Opinion & Analysis

Letter from Taipei

Kiwi Ron Hanson checks in from Taiwan as US-China tensions play out following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, and finds that while the high-stakes politics continue in Beijing and Washington, the Taiwanese are quietly getting on with life. 

 When the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi touched down in Taipei for her recent whirlwind visit, Taiwan once again found itself in the eye of a media storm.

Pelosi is the most senior American politician to visit Taiwan in 25 years.

Predictably, Beijing was enraged. 

Since the visit we've seen intimidating live-fire military drills, bans on Taiwanese products in China, sanctions of government officials, cyber-attacks, the arrest of a Taiwanese man in China for “separatist” activities, and the kind of scorched-earth rhetoric we’ve become accustomed to in the era of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.

The international media coverage has also been hyperbolic.

Nancy Pelosi met with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-Wen during her recent visit/ photo creative commons

From the tenor of many of the reports, it would be easy to gain the impression that World War III was breaking out. One almost senses an unquenched thirst among some of these talking heads for what would surely be the ultimate ratings bonanza.

But how is the mood in Taiwan?  ..Resolutely calm.

During Pelosi’s visit and the subsequent drills, people shopped, ate at restaurants, went to nightclubs, and attended annual Ghost Month celebrations. Taitung’s hot air balloon festival continued on as scheduled. Some hopeful sightseers even took to the beach in order to try and catch a glimpse of the military exercises. In essence, regular life carried on.

People shopping at a farmers market in Taipei/ photo Mark Hanson

To get a better sense of the current mood, I spoke to some Taiwanese about how they were feeling.

Wei Wen is a 30–year-old airline worker from Taipei. During the drills, she and her boyfriend took a holiday to the coastal city of Taitung, not far from where some of the exercises were taking place.

In Taitung, they went swimming at the beach. “Everything was pretty chilled,” she says. “People were sunbathing and reading books. It was just like a normal day.

“I don’t feel particularly nervous about it,” Wei says. “Sometimes foreign friends, who don’t know much about the situation, will ask me why we’re not worried.

But I think China’s just making threats. It’s language. China is putting on a show for its public but won’t actually do anything.”

Passengers wait at a Taipei bus stop / photo Mark Hanson

I also spoke to Mr. Ling, a doorman in his 50s at an inner-city apartment complex. He also thinks the drills are for show.

“Both sides are flexing their muscles,” he says. “That’s it. Nothing will happen. What’s important is the economy. They’ll never fight. If they fight, it’ll be World War 3. They’re not that crazy!”

Many outside observers are perplexed by this calm. Are Taiwanese complacent about the dangers that lurk at their door? Are they oblivious to the basic facts of the threat that is so obvious in the minds of many?

 But, for many Taiwanese, China’s threats are nothing new.

Most here have experienced them their entire lives. I first observed them myself after moving to Taiwan from Wellington in early 2000.

Taipei street scene / photo Mark Hanson

I arrived on the island six weeks before the election of Chen Shui-Bian as president. The Democratic Progressive Party candidate had long advocated for Taiwanese independence. Beijing was alarmed at the prospect of a Chen presidency and tried to influence the election through its fiery language.

China’s then Vice Premier and former Foreign Minister Qian Qichen gave a speech threatening war if Taiwan moved towards independence and warning that “separatist” leaders were “playing with fire”. The military put out a statement saying it would "spare no effort in a blood-soaked battle" to protect China's territorial integrity.

But as is typical, pressure from Beijing had the opposite of its intended effect on the Taiwanese public.

Chen was voted in to end more than 50 years of nationalist KMT rule. As president, Chen refrained from declaring formal independence, but Taiwanese identity continued to flourish.

Taiwanese calm is in itself an act of defiance.

Beijing's actions and rhetoric are still viewed here as acts of cognitive warfare designed to demoralize, make people lose confidence, and become resigned to future Beijing rule as a fait accompli.

In response, Taiwanese have mastered the art of collectively tuning out such intimidation and not playing into it through knee-jerk reactions.

Taiwan Coast Guard vessels in Kaosiung Harbour/ photo Frankie Chang

Another local I spoke to is Ms. Chen, a Chinese language teacher in her 40s who lives in Taichung City.

She says talk of China invading pops up in the media from time, and it’s been that way for as long as she can remember. “I don’t feel particularly anxious,” she told me. “I think I’m just used to it.”

