The Choice Facing the Taiwanese People: Moving Towards Greater Enlightenment, or Falling Back to the Dark Age of Dictatorship?

Tsao Hsing-cheng, January 18, 2023

Is that even a choice? — you may ask. China is this mammoth totalitarian giant, and Taiwan, small as it is, is a vibrant democracy with formidable technological prowess. In one survey after another, over 80% of Taiwanese are against “reunification” with China under “One Country, Two Systems,” and over half are in favor of Taiwan becoming a de jure independent country. So why is it even a choice as the title suggests? Aren’t the Taiwanese, regardless their political persuasions, united in their resolve to defend Taiwan against China’s likely aggression?

Having traveled in Taiwan for 30 days and talked to as many Taiwanese recently, I can assure you that the political landscape there is much more complicated than the impression one might get from most mainstream media reports that tend to focus on military and security only. Some commentators in the U.S. are worried enough to raise the question whether Taiwan has the will to resist China. China has sympathizers, collaborators, even partners in Taiwanese media, politics, military, and among intellectuals and members of the public who are spreading disinformation and attacking those who are working to prepare for Taiwan’s defense. They stir up skepticism of America’s motivation and likelihood to help defend Taiwan as promised. The 2024 presidential election, just a year away, will be perhaps the most consequential election since the island country held its first direct democratic election in the recent past of 1996.

In addition to a video interview series that China Change will launch soon, we aim to bring voices from Taiwan to the attention of an outside audience. The more understanding, the better, because the war that everyone is talking about is not going to be a war just about the fate of a small island; it will be the frontline of a war between the two choices that Mr. Tsao proposed. Whether or not we are able to prevail will reshape and redefine history.

Mr. Tsao Hsing-cheng (曹興誠) founded United Microelectronics Corporation (聯華電子), Taiwan’s first semiconductor company, in 1980. Recently he donated billions of New Taiwan Dollars (NT$) to a new civil emergency response training program known as the Kuma Academy, and he has also appeared on TV and in various venues, urging the Taiwanese people to stand united and resolute to defend Taiwan against the Chinese Communist Party.  

Yaxue Cao, Editor of China Change

Mr. Tsao Hsing-cheng. Photo: UDN

In the agrarian ages, governments tended to be autocratic. Regimes were established by violence. As Mao Zedong said, “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” These authoritarian regimes built on violence would use imprisonment and killing to terrorize the people so that the latter would become submissive and dare not to resist.

In order to keep the people submissive for as long as possible, autocrats would play three roles: King, Teacher, and Kin. The role of King confers the power to determine the life or death of the people, their ups or downs, and their dignity or disgrace, to ensure obedience. The role of Teacher is to control the minds of the people and brainwashes them, while that of Kin creates a veneer of compassion, glorifying tyranny as the good intention of the elders.

When the three roles are played well, tyrants are able to further maintain the docility of their subjects. 

Docile subjects do not think independently. Just as tamed animals, they treat their authoritarian rulers as the masters to whom they bow down with dumb loyalty and filial piety.

With those who are not easily tamed, the authoritarian rulers turn them into untouchables. The Chinese Communist Party used to classify “the land owners, the well-to-does, the counter-revolutionaries, the bad elements, and the rightists” as the “five black categories.” During the Cultural Revolution, the number of negative social categories grew to nine, with intellectuals as the ninth category of lowly people.

Having gone through the era of authoritarianism, the people of Taiwan established a democratic system, and it is impossible for us to go back to being docile subjects. But in the unfortunate event that the Chinese Communist Party succeeds in taking over Taiwan, the people of Taiwan will either be killed or subjugated.

Last year, Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the party media outlet Global Times, said that those who want an independent Taiwan must all be killed; Lu Shaye (盧沙野), Chinese ambassador to France said the Taiwanese must undergo re-education [when China reunifies Taiwan]. I don’t understand how so many Taiwanese can be so callous as to ignore these statements.   

The docile subjects and the untouchables are slaves, or “prisoner of the state” as Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the disgraced former CCP General Secretary, described himself.  

It took thousands of years of subjugation of the people until, in the 18th century, the French Enlightenment brought light to darkness that liberated the human race and led us to today’s civilization.

The Enlightenment curtailed the three-in-one rulers of Europe: the Monarch, the Church and the Aristocracy, and placed sovereignty with the people.  

A sovereign people comprises citizens who authorize the state to protect civil liberties and implement the citizens’ will through the separate powers of administration, legislation, and the judiciary.

