During the 1970s, when America recognized Taiwan as the “real China,” an exemplar of free market economics and bulwark against Maoist Communism, I lived in Taipei as a young reporter learning Mandarin Chinese.
My host family, the Jens, belonged to the Nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) military class, at once fiercely loyal to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and perfectly cognizant of how China’s Civil War and prior invasions by the Japanese had produced horrific suffering on all sides. My adoptive Chinese mother, Mary Jen, described how she had prepared, as a ‘white’ Chinese, to suffer interrogation and torture at the hands of the Red Army. She lost both her parents during Civil War before she escaped as a young bride to Taiwan.
At the time, I had already received my own indoctrination on China. These favored Mao Zedong and his quest to fashion a proletarian Cultural Revolution by invoking youth and violent chaos to rid China of elitists and class enemies (1966-1976). My undergraduate studies at University of Michigan, a magnet for Asian scholars, veered left, stressing China’s “uninterrupted revolution” and attempts to reform the masses with collectivist thinking and activity. But then I learned that an estimated 20 million people died in that revolution and families were torn apart.
In Taiwan I learned that ideologies have a price. Too often they become masks of power and autocratic fantasy.
Today, Taiwan is under an existential threat of a mainland Chinese take-over – perhaps as never before – if PRC President Xi Jinping’s July and October declarations vowing to reunify the “Motherland” and “smash” Taiwan’s growing independence movement are any indications.
Xi’s declarations in early October coincided with the People’s Liberation Army’s largest military incursion ever into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. And in late November he reiterated to President Biden America was “playing with fire” in its support for Taiwan, warning that “ideological demarcation” and “camp division” would accelerate the superpowers’ descent into another Cold War. Last December, Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, testified before Congress that China is pursuing tactics of economic, cyber and military coercion while preparing for an attack or blockade against Taiwan. In turn, Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine this year has been called a “test case” for Xi’s plans to absorb the renegade Taiwanese island sooner or later – maybe later, given global reaction to Russia’s bloody farce.
As China hands recognize, these bully-boy tactics aren’t new – we’ve seen China’s oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Xi’s insistence on refashioning Hong Kong into a Beijing subsidiary. Meanwhile, the intensity and numbers of PRC fly-bys over Taiwan, which broke all previous records, strongly suggest that China will force reunification under its own terms if Taiwan won’t yield.
This is hugely disturbing – and for me, it’s personal. Taiwan isn’t just a place on the map. It’s an island of memories – a home that literally changed my young life.
How the “One China” Policy Evolved
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1973-1974, when I was studying in Taiwan, the battle cry for Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Kuomingtang forces was still guang fu da lu (光復大陸 ) –“Go and reclaim the mainland “– a dream emblazoned in signs all over Taipei. These dreams never came true. In fact, for thousands of years, the island was on the periphery of the Chinese empire, and never an official part of it. Japan held onto Taiwan for fifty years after its victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1895). But neither the Communists under Mao nor the Nationalists under Chiang expressed particular interest in Taiwan except to advocate its independence from Japan.
Then came the Korean War. Truman decided to send the US Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, aiming to stop Communism from spreading south. In 1982 Ronald Reagan issued the “Six Assurances” that Taiwan would remain a trusted ally and mutual defense partner. In 1995-1996, when Beijing lobbed nuclear missiles (absent live warheads) in a “test” targeting Taiwan’s main ports, Keelung and Kaohsiung, President Clinton intervened by deploying two aircraft battle groups and an amphibious assault vessel to the region. Beijing backed down. To this day, China’s discomfort continues to be the American policy of “strategic ambiguity” – that is, our formal 1979 recognition of the PRC as the one legitimate government of China and, at the same time, our “unofficial” diplomatic, commercial, and military support to protect Taiwan from a PRC invasion.
Segue to the Clinton administration. China and Taiwan agreed to a “1992 Consensus,” a semiofficial statement between representatives of both the PRC and the ROC, establishing a diplomatic basis for cross-strait exchanges and increased trade, although both sides, while agreeing on the concept of ‘one China,’ disagreed on its governing interpretation. Nonetheless, in the 1990s until recently, relations warmed somewhat and farming, electro-mechanical and computer equipment trade between the countries was brisk.