“Taiwanese rarely speak seriously with their family or friends about this topic,” she says. “Perhaps everyone is worried but there isn’t anything we can do about it so we just carry on with our daily lives.

"Occasionally, I wonder if I should move to Europe so I don’t have to deal with it. But I’m Taiwanese. My friends and family are all here. I can’t just pack up and leave.”

 Mrs. Fang is also a Chinese language teacher and a former news reporter in her early 60s who lives in Taichung City. Fang’s father was a captain in Chiang Kai-shek’s army who retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after the Nationalists’ defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

Her father, who passed away in 1990, never made it back to China, but Fang went to live in Beijing during the 1990s after the country began opening up to the world, including the Taiwanese.

 “In the beginning, it was very friendly,” she says. “They would welcome Taiwanese to China because they wanted to strengthen their economy. As they were growing, people in China were under the impression that Taiwanese were really poor.

But they came to realize that Taiwan was doing very well. We had technology and TSMC. Some wealthy people there wanted to become even wealthier and they wanted to take over Taiwan. Now they’re using military means to try and achieve their goal.”

 During Fang’s time in Beijing, there was a major flash point between Taiwan, China, and the US that became known as The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96, which Fang says she only learned about after returning to Taiwan.

The Crisis was triggered by Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui being granted a US visa in 1995 and giving a speech at his alma mater Cornell University. Lee said he was there as a private citizen but China viewed this as a trick.

In 1995, Beijing also responded to perceived provocation by carrying out live-fire drills in the Strait.

They ran highly publicized exercises simulating an amphibious invasion.

The following year, Beijing conducted a second set of missile tests near Taiwan during the island’s first-ever presidential election. The Guardian later reported, “Beijing tried to frighten Taiwan's voters in 1996 by conducting missile tests near the island during the presidential election campaign. But its strategy backfired when the sense of crisis rallied voters behind Mr. Lee.”

 These drills did, however, instill panic in Taiwan. People scrambled to book tickets on flights to North America and the Taipei Stock exchange began to experience capital flight. The US response was to send several ships to the Taiwan Strait. The BBC described it as the “biggest display of US military power in Asia since the Vietnam War". Eventually, things settled down.

 These days, Taiwanese are less easily rattled. “We know their personality,” Fang says. “They’re always scolding Taiwan. You turn on the news and they’re saying that we’re playing with fire and will come to a bad end. They make countless threats but they never do anything. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. He keeps saying, ‘The wolf is coming! The wolf is coming!’ But they’ve made these threats so many times; we think it’s not going to happen.”

 Of course, in the legendary fable, the wolf does eventually manifest, and Fang is concerned about the possibility of a future attack.

“I hope I’m not around to see it,” she laughs. “I think it is possible in the future. Right now, Xi Jinping is 69 years old. He could have another 20 years to launch a war. So, I think if Xi carries on as leader, there could be a war within the next 20 years.”

 But Fang is skeptical about China’s ability to launch an invasion in the short term.

“They don’t have experience with planning a war,” she says. “The US would help us because of Taiwan’s economic position and our semiconductor chips. But Taiwan needs to work harder. The US is sending us the best weapons, but we don’t have enough pilots or soldiers. We’ve got the weapons, but the training isn’t yet sufficient.”

Taichung City, Taiwan / photo Mark Hanson

 As the dust settles following China’s drills and Pelosi’s visit, Taiwan is settling into a new normal.

The new state of affairs will likely see more frequent military drills, but also more high-profile visits by US and other countries’ officials, and increased military cooperation between Taiwan, the US, and Japan.

 Brian Hioe is a 30-year-old journalist and the publisher of the online magazine "New Bloom", which covers politics in Taiwan and Asia. Hioe has been extremely busy recently, fielding endless interview requests from international media and writing articles for The Guardian and other publications. I asked Hioe if recent events have changed how he feels about Cross-Strait tensions.

 "I think my views of the situation are relatively unchanged,” he says. “There is the question of whether China would have found some event as a pretext to increase tensions sooner or later anyway.

"At the same time, there are increased dangers regarding the possibility of escalation between the US and China, which will increase going forward."

 “The new status quo probably consists of Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan, which are increasingly regularised. ..that being said, however, the mood on the ground remains calm, and Taiwanese themselves perceive Chinese threats directed at Taiwan as ongoing, rather than this being any new development.”


- Asia Media Centre