International media need to find a better term than ‘rivals’ to describe a situation in which a small democracy is fighting for its survival against the encroachment of a gigantic authoritarian state.
It doesn’t just regularly pop up in “click-bait” headlines, but rears its ugly head in the body of articles as well. Keen on providing a narrative that is understandable to a global audience, international media have often used the term “rivals” — sometimes “bitter rivals” — to describe Taiwan and China (examples here and here and here). Unfortunately, this oversimplification fails to accurately describe the true nature of the conflict in the Taiwan Strait. In fact, it is utterly misleading.
The descriptor “rivals” would have held true decades ago, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC), which transplanted itself into Taiwan following the Nationalists’ defeat in the Chinese civil war, still aimed to “retake the mainland” from Mao Zedong’s communists, by force if necessary. During that period, both sides, by then ideological rivals in the Cold War, vied for recognition by the international community as the “real” China (“free China” versus “Red China”), and the two governments were locked into a zero-sum game out of which a single victor could emerge.
Such dynamics, however, ceased to exist several years ago. Occasional rhetoric notwithstanding, the now “Beijing-friendly” opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has abandoned all claims to representing China as a whole, and the dream of prising China from the cold hands of the communists ended with Chiang. Moreover, the ROC has in several ways been absorbed by Taiwan, its institutions rendered unrecognizable by dint of democratization and the Taiwanization of its institutions. Attachment to China, especially among those who fled to Taiwan in 1949, has dwindled as those individuals become inactive politically due to their old age and are replaced by people who were born in Taiwan. The new generations, meanwhile, have no experience other than living in a liberal-democratic society, which contrasts starkly with the system that prevailed during the Martial Law era, and even more so with that which characterizes the People’s Republic of China today. Yes, for many on the “deeper green” side of the Taiwan-centric movement, legacies and symbols of the ROC still exist and continue to frustrate their hopes for a truly independent Taiwan; but it is nevertheless true that the today’s ROC is Taiwan, a vibrant, successful, democratic, proud and sovereign state, and a source of inspiration for many people around the world who continue to struggle for freer societies.
No one with a grasp on reality would have described Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II as “rivals.”
And a rival to China it no longer is. Rather, Taiwan has been seeking co-existence with its large neighbor and would hope for nothing more than for dual recognition. The people of Taiwan, whether they vote Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or KMT, are overwhelmingly united in their desire to build their nation, to protect its democratic institutions, and to avoid being annexed by authoritarian China. Indeed there are some in Taiwan who see things differently and who advocate for unification, but those tend to operate on the margins of society and their aspirations are unviable in the electoral processes that have become the norm in Taiwan. That is also why the bulk of their activities tends to be undemocratic, involving co-optation, political warfare and intimidation, Beijing’s favorite tool to shape the environment in its favor.
Taiwan wants to be left alone. It does not seek to constrain China’s ability to perform on the international stage. It does not aim upwards of 1,500 ballistic missiles at it or conduct military exercises simulating an invasion. It does not seek to steal Beijing’s official diplomatic allies (though it would like to keep the 20 it currently has). It does not pressure governments, firms and others into deleting references to it on their web sites, nor does it threaten lawsuits against authors and journalists who write favorably about China. Long ago, Taiwan’s people stopped denying the existence and legitimacy of the PRC; in fact, for most of them, China is a source of business opportunity in the same way that, say, the U.S. is to Canadians. The “anti-China” or “China hater” elements in Taiwan, who do exist within the deep-green camp, espouse such views not because they deny the PRC’s right to exist, but rather in reaction to what the PRC has been doing to their country. In the eyes of the great majority of people in Taiwan, the relationship is no longer zero-sum. It is, instead, a fact that awaits normalization — two very different societies, two nations needing to find a way to exist alongside each other. While many Taiwanese would probably like to see democracy flourish in China, they are not actively involved in efforts to undermine the political system that exists there; conversely, the party-state apparatus in China is indefatigable in its attempts to undermine, corrode and discredit Taiwan’s democratic way of life.
It’s difficult to see, therefore, how Taiwan and China could be described as rivals. The problem with this term is that it implies a moral equivalence and a balance of power. It equalizes responsibility and attributes blame equally, as if the two sides were victims and aggressors, as if both were locking up dissidents, silencing reporters and becoming increasingly repressive. It masks the true reality of Taiwan’s experience today: self-determination in the face of an aggressive form of revisionism fuelled by the potent ingredients of ultranationalism and expansionism. Rivals are competitors for the same object or objective; rivals share an intent, and their logic is inherently zero-sum. Only China, which denies the existence of Taiwan and has territorial designs upon it, continues to think in zero-sum terms.
International media need to find a better term than “rivals” to describe a situation in which a small democracy is fighting for its survival against the encroachment of a gigantic authoritarian state. No one with a grasp on reality would have described Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II as “rivals.”