Taiwan v China
Hello, and welcome to Season 2 of the Global Thread podcast! I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan, and I’m pumped to be diving back into this stuff with you all. We’re back in the flow, we’re brimming with geopolitical commentary, we’ve got a new look on the website, AND! We’ve got new music.
Big shoutout to Michael Connally for putting something together for me. What better way to mark the start of a new season than with a new intro song? Maybe each season can have a new song, I don’t know, keep it going. That could be fun, and you know I love promoting good people whenever and however I can. So with that said, if you would like to follow Michael or maybe even commission some work from him, all of his social media handles are @musicbympc. That’s “M-P-C,” as in Mike-Papa-Charlie. Again, that’s @musicbympc. Super nice guy, super easy to work with.
If you’re new here, thank you so much for joining. It really, really means a lot that you take the time to listen, especially because - trust me - I know these aren’t the most light-hearted or feel-good topics. They’re interesting, sure, but they can be draining, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing to consume sometimes. Most times. My goal here is to help you understand global topics that tend to get less news coverage than they deserve so that they’re less complicated and less daunting for you. The next time you see a two-minute update on these topics on the nightly news - interspersed between the incessant COVID coverage, of course - you can at least know what they’re talking about, why it’s important, what implications could come from it, who the key players are, etc. It’s honestly a lot of work and time to get to the bottom of most of these conflicts, and even then, I’m not claiming that I’m able to do it within a 30-minute podcast episode. My hope is that this serves as a decent jump-off point for you, so that you can do your own further research on something you heard me talk about here. If I didn’t expand on some particular point enough for you in my episode, look into it! Dive deeper - there’s always more to read and learn about. Explore how YOU feel about what’s going on around the world - don’t take my opinions as your own. I’m not a “thought leader” or an “influencer,” nor am I aspiring to be. I’m just a girl with annoyingly complicated interests with a lot of time on her hands.
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Ok, without further ado, Season 2, Episode 1! Today, we’re talking about Taiwan and its increasingly volatile relationship with China. Taiwan is currently on the receiving end of some aggression from China because, despite what Taiwan would like, they’re not exactly separate from China.
Let’s jump into the basics.
Taiwan is a small island located about 100 miles off the southeastern coast of China. It’s generally overcast and tropical, with mountains taking up most of the eastern coast and the interior. The majority of the population lives on its flatter western coast, the side closer to China. It’s prone to earthquakes and typhoons, and it’s got a neighboring volcanic island. Over 95% of today’s Taiwanese population is Chinese, with the remaining few percentage points being comprised of indigenous peoples.
Fun fact! Have y’all seen Moana? The movie “Moana” was set in some unspecified Pacific Island, and Moana, though she’s often referred to as “Hawaiian” in commentaries, is just… some unspecified Pacific Islander. The story goes that this little girl is supposed to rule over her people on her island, but she keeps getting called to the ocean. She does some digging and discovers that her ancestors were “voyagers” who sailed the seas, settling on neighboring islands, establishing trade routes, and generally expanding their presence in the region. Some anthropologists believe that this Pacific migration started with the indigenous people of Taiwan, who then spread throughout the seas of the Pacific to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Polynesia, Macro- and Micronesia, and yeah… Hawaii.
PRC v ROC
You may recall a few recent incidents where people got in trouble with China for referring to Taiwan as a country, including our former president. The reason for this is, of course, a little complicated.
The first thing to understand is that Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, or the ROC, and China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China, or the PRC. Don’t worry - for the sake of clarity, we’ll just refer to them as Taiwan and China for the duration of this podcast episode. Today, most nations around the world recognize China as the “real” China, but that wasn’t always the case. It gets really interesting, and it involves Jesus Christ’s lesser-known Chinese brother.
But before we get to that guy, we need to talk about the Opium Wars.
The Opium Wars
In the 1800s, the world was significantly less connected than it is today, not only in the obvious, but specifically in regards to China. They had been pretty closed off from the rest of the world, but they had a bunch of resources that the world could benefit from. So, they started trading with Britain, and if you’re a listener of this podcast, I’m sure you can imagine where this is going. For all others… well, the Brits started a drug war. Naturally.
Britain needed a way to solve a trade imbalance between their empire and China. Britain was busy importing a ton of goods from China, importing much more than they were exporting, so they were losing more value than they were gaining back in return. To solve this, Britain needed something of value to offer to the Chinese people, and the best thing they came up with was a resource from another one of their colonies, India.
They went with opium.
