dimension of their lives and improving its quality resulting from the incredible civilizational leap achieved on the continent through economic development. 

Representatives of the local middle class, which formed as a result of economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, are aware of whom they owe their material status. The potential for possible mass mutiny is also mitigated by the Confucian concept of respect and obedience to authority. In turn, manifestations of social dissatisfaction are catalyzed by controlled criticism, which is also a tool for achieving political goals (exchange of party elites) and the Social Trust System, the aim of which is to model an exemplary citizen through a system of point-based rewards, rewarding the fulfillment of civic obligations and the adaptation of the citizen to the desired social patterns. The Social Trust System is a Chinese response to the lack of social capital in the Middle Kingdom, but the goal of the program is not its social reconstruction, but rather social control. Democracy is, therefore, not a commodity of primary necessity for the Chinese who are increasingly living on a better standard of living than their ancestors. The Marxist idea of ​​shaping consciousness has found its embodiment right now in the People’s Republic of China, effectively displacing the Western model of democracy from social consciousness. This is the case, among others, in Hong Kong – the former British colony where the pro-democracy social protests of residents, mindful of their freedoms and guarantees of democratic freedoms from the time of British supremacy, are suppressed by force.

David vs. Goliath

The Taiwanese question finds a prominent place in Chinese politics. Since the communist rebellion of Mao Zedong, gaining control over Taiwan has become a matter of honor for the Chinese communists. They even added this to the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. After economic reforms of the People’s Republic of China made an authentic “big leap” in economic and civilizational terms, the matter of superiority over Taiwan gained even more significance, especially after the experience of taking over the colonial powers of Hong Kong and Macau. Chinese propaganda is intensively promoting the idea of ​​” one country, two systems”, offering this systemic solution as an opportunity to reintegrate Formosa with the continent. For the Chinese communists, taking control of the island in addition to the prestige dimension – national pride from the recovery of all areas occupied by foreign powers as a result of the nineteenth-century Opium Wars is primarily of strategic importance. The solution to the Taiwanese problem in Beijing’s mind would involve China’s military and political domination in this part of the world, and for the US it would mean problems in the implementation of defense commitments towards Japanese and South Korean allies.

Continental China believes that there is only “one China.”In this political conception, Taiwan is considered a mutinous province. To convince the international community to do so, they use political and economic means. The first of these factors entail effective opposition to even symbolic manifestation of Taiwanese separateness on the international arena, contributing to the deepening of the isolation of the Republic of China, as well as economic factors.

Taiwan, however, resigning from using the attributes of its statehood, adopted a strategy for the authorization of so-called pragmatic diplomacy, which primarily intends to counteract the Chinese propaganda and political influence and thus gain an informational advantage on the international arena. It conveys effective implementation of own information agenda in the global media space. This demonstrates the high degree of communication effectiveness of the Taiwanese authorities. An example of such activities from the Taiwanese side is an information campaign supporting the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals under the slogan: “Taiwan Can Help.”Limiting adverse climate change is one of such goals and although the Republic of China is not a member of the UN and was not officially invited to the December climate summit in Poland in 2018, it participated in events accompanying the debates, which was communicated intensively on the streets of Katowice, the capital of Upper Silesia.

Asian Tiger

The value of the Taiwanese national ‘brand’ is estimated at USD 675 billion in the world in 2018 and had increased by 8% relative to 2017. The secret of Taiwanese economic success and the resulting international position of Taiwan lies in the transformation of the structure of the local economy. Until the middle of the 20th century, Formosa mostly exported agricultural produce mainly due to the agrarian reform carried out successfully in 1953.

However, the deepening economic crisis on the continent during the so-called ‘Great Leap’ and ‘Cultural Revolution’ became an inspiration for the Taiwanese authorities to portray the Republic of China as the Eldorado, which with its prosperity could tempt the compatriots on the other side of the Taiwan Strait to actively oppose the communists. The economic transformation was mainly supported by American financial assistance, which in the years 1950-1965 amounted to USD 1.5 billion. As a result, Taiwan started to invest in the light industry, which on the one hand was supposed to satisfy internal demand for consumer goods, and on the other hand, contribute to the island’s economic development through the inflow of foreign investors. Export has thus become the dominant feature of the Taiwanese economy. Visiting the Presidential Palace in Taipei – the former headquarters of the Japanese governors of the island – you can follow the history of the Taiwanese economy from rubber and plastic products, through bicycles to electronics and information technology products, which currently account for as much as half of exports. 

Thanks to investments in the development of education and technological innovation, Taiwan has become a global leader in the production of semiconductors and integrated circuits, which merits it, along with Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong, a place in the group of so-called Asian tigers, the fastest-growing Asian countries until 1995. This position makes Taiwan a significant player not only in the global economy but also has its own political implications. Control over the island can mean control over technologies because production usually takes place on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Furthermore, the dreams of returning to the continent materialize in a slightly different form than Chiang Kai-Shek wanted. Albeit Taiwanese business is one of the largest investors in the People’s Republic of China, and even the Taiwanese districts are established in the province of Fujian with the main port of Xiamen. Thanks to the Chinese workforce, Taiwanese production of Foxconn giants and TSMC is competitive in the world.

Globalism of Taiwan

Japan, the United States, Germany, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore are the biggest trade partners of Taiwan, which as the 17th world economy is not limited only to signing free trade agreements, but is meticulously trying to diversify sales markets and the portfolio of its export products due to the fact that the Taiwanese industry is mainly focused on foreign trade. The promotional cooperation of government administration and the private sector in the form of, inter alia, the Taiwan Excellence project implemented by TAITRA, serves this purpose.

The activity of non-governmental organizations, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China, is an instrument to strengthen the Taiwanese presence on the international arena. 

Taiwan runs humanitarian aid projects for regions and states affected by natural disasters, as well as development assistance, including not only countries that maintain full diplomatic relations with Taipei, but also developing countries – for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina – and even those party to European Union.

The Republic of China in Taiwan, despite its complicated history and special legal international position, unlike other countries with limited sovereignty, has become one of the important players in the international arena, effectively counteracting the Chinese political influence. However, Taiwan owes its success not only to US support but above all to the high level of civil society development, which at the same time as an informational society is actively involved in building the international position of the Republic of China, constituting an important subject of public diplomacy activities. Public diplomacy, especially in its digital variety, shapes the international image of this state, also strengthened by reference to the Chinese cultural tradition. Culture, in contrast to the Taiwanese regional identity, becoming more and more popular in social research, does not pertain to a carrier of political ideology and can become an element of Taiwanese competitive advantage over China. I argue it is more extraordinary that in Taiwan, original Chinese cultural traditions have been preserved in China, including also religious ones. Moreover, the renaissance of Buddhism on the continent is attributed to Chinese people from Taiwan and non-governmental NGOs.

By Sanjida Jannat

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