You wouldn’t expect me to be such a patriot towards Taiwan. I’m half-white and half-Taiwanese, and white-passing by appearance; I can only speak a few words of Mandarin, and the only Taiwanese person I know is a grandfather I’ve never met. But for years I’ve surrounded myself with icons of my Taiwaneseness, from the Taiwanese flag trinket on my keychain to the flag I hang on the wall above my bed. I follow Taiwan’s president and its ministry of defense on Twitter, I frequent AACC events and I serve on the board of Yale’s Taiwanese American Society.
In embracing my Taiwanese identity, it’s become clear to me how, more so than nearly every national identity, Taiwanese identity is inherently political, an act of resistance against the domination of a powerful foe.
The powerful symbolism that Taiwan holds can be seen by just a cursory comparison of Taiwan and its neighbor on the mainland. In 1949, at the tail end of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s Communists seized control of China, while Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, setting the stage for an ongoing flashpoint in the Cold War as both sides prepared for an invasion from the other, which never came. While China has since remained a repressive, authoritarian state, Taiwan has evolved into a model liberal democracy; in 2019, Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, signed into law a bill making Taiwan the first country in all of Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Freedom House, a human rights nonprofit, ranks Taiwan as extending more liberties to its citizens than nearly any country in the world, including a slew of Western democracies such as the U.S., Italy and France. Taiwan is an example that tolerance, democracy and freedom are universal values which “the West” holds no monopoly on; it is an example that even the Chinas, Thailands, or Singapores of the world could one day become free and democratic. It is this example, of a country where over 90 percent of people trace their ancestry to China yet embrace values of democracy and human rights anathema to China’s leaders, that so frightens the Chinese regime.
Due to decades of Chinese pressure campaigns, only 14 countries now retain official relations with Taiwan. The Chinese government has made no secret of its desire to “reunify” with Taiwan — which its leaders see as only a wayward province — through force if necessary, and patrols of Chinese fighter jets regularly violate Taiwanese airspace. The issue of Taiwanese sovereignty — constantly precarious, all-too-frequently affected at the whim of decisions made in Beijing and Washington — looms over all who care for Taiwan. At the Taiwanese cultural festivals I attended back home in Atlanta, exhibitions of songs and dancing on the venue’s main stage were often interspersed with exhortations to cheer for Taiwanese sovereignty. Watching Taiwanese athletes march into the Olympic stadium under the banner of “Chinese Taipei,” realizing that as a high schooler in Model UN I would never be able to represent Taiwan, seeing Taiwan depicted as a part of China on countless world maps, all are poignant reminders of just how insecure Taiwanese sovereignty is. So when the Chinese government is dead-set on denying Taiwanese nationhood, using its influence to exclude Taiwan from international organizations or forcing Taiwan to participate in them under the “Chinese Taipei” alias, choosing to assert Taiwanese identity becomes a statement of defiance.
Taiwan, of course, is far more than its symbolism, and it’s often vaguely troubling to me when non-Taiwanese people seem to care more about Taiwan as a means of provoking China than as a country and a society in its own right. Taiwan is vibrant urban night markets and rolling jungle highlands, boba tea and Taipei 101. It’s indigenous festivals, historic temples and even the semiconductor manufacturer whose products power over half of the world’s laptops and automobiles. It’s 22 million people, and all of their hopes and aspirations.
But given the uncertainty of Taiwan’s position in the world, you can’t be Taiwanese without being political, and that experience brings with it a natural sympathy for the fellow democracies of the world struggling for acceptance. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, my Taiwanese American Society board groupchat lit up with discussion about what the invasion meant for Taiwan’s future, as a fellow small democratic country threatened by a larger autocratic one. I’ve been heartened by the courage by which the Ukrainian people have fought on and the solidarity that democratic governments and ordinary people worldwide have shown them, even as I’ve been horrified by the videos and pictures bearing testament to all the brutality that invasion can bring. I pray that Kyiv today does not become Taipei tomorrow. Such is the way of being a part of the Taiwanese diaspora. We dream of Taiwan, we dream of its continued freedom and prosperity and we hope dearly that it will still be free for us to visit when we next can.
Julian Daniel is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.