At this point, China was still pretty apprehensive about opening up their trading ports and giving foreign governments access to their land and people. They were right to be apprehensive, because once the Brits were in, they created a full-on drug crisis. And they weren’t following the terms of their own trade deal, either. The British were limited as far as when and where they were allowed to trade with the Chinese, so to get around these limitations, they smuggled opium further inland. This sounds a little crazy, but they kind of did this a lot back then. Introducing drugs or alcohol into a population is a great way to pacify that population, and if that doesn’t do the trick, British firepower will finish the job.
When the Chinese emperor saw what was happening to his people, he attempted to help them by booting the British, which eventually led to the first Opium War in the 1830s. The Chinese were defeated in the war due to the British firepower that the Chinese had no way to counter. The war culminated in the Treaty of Nanjing, which opened five Chinese ports, an upgrade from the one the British had previously been given access to, and it granted the British the island of Hong Kong to use as their own base.
At this point, the British expanded their trade empire and helped out their buddies. As they occupied China, the opium crisis continued to worsen. The Chinese were made to work for the British, and inevitably, the Chinese labor force was exploited and sent to various regions around the British Empire. By the 1850s, a second Opium War was fought, this time involving several other western powers taking up arms against the Chinese. When the Chinese were defeated a second time, opium was made legal throughout China, westerners were given access to inland China rather than just its ports, AND! The British demanded China pay them war reparations, even after the British looted the Chinese imperial palace and burned it to the ground.
In other words, they invaded a nation that didn’t want them there, they exploited its people and its resources, they brought their friends to join in the fun, they contributed to devastating property damage, loss of life, and the destruction of history, and then they demanded to be paid for all of their efforts.
The audacity is unmatched.
Well, this next guy may have given the British a run for their money on that front… and I can’t decide if that pun was intended or not.
Hong Xiuquan was a guy who was… let’s say, not remarkable. He was a regular dude, a little down on his luck. He had hit some roadblocks in his career, China was dealing with the British and not doing a good job against them, the Chinese people were suffering under British wars and occupation, and then he got sick. Very sick. Fever dream sick.
As his temperature rose, he dreamt that he was in heaven, wielding a sword of justice against the hellish demons that were attempting to take over the earth and destroy mankind. He met some people or entities or whatever you want to call them while he was in heaven, and by the time he returned to earth - or woke up from his dream - his family and community were convinced that he had fully lost his mind.
After facing significant backlash after telling people about his dream, Hong attempted to leave his dream behind and move on with his life, taking another shot at civil service. That was when he learned about the teachings of Christianity, another gift from the Brits. However, when Hong started to study, Jesus Christ seemed strangely familiar to him… he knew that guy from his dream! He decided that Jesus was his brother, and the two of them had served their father, God, in the kingdom of heaven to fight the hell demons.
So, Hong proclaimed himself a prophet of earth and the brother of Jesus Christ, and you know, some people were into it. They formed what came to be known as the God Worshipping Society, but this went beyond God, Christianity, or even religion. Hong was part of an oppressed ethnic minority group in China, and if they weren’t doing well with the Chinese, they were suffering even more under the British. Along with his religious espousals, Hong’s ideology started to resemble a form of Communism, which tends to happen wherever there is widening inequality, rampant poverty, and little hope for the masses. At some point, the lower classes will rise up against their oppressors, if and when they are able. It’s almost inevitable.
And once Hong and his society of followers were able, that’s just what they did. They took up arms, allegedly on order of Jesus himself, and they were actually pretty successful. As they raided and took cities, Hong declared himself to be the Heavenly King of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, getting more and more radicalized over time, and amassing more and more followers to his movement. By the time Hong had taken the city of Nanjing, he had taken to full-on genocide.
Keep in mind, all of this was taking place between and during the two Opium Wars, so China was a mess. Nanjing was occupied by murderous religious zealots, and China had its resources spread thin between fighting multiple wars on multiple fronts and having their resources and people actively plundered and exploited. That’s not even to mention the fact that there was still an opium crisis. Many of the Chinese who would have been laborers or soldiers were sitting useless in opium dens. Again, that’s a deliberate and common imperialistic tactic. If people are drunk or high, they’re not fighting. Alternatively, the Taiping were forbidden by Hong to partake, and if they did, they’d lose their heads. This helps to explain why they were able to gain as much traction against the Chinese as they did.
Eventually, and with some help from the Europeans, the Chinese defeated the Taiping. Hong died, either by suicide or assassination, and by some estimates, the Chinese civil war cost more lives than the first world war.
