Asian jewel.

Photographer: Ashley Pon/Getty Images

Taiwan's Fragile Success Story

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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These days, Americans don’t think a lot about Taiwan. That’s a shame. A thriving democracy in a region with too few of them, Taiwan also faces unique challenges, not least because of its ambiguous legal status and the possibility that it will eventually be absorbed into China -- perhaps by force. Elections next month, which a pro-independence party is expected to win, could mark a turning point. Americans have plenty of reason to pay attention.

I spent a few days last week in Taiwan, giving a series of lectures and also meeting with both the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, and Tsai Ing-wen, who is highly likely to succeed him. I found a country that is one of the world's bright spots. It could easily be taken as a model for others, but its complex relationship with China could ultimately threaten regional stability.

To appreciate the current situation, it’s necessary to understand some history. China's warring factions were unified in 1928 by Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled what he called the Republic of China for nearly twenty years. But in 1949, the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, routed Chiang and his supporters, who fled to Taiwan, declaring it to be the true Republic of China (ROC, as it is often called today). Mao insisted Taiwan was part of China and had no legitimate claim to independence.

From 1949 to 1975, Chiang ran Taiwan in an authoritarian manner (and within Taiwan, he is now widely regarded as a tyrant). The period is called the “White Terror,” a system of one-party rule in which many dissenters were imprisoned or killed.

Martial law continued until 1987. Since that time, there has been a multiparty system, with intense competition between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (founded, illegally, in 1986). The KMT's Ma has made public apologies for the abuses and horrors of the White Terror and awarded billions of dollars in compensation.

The major division between the two parties involves continuing but sometimes subtle disputes over the precise relationship with China. The KMT supports closer ties, especially economic ones. While resisting the idea of unification, the KMT also rejects the idea of national independence for Taiwan and continues to endorse a modified form of the “one China” idea. Tsai's party, the DPP, rejects that idea, insisting Taiwan has carved out a distinctive national identity.

The divide has a strong generational component. A substantial percentage of people under the age of 40 strongly support Taiwan’s independence. They see it as having a history and identity of its own. The expected victory of the DPP in next month’s elections attests to the growing electoral power of the younger generation: With each year, the people of Taiwan increasingly see themselves as a separate nation, with its own values and culture.

When we spoke, Ma stressed that Taiwan faces daunting economic challenges. Its ambiguous status (is it a country, or not?) severely complicates entry into the free trade agreements that greatly benefit its Asian competitors. Ma met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore last month, the first such meeting since 1949; he sought to manage tensions and promote economic integration.

Tsai disagrees with Ma on many points, but when I spoke with her she also emphasized Taiwan’s economic challenges and the importance of exports to continued economic growth. The journalists and academics I met lamented that China sometimes succeeds in excluding Taiwanese representatives from international events, contending it's not a country.

If Tsai becomes president, she'll have to decide how to navigate the relationship with China while protecting the island's extraordinary achievements, including a robust democratic culture, with an independent judiciary and a high level of political freedom, all created in a remarkably short period after authoritarian rule.

Many Taiwanese believe China poses a genuine and even imminent threat to these achievements. Pointing across the Taiwan Strait to Hong Kong, where Beijing is asserting increasing authority, they want to be able to maintain their hard-won freedom and their distinctive way of life. Taiwan’s 23 million citizens deserve an opportunity to do exactly that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net