Despite the occasional suggestion by a handful of US academics that Washington should “abandon” Taiwan to its “inevitable” fate of unification with China, a good number of experts and officials maintain that the nation of 23 million cannot simply be willed out of existence and must therefore be dealt with.
Welcome though this defense of Taiwan may be, a surprisingly large number of such proponents, often in the same breath, add that democratic Taiwan is useful because it serves as an example for China, encouraging the incremental democratization and liberalization of the authoritarian giant next door.
Using terminology like “the first Chinese democracy,” such individuals fail to recognize that Taiwan is a distinct entity unto itself, or that the existence of its 23 million people is more than a means to an end.
Although qualitatively better than the argument that Taiwan should be forsaken by its allies and protectors for the sake of better relations with Beijing, the case that the nation is “useful” because it can foster change in China fails on moral grounds.
By not attesting to its intrinsic value, such proponents are committing the same mistake as those who would like to see the “Taiwan problem” disappear forever: It turns 23 million human beings into mere abstractions or pieces to be moved around on a chessboard toward some ultimate goal.
To a certain extent, it is undeniable that Taiwan serves as an example to China, and one can only hope that the millions of Chinese who now find it possible to make the journey across the Taiwan Strait take back home with them an inkling of how to improve their own lives.
However, the very same memes of justice, freedom and democracy are not unique to Taiwan, and Chinese have for decades traveled to countries where the same fundamental principles apply. Taiwan is special not because it has disproved the largely flawed theory that Confucianism is incompatible with democracy, but rather because it became one of the first small nations to democratize after decades of authoritarian rule.
Emerging as it did from under the heavy hand of authoritarianism about the same time as South Korea, why is it that only Taiwan is touted as an example for China, if not for the acknowledgement, inadvertently perhaps, that it is part of China? One would be hard pressed to tout Taiwan as some special model for China and yet maintain that one supports the view that Taiwan’s people have a right to choose their own destiny.
Those two contentions are incompatible and will remain so until it is recognized that Taiwan is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
The world is rife with examples of liberal democracies for countries like China and North Korea to follow. There is nothing special about Taiwan, mis a part a shared language and culture, that would make China more willing to embrace and experiment with democracy. In fact, the assumption that Chinese will somehow be more amenable to democracy because it is found in Taiwan is downright insulting to the Chinese, as if they needed a shared language, or ethnicity, to understand it.
After decades of contact, albeit limited, with democracies the world over, the Chinese Communist Party remains a politically rigid, repressive entity. That interactions with Taiwan would unlock a box that has remained shut for so long where similar interactions have failed to do so is pure speculation, if not outright fantasy.