At this point in the story, it’s tempting to point fingers at who is really to blame for all of these atrocities. Was it the British? The Taiping? Hong, himself? Was it colonialism, religion, poverty, or inequality? The truth is that it was all of those things and much more than I’ve been able to cover here. However, there does tend to be an underlying theme for any and all of these stories - people are just trying to live. Hong’s movement gained so much traction so quickly, not necessarily because people actually believed him to be a fresh new Messiah, but rather because he gave them the hope that they, too, the ones who had been relegated to the lowest of the low in society by no fault of their own, could one day live peaceful and fulfilling lives, providing for their families without the threat of oppression, hunger, crippling taxation, or land seizure looming over their heads. Desperate people are easily radicalized, for lack of a better word. They’re more willing to believe the absurd because they have little else to believe in. It’s easy for us, centuries later from a foreign land with modern sensibilities, to criticize or demean their efforts and ideals, but the truth is we have little to no frame of reference for exactly what they were going through.
Sure, I have my own thoughts on organized religion and, honestly, they’re not favorable, but religious zealotry is only one part of this equation - of any equation - and it’s important to remember that. Cultism, whether that falls under the umbrella of religion or not, is often driven by fear, however rational or irrational, or helplessness; a search for meaning because there has to be something better that the world has to offer than whatever this life is, right? It’s a universal and time-transcendent struggle that I’m sure we can all relate to in some form or other.
Jumping ahead to after World War I, China was in a weakened state and facing aggression from their neighbors, Russia and Japan. Knowing the Chinese weren’t in much of a position to retaliate, Russia basically just took control of Manchuria. The Japanese took for themselves, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, took Korea, Taiwan, and the Shandong Peninsula, the birthplace of Confucious. That last one was a particular point of contention for the Chinese, as it was the birthplace of Confucious. However, the Chinese were not equipped to fight the Japanese for these territories as the Japanese were now allied with the United States and other western nations. For the record, the US was the only one who thought China should be able to hold onto Shandong, but we were outvoted by our allies.
Suffering blow after blow, China’s political future was uncertain. Immediately prior to this in 1910, the Chinese people revolted against their dynastic leaders, which led to the creation of the Republic of China, or the ROC. The wars had left China destabilized and decentralized, with small factions here and there warring with one another for dominance. Helping to unify China after decades of disunity, the ROC ushered a nationalistic movement into the new republic, despite incessant threats to its power. The ROC was led by Sun Yat-Sen, a man who is credited as being the “Father” of the republic. The ROC was governed by a single-party authoritarian regime, the Kuomintang, or the KMT, which is one of the major political parties in Taiwan today.
While the KMT took up a nationalistic mantle, Communism was on the rise in China. The KMT, which at one point united nationalists and communists, started to break. The Communists were being led by Mao Zedong, and with the help of the Soviets, the Communists were able to overthrow the KMT for dominant control of China. After World War II, the ROC had regained Taiwan from Japan, so after losing the Chinese civil war, the KMT fled to Taiwan.
Since the KMT was the party of Sun Yat-Sen, they maintained that the ROC was the sole government of China, even though they had been relegated to a small island off the coast of the mainland. Meanwhile, mainland China was now a communist nation known as the People’s Republic of China, and the rest of the world had to decide how they felt about all of this.
For the US, we sort of didn’t decide. We basically acknowledged the situation over there - that the PRC was running the mainland and claimed Taiwan as their own, and that the ROC was the officially recognized government of China, but officially, that’s all we did. What we didn’t do was recognize the PRC as the new Chinese government, nor did we accept China’s claim on the island of Taiwan. That said, in the early years of the Cold War, we signed an alliance treaty with Taiwan, aligning ourselves against the spread of Communism from China.
By 1979, alliances had shifted and the Chinese began to be more friendly with the Americans. At that time, the US finally accepted the PRC as the official Chinese government and repealed our existing treaty with Taiwan. Instead, we replaced it with the TRA, or the Taiwan Relations Act, which maintains a friendly relationship with Taiwan but does not guarantee military aid or support in the event of an attack from China. The nature of any military support that’s granted will be determined on a case-by-case basis by the current president and congress.
As of 2016, with bipartisan support, the US issued the Six Assurances regarding our ongoing relationship with Taiwan. The stated:
There would be no end date for terminating arms sales to Taiwan.
The US would not serve as a mediator between China and Taiwan.
The US will not influence Taiwan to negotiate with China.
The US maintains its position on Taiwanese sovereignty.
The TRA stands as is.
The US is not obligated to confer with China over arms sales to Taiwan.
It’s important to mention that the Taiwanese government of today looks much different than it did back in the 50s. Today, it’s run much more democratically which makes it easier for the US to justify its alliance with Taiwan. In Taiwan today, the KMT is still around, but so is the Democratic Progressive Party, or the DPP. Neither party advocates for either Taiwan rejoining China or for full independence, but both seem to agree that things are working well as they are now. Taiwan has strong economic ties with China that would be detrimental to cut, but the DPP would still like to be less dependent on China for trade. Most Taiwanese residents seem to be in agreement that things should generally stay as they are, now. Unfortunately, China doesn’t seem to want that to happen. China wants Taiwan back.
