‘Unlike its bigger counterpart the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is a beacon of democracy, freedom and the rule of law’
Worried about China? You probably mean “the People’s Republic of China.” The Leninist regime in Beijing, its name a byword for racist, techno-totalitarian and imperialist policies, arouses abundant alarm. But we should worry in a different sense about another China: Taiwan. Unlike its bigger counterpart, this country is a beacon of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Its formal name is the “Republic of China” — a nod to its origins in 1949, when the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island following defeat by Mao’s communists.
The authorities in Beijing regard Taiwan as a rebel province, devoid of diplomatic status or legitimacy. Reunification, sooner or later, is the mantra; preferably but not necessarily peaceful. Unsurprisingly, Taiwan’s 23.5 million people are nervous about this. Their hard-won freedoms, now more than a quarter of a century old, will not survive any sort of oversight from Beijing, they fear.
With good reason. The rulers of the People’s Republic, remember, have form. They are the unrepentant heirs to the blood-soaked Maoist regime which plunged the country into destitution, misery and terror in the “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution. Taiwan’s post-war history under the “White Terror” was gruesome, but it bears no comparison to the horrors inflicted by Mao.
Whereas Taiwan debates its authoritarian past freely, the mainland regime cloaks its history of mass murder in lies, silence, and mendacious bombast about the country’s economic achievements. Next time someone claims that the Chinese Communist Party has “raised” hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, remind them that Taiwan’s GDP per head is now three times China’s. The wealth gap is a direct result of the disastrous three decades spent under Mao’s Marxist economic experiment.
The sensible approach for Beijing would be to concentrate on boosting trade, investment and human ties with the “other China”. Nobody on the eastern side of the Taiwan straits wants to reconquer the mainland: that dream died decades ago. But the Chinese Communist Party leadership, far from liberalising, is increasingly intolerant of anomaly. Just ask the people of Hong Kong how the “one country, two systems” is working out. The party bosses in Beijing are munching away at the former British colony’s cherished freedom of speech and rule of law.
Moreover, the Chinese leadership takes a vindictive delight in bullying Taiwan. The mainland intervenes in the island’s politics, promoting and funding pro-Beijing politicians. It intimidates it militarily, last month sending warplanes over the median line of the Taiwan straits for the first time in 20 years: a calculated provocation. The apparent aim was to punish Taiwan for its attempt to upgrade its air force with a new purchase of US-made F-16s.
Most of all, China tries to stop outsiders treating Taiwan as a normal country, with nit-picking objections backed by blustering outrage. One strand in this campaign is to try to force international businesses and organisations to refer to Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei” (the name of the capital city) or “Taiwan, province of China”. British Airways, shamefully, has kow-towed to this. Other, notably American, companies have been more robust. Last month, Chinese students at LSE complained that a sculpture featuring a globe showed Taiwan in a different colour to mainland China. LSE so far has not made a decision on the matter.
Even the most tangential diplomatic contact with Taiwan arouses Chinese ire. President Tsai Ing-wen (democratically elected, unlike her mainland counterpart) made a brief stopover in Hawaii recently. Cue a predictable Chinese protest. The number of countries retaining formal diplomatic relations with the government in Taipei has dwindled relentlessly under Chinese pressure. Five have flipped since the election in 2016 of the admirably plainspoken Ms Tsai. They now number only 16, mostly Pacific and Caribbean flyspecks, plus the Vatican. (Other countries, including Britain, maintain unofficial liaison offices in Taipei, staffed by “retired” officials).
But the Holy See is determined to appease the communist regime in the hope of easing the persecution of the underground Catholic Church. A switch in diplomatic ties to Beijing seems inevitable — though on past form the regime there will simply pocket the concession and keep up its repressive policies regardless.
Taiwan’s plight seems set to worsen in other ways. Donald Trump, despite a protocol-breaking phone call with Ms Tsai early in his presidency, looks set to sacrifice arms sales to the democratic Chinese state as a bargaining chip in his trade deal with Beijing. Britain, floundering diplomatically because of Brexit, seems set on appeasing the mainland Chinese regime — which means downplaying human rights, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and any other issue on which the notoriously thin-skinned Chinese authorities might take offence.
A handful of British MPs, notably the Conservative Robert Halfon, are sticking up for Taiwan. The doughty unofficial embassy in London does its best, promoting the country’s innovative film industry and other uncontroversial aspects of life there. We could, and should, do more. Just as the existence of a free, pluralist Ukraine is a potent threat to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. a successful democratic Chinese state on Taiwan is the best counter-argument to the sinister, self-interested posturing of the butchers of Beijing.