“The past ten years [for Taiwan and China] were very good,” my Chinese sister, Beatrice Jen, said. Beatrice is Mary Jen’s oldest daughter, one of four. She’s a Univ. of California Irvine financial analyst and now an American citizen. “Farmers in Taiwan could sell to China for a good price, and relatives in both countries could visit each other.” Today, though, tensions are rising. Supporters of Taiwan’s Kuomingtang “Blue Party” fault Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s “green” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has rejected the 1992 Consensus, for pushing a de facto independence agenda. Officially, president Tsai (蔡英文) and her DPP party have not declared formal independence for Taiwan. But she’s warned that if Taiwan falls, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and global democracy. “China won’t allow Taiwan to be independent,” Beatrice Jen told me. “China will use force if Taiwan declares formal independence.”
It’s easy to argue that Taiwan has become a mere pawn in a seven-decade ideological struggle. But too me, the less familiar danger is that Taiwan is fast becoming a conceptual abstraction in the West, especially to a new generation of US officials unfamiliar with the realities of Taiwan life.
I’m talking about 23 million people who’ve lived and grown under an entirely different set of values, political assumptions, and core social structures, almost all of them progressive and focused on individual enterprise and tolerance for dissenting opinions. The directions of China and Taiwan are now so divergent that it’s almost impossible to imagine reunification without severe loss of Taiwanese freedoms, much less core identity. And I do believe, no matter what Beijing promises, that there will be blood.
“I’m already getting questions [from IS officials] about whether we should jettison Taiwan,” said Shelly Rigger, a Taiwan expert and professor at Davidson College (Davidson, NC). “If the primary focus is to use Taiwan as a bulwark against China, Taiwan will lose on many levels.”
I can’t agree more. Years ago when I was there, Taiwan was an extraordinarily open landscape filled with tea terraces, marble canyons, and incredibly hard working, jubilant people. The economy was booming with strong tax incentives for industrial growth, agrarian science, manufacturing and income-generating export processing zones The nation offered free elementary to junior high education. I recall teenage boys with crew cuts wearing military uniforms and girls dressed in navy school uniforms walking to school holding hands. Little girls ran up to me to touch my long blond hair, calling me ‘golden dragon,’ and asking questions about where I was from (New York) and what America was all about.
Arguably, Taiwan today is a different entity. At least it looks different – modernized but also vulnerable. Tsai’s declaration of Taiwan’s right to exist is a clear warning signal – not just to China but also to the US and Europe – that peaceful reunification given the ideological fault lines is virtually impossible to achieve.
And it should not be achieved – at least not now. China’s record of censorship, arrests of dissidents, lawyers, and publishers, abuse of Hong Kong and Uyghur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province is reason enough to believe it will not allow Taiwan to maintain its multi-party system, much less its ability to steer its own course economically or politically. Beijing’s control means puppet control – and CCP’s resounding affirmation of Xi’s lifelong leadership and support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are good reasons to believe that China is actually going backward, not emerging as a more liberalized player in the 21st century.
Taiwan and the US both need to affirm—unambiguously — their alliance, mutual pacts of defense and commercial exchange. Vague assurances of cross-strait “crisis” defense from the Biden Administration – or any upcoming Administration — are not enough. Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty is indeed a proxy battle for the broader future of democracy worldwide. But even more, it’s a real and lovely place. The island nation remains a bulwark for progressive values in a world increasingly run by despots. We should defend its right to exist and its ability to do so on its own terms.
Arielle Emmett, Ph.D., is a US Fulbright Scholar and Contributing Editor to Smithsonian Air & Space magazine. She returned from Africa in 2019 after studying Chinese Belt & Road infrastructure projects and their impact on Kenyan labor, economic welfare and human rights.
*A shorter version of this article appeared in Washington Times on December 20, 2021.
 Taiwan actually achieved a trade surplus with China in 2020; exports increased to a record-breaking 4.9 per cent and China and Hong Kong collectively accounted for 44 per cent of Taiwan’s exports, a 12 per cent increase from 2019. In 2021, though, China blocked Taiwanese imports of pork and pineapples, ostensibly for quarantine reasons, but more likely to indicate that Taiwan’s economic dependency on China could be disrupted for political reasons at any time.