Having recently returned from a productive visit to Taiwan, hosted by the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI), I wanted to capture impressions of my favorite island while they are still fresh. Our delegation met with a broad range of key Taiwan figures, including those in the ruling DPP as well as the opposition KMT. Our visit included a lengthy and informal visit with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) at her residence, including an introduction to the presidential cats and dogs. We saw legislators on both sides of the aisle, paid a visit to Hsinchu Industrial Park, and visited my own former place of employment, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).
I am pleased to report I left Taipei convinced that things are in good shape in Taiwan. Elections early next year have focused everyone’s attention, a good sign that democracy continues to flourish on at least one side of the Taiwan Strait. I wish I could say the same about the other side, but that simply is not the case. Xi Jinping (習近平) has truncated Hong Kong’s autonomy, backtracking on solemn pledges to the contrary by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forty years ago. Beijing’s faithlessness should register deeply among Taiwan’s 23 million citizens, who are the only ethnic Chinese polity currently allowed to enjoy untrammeled freedom today. Their sterling example will continue to resonate throughout Asia.
Our group met with Eric Chu (朱立倫), representing the KMT. We also saw a range of DPP officials, including Vice President William Lai (賴清德), Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), and President Tsai. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was traveling to the mainland while we were in Taiwan. I’m not sure he still carries much weight within the KMT, but his currying favor with officials in Beijing isn’t likely to enhance his image with many in Taiwan. My sense is that the majority of the population sees the mainland’s leadership as profoundly hostile to the island democracy, which is so different from the authoritarian one-party system just to the west of Taipei.
We traveled down to Hsinchu Science Park to meet with representatives of the business community. Taiwan’s economy continues to be based on higher-end production of microchips and other cutting edge technologies. The presence of so many US-educated scientists, technocrats and business people underscores the international nature of the island. I distinctly remember in my first tour at AIT (1981-82) I issued student visas to some incredibly bright and dedicated young men and women. Our supervisor’s instruction to us on the visa line was to be fairly relaxed in adjudicating nonimmigrant visa cases. If they didn’t have a formal application to apply for US citizenship, we were encouraged to approve their application.
A decade later, I was flying back to Taiwan from the states, and the man sitting next to me was a pure example of this trend. He had obtained a prestigious advanced degree in America, and was heading home to partner with family members in a start-up business. He may well have had a US passport in his back pocket, but his objective was to build a business on his native island.
During the trip we had a relaxed exchange with President Tsai, who was looking forward to new adventures following the end of her second term in office in early 2024. I expect the presidential and legislative campaigns will be hard fought. But I am also confident Taiwan’s now mature voting population will accept the results and move on. Contrast that with authoritarian China, where everyone fortunate enough to hold a seat in the legislature or government will be advanced in office based not on the people’s choice, but rather on backroom deals cut by top party officials in the one-party apparatus.
I enjoyed walking the streets of Taipei in the evening, after rush hour settled down. Well-dressed men and women were heading home or meeting friends for the evening. I walked in the shadow of Taipei 101, which had once been the tallest building in the world. For reasons that still escape me, I participated in the charity race up that building five times during my stays on the island. Each time, about two-thirds of the way winding my path up the staircase (nine steps up, turn, three steps up, turn, nine steps up, turn… rinse and repeat) I asked myself, “What in the world convinced me to put myself through this dizzying ordeal again?” By the time I broke out onto the open air observatory at the top, I was out of breath and a bit dizzy from the circular path that brought me there. To complicate things further, members of the local press would instantly crowd around me to fire political questions as I struggled to recover from the ordeal.
During my latest visit, people were already talking about the succession following President Tsai’s retirement early next year. I understand current Vice President William Lai may be the DPP front runner. The KMT will undoubtedly also advance a strong figure. But one thing everyone knows is that whoever wins the honor of replacing the formidable Ms. Tsai will be committed to Taiwan’s continuing status as one of the most stable democracies in East Asia.
Whether I am invited to observe the elections up close, or follow them in the media from my home in rural New Hampshire, an hour north of Boston, I am certain it will be a well-fought campaign by all sides. As has been the case now for many years, the various parties will come together in accepting the legitimacy of the winner. Then they will get back to haggling over policies and personnel, as all democracies do.
Meanwhile Mr. Xi sits atop a brittle political system where very little power flows far from the top. China currently faces many economic, environmental, and demographic challenges. This includes a shrinking, aging population and — thanks to the one child policy and a tendency in past years to abort girl babies in favor of boys — too many young men looking for too few eligible brides.
As I write this, I am still basking in the experience of visiting my beloved Taiwan earlier this year and seeing many friends. I am certain that Taiwan’s economy will continue to thrive, with top-notch industries competing both locally and internationally. TSMC and Acer are just a few of the leading examples, as the world’s undisputed leader in manufacturing cutting-edge microchips to power devices around the world. Giant Bicycle Company will continue its dominant role as the world’s largest producer of top-quality bikes, sought after around the globe. Many other companies will continue their rightful place in the front lines of international business.
I look forward to returning regularly to my favorite island democracy. I have recently completed writing a book about my experiences over fifty years of living and visiting Taiwan, and have turned my manuscript over to a credible publisher for review. Perhaps I can manage a Chinese language version of the book and return to Taiwan for a book tour one of these days. However things turn out, I remain extremely proud of my long love affair with the island once known as Formosa. Long may this free and open society thrive. So long as it does, it will provide a beacon of hope to other less open political systems in the region, including the sharply authoritarian “People’s” Republic of China.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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