As China starts ramping up its military in anticipation of taking Taiwan by force, the US is on standby. Japan recently announced that they, too, would stand with Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. This tends to happen because if China is successful in taking Taiwan, who’s to say they won’t try it again with Korea? Or even Japan? Chinese ambitions and initiatives around the globe seem to indicate that China is, indeed, interested in expanding its influence in a consequential way, to put it nicely.
China in Africa
Just a few decades ago, China was the world’s manufacturing and labor hub, because if there was one resource they had to exploit on the world stage, it was people. China has a lot of people. Before anyone could blink, every burgeoning online entrepreneur with a Shopify account was looking at China for inexpensive products that they could buy in bulk and sell for a profit. Such low prices came with caveats, sure, as anything “Made in China” was understood to be cheaply made, at least colloquially.
As China pressed onward with this niche they had carved out for themselves, they eventually started bringing in some cash, funneling money coming in from all parts of the globe into their own coffers. To take a cue from Jean Ralphio from Parks and Rec, what does one do when they’re [quote] “flush with cash”? They invest it!
China invested in infrastructure in places that needed it - nearly the entire continent of Africa, for instance. Pakistan is another good example that’s worth looking into.
China claims to be doing a lot of this out of the kindness of their hearts - no, really - but the obvious reason is for the rewards their investments will eventually reap, as is the case with any financial expenditure. One thing that is less obvious, though, is that all of these countries that China is helping are now heavily, heavily indebted to them, both financially and politically. When countries accept help and gifts from the Chinese, they’re, in effect, aligning themselves with them. There are stakes involved, now. China has built an incredible amount of leverage over these nations, just in case any of them even think about doing or saying something that China doesn’t approve of.
So, do you guys remember when the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted out support for Hong Kong during the 2019 protests against the Chinese? The Rockets lost money because of that. The NBA, including Morey, had to issue retractions and apologies. Corporations distanced themselves from the Rockets. LeBron even made a statement about Morey, saying that Morey probably didn’t really know what he was talking about. Morey had to clarify that since his tweet went viral, he had been better educated on the other side of the argument. Since China is heavily invested in the NBA, the NBA had to protect its bottom line, even if it meant turning the other cheek against Chinese offenses towards the residents of Hong Kong. The Chinese were successful in controlling the narrative of non-government workers in America. Was it an infringement on our US Bill of Rights? Technically, no. No one was thrown in jail for their opinions. This is something more akin to a literal cancellation - ‘You can say whatever you want, but if we don’t like it, we’ll just stop working with you, stop giving you access to our markets, and cut off one of your major revenue streams. No big deal.’
Put in more personal terms, it’s like a young adult whose parents are paying their rent. They can’t really say anything against their parents without risking being cut off and losing their apartment. They can’t do anything without the parents’ approval, either, since the parents are the ones financing whatever their kid wants to do. Once you take money from someone, you’re beholden to them. The solution is for the individual to eventually support themselves so that they have full autonomy over their choices and don’t have to answer or concede to anyone.
This is the type of relationship that China has established with numerous countries around the world. Can any of those African nations say anything against China now? Not really. Do they have any choice but to support China in all of their initiatives? Not really. Can they even acknowledge the legitimacy of Taiwan? Absolutely not.
While Taiwan has its allies in the western world, China has been rapidly building up its own network of allies, having to make up for lost time after spending years in isolation from the rest of the world.
So where does that leave us today?
The US is locked in a weird relationship with Taiwan that has always been just barely supportive enough, but not so much that it overtly challenges or upsets China. There is something to be said about not letting China get away with invading an island that, for all intents and purposes, functions as its own country with its own government and its own political parties. Taiwanese residents also tend to view themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, which is a distinction that only becomes more profound with each generation. However, would the American public support yet another war overseas, even if it meant curbing Chinese ambitions? Is it our place to do so? What could be the consequences if we don’t intervene? Would our allies have our back against China and all of their new friends? Would the fact that China owns so much US debt be a factor? If so, how would this affect us economically?
Ok, that wraps up the first episode of Season 2! Thank you so much for listening. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, you can do so at globalthread.org, or if you’d like to help support this podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/globalthread. Any and all support is greatly appreciated as it allows me to keep doing what I do for you. Next up - Belarus. Bye!
CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/taiwan/
The Economist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ7hGoUEGCM
Vox, China’s Rush into Africa, Explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJSD8XV3qzE&list=WL&index=75
CNN, China and the Houston Rockets: https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/07/business/houston-rockets-nba-china-daryl-morey/index.html
Captivating History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDwoBC_DtGc