Can Taiwan Teach California How to Thrive Under an Authoritarian Power?

The Island Nation Knows How to Navigate Beijing's Threats. The Golden State Could Do the Same With Washington.

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump (in a selfie from Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Is California becoming another Taiwan?

In asking that, I don’t mean that earthquakes will turn California into an island. Instead, what California and Taiwan share is a problem—the predicament of the halfway country.

Taiwan is in reality an independent nation—in its ambitions, its advanced economy, its democratic government. But many of the world’s countries refuse to recognize it as a separate nation, deferring to mainland China, which claims Taiwan as a possession and responds with bullying and threats whenever Taiwan goes its own way.

California shares some aspects of this half-country conundrum. Our state has the ambitions, economy, and democratic government of one of the leading nations of the world. But it remains very much a part of the United States, which responds with bullying and threats whenever California goes its own way.

Yes, Californians fervently hope that our current conflict with the American government is temporary, a result of the Madness of King Trump, and that once the president is gone, we will return to being full members in good standing in the United States. But the hard truth is that California’s differences with the rest of America predate Trump, and so our status as a halfway country—in the United States, but not quite of it—is likely to become the new normal.

I spent last week in Taiwan, and the major lesson I learned (while planning a 2019 conference on democracy) is that it is exhausting to be a smaller country in the shadow of a larger power. The challenges there resemble those of California, and of younger siblings everywhere. When you’re often having to defend against a bullying big brother, how do you develop yourself into a success, much less a model whose examples might change the world—and even change big brother?

Of course, comparisons only go so far, because although Californians may chafe at our troubled relationship with the federal government—not to mention the relentless verbal attacks by the president—the Chinese government has repeatedly threatened to attack Taiwan militarily, seizing the island nation by force if it becomes too independent.

Still, Taiwan and California share some striking similarities. Both have advanced in education, technology, and culture, and punch well above their weight on the international stage. California has the world’s sixth largest economy, though with just 40 million citizens, it ranks 35th by population. Taiwan, likewise, has the world’s 22nd largest economy, even though its population of 23 million puts it at 55th most populous worldwide.

Even in an era of rising nationalism, both Taiwan and California go their own ways, remaining stubbornly internationalist, committed to free trade and immigration. Taiwan recently liberalized its immigration laws to attract more skilled workers and take advantage of mounting immigration restrictions around the world.

That authoritarianism has sparked resistance in both places. Taiwan and California each have independence movements that want a more formal split—which adds to the risk of greater conflict.

Despite struggling to forge diplomatic relations, Taiwan has built trading relationships all over the world, and stays close to other China neighbors—especially Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea—in the hopes that they will help Taiwan deter any Chinese attack. California, in a different context but a similar spirit, works with other states in a legal defense against the federal government, and has made alliances with other countries to address climate change, which the leaders of the American government consider a hoax.

It is precisely because Taiwan and California are so distinctive that they face threats. Just as President Trump has called California “out of control” and falsely accused Californians of engaging in massive election fraud, President Xi Jinping’s propagandists have raised constant questions about the legitimacy of Taiwan’s own free and fair elections.

Even though the economies of both California and Taiwan are tethered to these larger countries, both places see themselves as defenders of openness and democratic values that are at odds with the increasingly authoritarian governments of their national big brothers.

That authoritarianism has sparked resistance in both places. Taiwan and California each have independence movements that want a more formal split—which adds to the risk of greater conflict. Last week, two former Taiwan presidents and the head of a broadcasting company announced a campaign to force a referendum for Taiwanese independence. Back in California, different groups have filed ballot initiatives seeking votes on California independence.

Both movements pose the same question: How many threats must we suffer from Beijing or Washington before enough is enough?

There are many Taiwanese answers to this. The mainstream response is to stay the course. “We don’t want to be in conflict with China,” Taiwanese premier Lai Ching-te said at a Taipei forum. “But we won’t bend to pressure either.”

But I also heard more robust, provocative answers.

First, be opportunistic in building solidarity. Whenever the Chinese issue threats, point that out to the world, and use it to develop a shared sense of identity. Taiwan has been adept at this. A generation ago, most Taiwanese told pollsters they saw themselves as Chinese. Now, after decades of Chinese bullying, most Taiwanese see themselves as primarily Taiwanese.

Second, never miss an opportunity to expand your autonomy when the larger power leaves an opening. To imagine how that logic might apply to California, consider President Trump’s recent suggestion that he might remove federal immigration enforcement from California. Our state’s political leaders reacted by condemning the president or disregarding the comments as Trumpian nonsense. Perhaps, instead, they should have taken his statements as an offer—and accepted it, declaring the state would happily take control of immigration enforcement and asking him for a date by which ICE would leave California.

Finally, success is the best revenge. The conflict with the larger power is a competition, so do everything you can to be friendlier, more democratic, and more attractive than the larger power menacing you. The most interesting conversations I heard in Taipei were about whether Taiwan should respond to China’s militaristic behavior by declaring itself officially an island of peace—a neutral country, like Switzerland, unwilling to participate in wars outside its boundaries. Such a stance might make it harder for China to attack, and win Taiwan more international support.

And just imagine how popular it might be if California, perhaps through ballot initiative, declared its own official neutrality and said it no longer would support America’s costly and endless wars.

It is possible to take the California-Taiwan comparison too far. “The mainland has missiles pointed at us,” one Taiwanese journalist reminded me. “Does America have missiles pointed at you in California?”

No. But I took heart that Taiwan and California are pursuing strategies based on a similar faith: that a smaller place doesn’t have to be at the mercy of the larger place. That a smaller place, through the power of its own example, can reshape the larger place.

California’s long history of leading America to the future suggests there is real wisdom in such an approach. People in Taiwan—whose foreign investment-based economic revival inspired China to open itself up to foreign investment decades ago—can see this too.

In Taichung, I visited a new Literary Museum located in an old police dormitory from the Japanese colonial period. In one courtyard, I encountered the most magnificent tree you’ll see outside Sequoia National Park. It’s a banyan that has grown so many different roots, that it now appears to be multiple trees with a couple different trunks.

“In this way,” said a guide, “a tree becomes a forest.”


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