The people of Taiwan have been taking part Saturday in local elections — an event that people across the Taiwan Strait in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can only dream of. The vote is taking place amid widespread worries about interference from Beijing, which appears to have organized a full-scale disinformation campaign to undermine the current government of President Tsai Ing-wen and support political forces who favor closer ties with the mainland.
China has been steadily increasing its pressure on Taiwan in recent years, picking off several of its formal diplomatic allies and continuing to build up its military capacity to force or intimidate Taiwan to merge. As the threat to Taipei grows, Americans should take a moment to consider the island’s robust democracy that so vexes China’s Communist Party and why it is worth defending.
One manifestation of Taiwan’s democratic character takes place on Friday evenings in dozens of cities around the island and in the Taiwanese diaspora in Europe and the United States. One Friday evening last fall, people gathered in the basement of a Taipei coffeehouse for a session of Café Philo. Launched in 2010 to provide a venue for discussion and debate, Café Philo is a distinctly Taiwanese institution, reflecting the island democracy’s emergence from dictatorship and a recent wave of civic activism that is part of a transformation of Taiwanese politics.
Café Philo is often described as a “salon.” But that word connotes gatherings of intellectuals and “eminent” people, while the vision for Café Philo is more egalitarian. Every session begins with introductions — from everyone in the room. In Taipei that evening, a microphone was passed among some 200 people — a mix of students, public employees, private-sector workers and others — as a professor visiting from Hong Kong discussed a new book about Marxism.
Not all the topics are overtly political. Subjects have included air pollution, education, leftover food and dance. The objective, says Anthony Yeh, a professor at National Cheng-chi University and one of Café Philo’s founders, is to address a lack of critical thinking skills bequeathed by the Nationalist dictatorship that ruled the island from 1945 until its democratic transition in the 1990s. Taiwanese remain shy of criticizing authority, Yeh says, showing particular deference to those who have been successful economically.
Even so, the country has experienced a remarkable surge in activism in recent years. In 2012, demonstrators blocked a major media acquisition by a pro-unification Taiwanese tycoon; in 2014, protesters occupied the legislature to thwart the adoption of a Taiwan-China trade pact without scrutiny of provisions that would deepen PRC investment in Taiwan. Catastrophic electoral defeats for the Nationalists in the local elections of 2014 and in the presidential election of 2016 followed. (The first results in Saturday’s election indicate a victory for the opposition Nationalists, who favor closer relations with Beijing.)
Café Philo’s popularity has grown alongside rising civic participation. According to Lai I-chung, a policy expert in Taipei, Café Philo functions as “an idea lab and social action incubator … like a Silicon Valley start-up for nonprofit, public activities.” Indeed, one Café Philo session I attend in New York City focused on the effort to cull the United States’ National Archives — which the project’s organizers consider more accessible than Taiwan’s — for information on the island’s past. The project has become so popular that some Taiwanese tourists visiting the United States take the bus to National Archives offices in Maryland to help scan and upload documents to an online database.
These aspects of Taiwan’s contemporary political culture are not well understood in America, where perceptions of the island have been shaped by strategic priorities that subordinated Taiwan first to the anti-communist alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, and later to Nixon’s rapprochement with Mao and the PRC. Those policies ignored the fact that Taiwan’s democracy movement was rooted in resistance to foreign (i.e., “Chinese”) rule, and that its people have never been ruled by the PRC. Only 14 percent of the population are “mainlanders,” who arrived after losing the Chinese Civil War to the communists in 1949. More than 80 percent of the population is Taiwanese, defined as descendants of earlier migrants from China. Mainlanders long formed the backbone of the Nationalist Party’s authoritarian rule, but as the island democratized, its people began to assert a distinctly Taiwanese identity.
While the policy implications of Taiwan’s identity may be the subject of debate, there is no doubt that Taiwan’s democratic character is not reflected in the United States’ outdated approach to Taiwan.
Lately, American experts and former officials have admitted, some with chagrin, that they got China wrong. They now see that Chinese Communist Party leaders seek to undermine rather than join a world order created by the United States and its democratic allies. At the last Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping offered China’s authoritarian model as an “option” for other countries seeking to develop economically while avoiding the constraints of established democratic norms.
While debating a change of course in China policy, experts should, after many decades, try to get Taiwan “right” as well. They can start by considering Taiwan’s vibrant democracy — displayed in Café Philos on Friday nights in Taiwan and around the world — and its value to the United States and a democratic world order.
Ellen Bork is a visiting fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and was an international visiting fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in September 2017.