Taiwan’s existence in the modern world can seem confounding. The nation, which holds presidential elections on Saturday, is a democracy that boasts world-class universal health care and recently became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Its ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has touted direct democracy initiatives, renewable energy, and the abolition of nuclear power. In recent months, it has recruited members of progressive third parties who hope to push the traditionally centrist party to the left.
That same ruling party is also a strong friend of the Trump administration: In 2019, Taipei cheerfully hosted Sarah Sanders, Sam Brownback, and Ted Cruz and agreed to buy over $10 billion in fighter jets, tanks, and ammunition from the United States. President Tsai Ing-wen, in the thick of a reelection campaign, took to Instagram to post fan art of her grinning and standing next to Trump, who’s cradling a smiling, rose-cheeked Taiwan as F16 fighter jets ascend in the foreground.
This makes for a unique, perhaps dissonant set of considerations, and Taiwan’s voters are constantly confronting their history and defining their modern identity. The nation has long associated with the American right as a means of political survival. But its deep connection to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the strength of its own progressive movements, have left many voters wondering why Taiwan has long been an afterthought among the global left.
An island nation of 24 million, Taiwan has democratically elected its president since 1996 and functions entirely as an independent state, with a catch: The neighboring People’s Republic of China, or PRC, threatens to use force should Taiwan declare political independence and claims sovereignty over the nation, despite never having ruled it.
Tsai, a pragmatic leader trusted by Western policy-makers, has deepened the island’s ties with the United States and insists that any engagement with China come with the precondition that Taiwan’s sovereignty is inalienable. Her challenger, Han Kuo-yu—a populist, socially conservative firebrand often compared to Trump who trails Tsai in the polls—wants warmer relations with China.
In 1949, the Republic of China, or ROC, government of Chiang Kai-shek fled China for Taiwan after losing a civil war. The ROC lost its seat in the United Nations as “China” to the PRC in 1971, and many countries followed suit by switching their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. While dozens of countries, including the United States, send representatives to both places, the PRC government does not allow any country to officially recognize both entities, seeing this as support for an independent Taiwan and a violation of a fragile political “status quo.”
Taiwan has thus been stuck in geopolitical limbo for decades. During that time, it has also shed martial law and transitioned into democracy, created space for civic participation and a free press, and developed a distinct identity of its own.
And that identity is distinctly separate from China. According to a June poll conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, 57 percent of citizens consider themselves solely Taiwanese; only 3.6 percent identify as solely Chinese. (Most others identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese.) They’re also in broad agreement on the island’s form of governance: Just under 90 percent of voters did not express a desire to pursue unification with China, according to the survey. China’s “one country, two systems” arrangement—the object of ire among Hong Kong protesters–is broadly unpopular in Taiwan, supported publicly only by fringe political figures. Taiwan, with or without formal independence, wants to keep the autonomy it currently enjoys.
“Most of us feel very detached from China,” said Wen Liu, cofounder of the progressive magazine New Bloom (and Nation contributor). Taiwan’s population is split among those from families who fled with the ROC government in 1949, those whose ancestors migrated from China to Taiwan generations before, indigenous peoples and immigrant residents. To be Taiwanese is to be “a beacon of democracy that is a model for global Chinese people,” said legislator Jason Hsu of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). “That’s what differentiates us from China.”
To preserve its self-determination and its security, Taiwan relies on long-standing ties with the American right, forged during decades of KMT rule during and after martial law. While many congressional Democrats support Taiwanese sovereignty, the nation has never been perceived as a core plank of a Democratic foreign policy hesitant to anger the Chinese government. “When the left didn’t care about Taiwanese politics,” Liu said, Taiwanese people—including progressives—“went to the right.”
This situation is partially due to the difficulty of globally amplifying the identity of Taiwan, which effectively functions as an independent country yet has only 15 formal diplomatic allies and is excluded from major international organizations, including the United Nations, at the behest of China. Taiwan is, politically, “a very ambiguous state of being,” Hsu said. “These complex issues have been the defining factor of Taiwan society.”
Opportunists from all corners have taken advantage of this ambiguity. Tsai’s ruling party ideologically favors independence, but practically, prefers to keep the status quo; the KMT, despite its insistence on maintaining Taiwan’s autonomy, opposes independence and prefers closer ties to China.
To the Trump administration, Taiwan is both a trusted regional ally and a key cog in an ongoing trade dispute with China, leading to worries in Taiwan that it could be used as a bargaining chip. In October, CNN reported that Trump promised Xi Jinping in a June phone call he would stay quiet on protests in Hong Kong as trade talks continued. Observers in Taiwan noticed. State Department officials are highly unlikely to abandon their deep ties to the island. But the United States has always opposed any Taiwanese declaration of independence, effectively leaving its future in permanent no man’s land.
This has not led Taiwan to turn inwards, though. Tsai rose to power in 2016 spurred by a broad coalition strengthened by the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which began in opposition to a planned trade deal with China and spawned an array of progressive third parties and influential civic movements involved in campaigning for gay marriage, using civic tech to fight online disinformation, reforming Taiwan’s public referendum laws, fighting controversial forced evictions, and opposing Taiwan’s participation in international trade agreements. Several prominent Sunflower student leaders have been recruited into the DPP or pledged to support Tsai in recent months—a nod to Taiwan’s young voters in a nation that has no major liberal party.
While in power, Tsai and her DPP have assertively courted international support. This, along with her support for protesters in Hong Kong and a series of KMT blunders, has helped her surge to a commanding lead in the polls ahead of Saturday’s vote.
Voters disagree on Tsai’s methods. Many older voters see the DPP’s dreams of eventual independence as a threat to their political and personal relations to China, while younger voters, born after Taiwan became a democracy, view the Chinese government with skepticism and forge identities rooted firmly in Taiwan.
Still, the global left has “yet to find a way to talk about Taiwan,” said Jeffrey Ngo, the chief researcher for the Hong Kong activist political group Demosisto. “The problem is not opposition. The problem is silence.”
Hong Kong and Taiwan “share the common struggle of fighting against Chinese authoritarianism,” Ngo said—and to him, Taiwan’s association with the Republican establishment is deeply ironic. “In a perfect world,” he said, “someone advocating the policies Ted Cruz advocates would be perfectly in opposition to Tsai Ing-wen.”
But political conversations about Taiwan often tend toward discussing defense and arms sales. “There’s a lot of fear around the question of Taiwan for liberals and progressives that engagement with Taiwan necessarily means military engagement,” said Catherine Chou, a professor at Grinnell College who writes frequently on Taiwan-related issues.
In American politics, Taiwan is often cast as a small state that buys US fighter jets and acts as a trusted line of defense against a rising China. These ideas aren’t always palatable to the left. “The longer this continues, the more difficult it will also continue to be for the left to come to Taiwan’s aid,” said Lev Nachman, a PhD candidate at University of California Irvine researching social movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Observers fear ignoring Taiwan—and eventually abandoning it to the whims of Beijing—could spur a human rights crisis and betray a population of 24 million that wants to keep the democracy it fought for, making it imperative for the world to get creative in finding ways to support it.
In the absence of formal diplomatic changes and, indeed, progressive leadership in the United States itself, Chou recommends actions such as promoting Taiwan-centered dialogues at the university level, from inviting Tsai herself to speak on campus to creating “welcoming spaces” for students to talk about their countries.
“There can be moral support. There can be informal relations,” Chou said. “Standing up for Taiwan can be done in lots of smaller ways.”