Taiwan seems to be going through a bit of a crisis in terms of global recognition after longstanding ally the Dominican Republic abandoned it for China on May 1. This reduces the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies (countries that officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country) to 19. Also, American Airlines and United have been targeted by China because they list Taiwan as Taiwan and not something like “Taiwan, China” on their websites. China actually claimed that foreign companies need to follow Chinese law overseas when it comes to Taiwan. While the US airlines haven’t made the change yet, several foreign companies like Zara and Marriot have done so when challenged by China earlier this year. And let’s not forget the Man Booker Prize website did the same thing when they changed Taiwanese author’s nationality from Taiwan to Taiwan, China. An online outcry led to them reversing this, though they consequently changed the category from nationality to country/territory, hence implying that the likes of Taiwan could be listed but were not necessarily countries.
This continued absurd overseas bullying by China might be laughable but it is frightening how international companies, from large countries like the US and Germany, continue to yield to China rather than stand their ground. While the obvious reason is that these firms want to get a slice of the China market and not be subject to punishment from China, it is disappointing that they will allow profit to prevail over common sense, international reality, and integrity.
The point is that despite China’s continual and tiresome claims, Taiwan is a fully functioning, independent and stable country. The governing Chinese Communist Party might be able to warp reality and control their population in the mainland but they think they can do so in the world too. Unfortunately a few people in Taiwan as well as supposed experts from the West have been deluded or alarmed enough that they think Taiwan needs to bend to China because it is for the best.
Taiwan has a few bright spots of optimism, one of which the New York Times highlighted in mid-April with a story lauding Taiwan as a bastion of free speech. The other is that companies like Google and Microsoft will set up major research and development (R&D) centers on Taiwan that will focus on artificial intelligence. So it’s too early to write off Taiwan. I wrote about this for Hong Kong Free Press so visit the link to read my article in full.
I’ve also put a shortened form of my article below:
Taiwan found itself in the media spotlight in mid-April when The New York Times lauded it as Asia’s bastion of media freedom, replacing Hong Kong whose political and media climate continues to recede under Chinese influence.
The island also saw positive news on the tech front after Microsoft, Google and IBM all announced plans earlier this year to increase R&D in Taiwan by training local talent and setting up research centers.
This is not surprising since Taiwan boasts a strong local tech industry, a deep talent pool, and relatively low wages. Taiwan already boasts a number of tech giants like TSMC, Quanta, Acer, and HTC.
But aside from tech factors, Taiwan also has political advantages. There is a growing backlash in the US and globally against China over various unfair and illegal protectionist actions, which has seen the announcement of heavy tariffs. While tech is one area in which China has become a powerhouse, the fact that its internet is heavily restricted and censored, and that foreign tech firms are subject to protectionist measures means data security and integrity is a significant risk. Meanwhile, intellectual property violations are also widespread in China and the lack of rule of law mean the law is stacked against foreign companies. Foreign companies face significantly less risk in these areas in Taiwan, which has proper rule of law, independent courts, and of course, a relatively free media environment.
Taiwan’s media atmosphere compares favorably with not just China and Hong Kong, but Asia in general. It was the top-ranked country in Asia on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters without Borders. Ranked 42nd, it was 134 places ahead of China which languished near the bottom at number 176. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was ranked 70th.
As such, it wasn’t surprising that Reporters without Borders specifically chose Taiwan over Hong Kong for its regional bureau. The media in Hong Kong faces growing restrictions, including physical attacks on reporters and self-imposed censorship for fear of offending China. Besides media, this fear of censorship has spread to other areas like books and films. The Times article also mentioned the Hong Kong Human Rights Film Festival which will be held this year in Taiwan, and the relocation of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold controversial China books. Lam Wing-kee was one of five partners of the Causeway Bay Bookstore who were abducted by Chinese agents in 2016, in Hong Kong, China and Thailand, and then held for months without any contact with the outside world. The bookstore has since closed and Lam has said he will reopen it in Taiwan.
Taiwan stands out in the region and Asia, not just for media freedoms, but also human rights. When it comes to political freedom, religious freedom, gay rights, and animal rights, the island state is renowned for being progressive, especially when many neighboring countries are clamping down on these freedoms. This includes China, which claims Taiwan and frequently uses threats such as military exercises to intimidate the smaller state.
Of course, there is still a lot of room for Taiwan to improve in these areas such as a fragmented and competitive media scene that results in a dearth of quality journalism, as well as fading brands like HTC and Acer that failed to focus enough on marketing and maintaining market share overseas. Taiwanese firms traditionally were strong in hardware, especially OEM, but this came at a cost of focusing less on software and services. This is why the increased R&D cooperation with Google and Microsoft in fields like artificial intelligence will be vital. The more Taiwan diversifies its tech focus, the more it can boost its economy and tech capabilities.