The recent incursions by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) air force into Taiwan’s air space, coupled with Premier Xi’s rhetoric hinting at unification by military force, have the Taiwanese and their western supporters worried. A New York Times analysis argues that China’s military is now so strong that the US might be reluctant to mobilize its forces in support of Taiwan.
Taiwan is now a robust democracy, and 95 percent of its citizens prefer either the status quo or outright independence to unification with the People’s Republic. Though the island is beautiful, it has few natural resources, so its economy increasingly rests on the technological prowess of its highly educated workforce.
Two Months in China
Having visited both the PRC and Taiwan, I am a firm supporter of Taiwan’s independence. I spent a total of 8 weeks in the PRC in 1984 and 1986, when it was emerging from Maoist ideology and embracing free markets. I was there on a program sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency that had Canadian faculty teaching management to Chinese students, in my case at Nankai University in Tainjin. I travelled extensively, both with my mother on a guided tour, and with academic colleagues.
The Chinese were exquisitely graceful towards and appreciative of foreign experts as well as my venerable mother, who was a decade younger then than I am now (tempus fugit). But there was quite a bit that I saw in China that I didn’t like: the Communist Party lurking in the shadows of every organization, surveillance of the selfsame honoured foreign experts, efforts to control what foreign guests did and didn’t see, nascent student protests, and corrupt public officials. Little that has occurred in subsequent years – the Tienanmen Square massacre, for example – has surprised me, and I did not expect that economic development would lead to democratization.
Four Days in Taipei
Five years ago, I was invited to Taipei, also as a foreign expert, to speak at a conference on human resource management and innovation in the public sector. The conference ran for two days, and I spent my initial and final days as a tourist. The Taiwanese public servants were knowledgeable and asked good questions. Here is the presentation deck: Sandford Borins Taiwan presentation Aug. 30, 2016.
The other speakers were well-known scholars whom I enjoyed meeting. I stayed at the Howard Civil Service International Hotel, where I learned that the government had contracted out the management of a hotel intended to host international guests of the government and Taiwanese public servants. The hotel was high-quality and a pleasant place to stay. As a student of public sector innovation, I noted the idea.
Taipei is an easy city to visit, with a superb subway system that goes far into the outskirts, and I used it to visit the Beitou hot springs and the colonial port of Tamsui. Its electronic ticketing system five years ago was more advanced than the GTA’s Presto system is today. The city is efficient and modern, but its history and culture are still preserved.
My last evening in Taipei, I had an eye problem that needed a specialist’s attention. I called the public servant who had arranged my visit. She picked me up at the hotel and took me to a late-night eye clinic where I received immediate attention. I made a note of that idea, too. (A quick online search did not turn up a comparable clinic in Toronto.)
Defending Taiwan: Why and How
My conclusion, based on my experiences in both countries, is that Taiwan has developed a society that is economically advanced, open, democratic, and innovative. The Taiwanese should have the continued right of self-determination. Taiwan should not suffer Hong Kong’s fate.
This could well be the time that the PRC makes a military move on Taiwan. A military adventure might distract the public from the growing economic problems heralded by the slow-motion liquidation of Evergrande. In addition, Premier Xi’s second term in office ends in 2022, and he would like a third.
Defending Taiwan should not be an exclusively American responsibility. Other democratic nations, such as the NATO countries, Japan, Korea, and Singapore should participate in a multilateral force intended to deter aggression by the PRC. The PRC prefers to bully other nations on a one-to-one basis, which was also President Trump’s modus operandi. The best response is multilateral.