Such a model of popular sovereignty was spearheaded by the American Revolution and spread to the rest of the world over the time. A main reason why American democracy has been a success is that the American founding fathers were all proponents and practitioners of the Enlightenment.

In addition to bringing democracy to the west, the Enlightenment movement also advocated for a society based upon reason rather than superstition, doctrinal orthodoxy, or violence in favor of a new civil order.

To reason is to respect facts and evidence, and to use logic and correct cause and effect correlation to solve issues.

After the 18th century, thanks to democracy, average people in Western Europe and North America enjoyed freedom of expression. Reason freed people from the bondage of doctrine and put them on the path of pursuing truth. As a result, science blossomed and technology advanced by leaps and bounds, leading to the industrial revolution.   

Human technology has created all sorts of miracles. Tapping on a cell phone screen, we can learn anything we want about the world; we can land on the moon, in the future we will be able to colonize Mars. Simply put, today’s technology has turned some of us into “supermen” seemingly endowed with the ability to overcome what inconvenienced or brought us suffering in the past. 

The 19th century philosopher Nietzsche said, “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman,” and it seems to be coming true.

To set itself on a road that has a bright future, a country, any country, must re-embrace the Enlightenment, build civil society, develop reason and technology, and elevate our compatriots. 

Since the direct election of the President in 1996, Taiwan has become a civil society with popular sovereignty. Taiwan’s achievement in technology has been remarkable. Taiwan has a limitless future ahead of it as long as it works to maintain democracy and strengthen the principles of reason and science. 

But before Taiwan can march forward towards that bright future, we have a challenge in front of us, that is, the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence on annexing Taiwan.  

The CCP is a living fossil of an agrarian empire, and a modern-day mafia that believes in lies and violence and opposes reason and democracy. 

Like any other mafia organization, the CCP is vying to expand its sphere of influence without limit, and annexing Taiwan is part of it. By their narrative but against historical facts, they say “reunification is a great cause of the Chinese nation,” but without exception, throughout history aggressors’ wars of reunification have always inflicted disasters on the people. The CCP also claims that “Taiwan has always been China’s territory since time immemorial,” and this too is nonsense and an insult to normal people’s intelligence.     

Over the first thirty years in power, the CCP committed a series of follies and waged one political campaign after another. Its governance was a total failure that left the society in abject poverty. Over the past thirty years, China has seen fast economic growth as a result of opening its market to the free world, and gaining capitals, technologies, and know-how management skills.  

Some roosters may brag that their crowing brings sunrise; the CCP boasts that it is the superiority of its dictatorship over Western democracy that counts for China’s economic growth, and the future will see “the east rising and the west declining.” But China’s response to the pandemic proves that its system disregards science and humanitarianism, and its incompetence is on naked display.     

The free world has resumed normalcy after battling the pandemic for three years, while China first implemented draconic zero-COVID lockdowns and then abruptly relinquished all measures when it lost control over the virus, leaving it to spread quickly among the population. As a result, the number of deaths skyrocketed, and overcrowded funeral parlors couldn’t work fast enough to cremate the dead.  

It’s hard to associate the scenes of dead bodies lying around with “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The sudden loss of control and the virus’ rapid spread gives the term “the east rising and the west declining” a brand new meaning. 

In his first ten years of rule, Xi Jinping turned to aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy that showed no respect for the Western order and values, and incurred unanimous repugnance and pushback from the free world.  

In recent years, the West began to sanction the CCP’s technology industry to stem its continuous development. Huawei is an example. China’s poor investment and runaway spendings have slowed growth and built up high debts. Unemployment is serious, people and wealth are leaving the country, the virus is still raging, and resentment among the people is rising from all directions.

Besieged by problems, the CCP may take a gamble to launch an attack on Taiwan, but in doing so, it may also hasten the fall of its toxic rule in China.    

In the face of CCP’s intensifying military posturing around Taiwan and insidious information warfare in Taiwanese society, the Taiwanese population is divided. Some are working to prepare for war, others want to compromise and capitulate. We’ve come to a moment when we must strengthen our civic duty, highlight our common values so that we can become united in defending our country.

What is civic duty?

Under democracy, citizens are the masters of the country, because citizens choose or change who governs the country. The most important part of civic duty is the recognition that we ourselves are the sovereigns, not subjects.  

Let’s say we are the owners of a hotel. When seeing problems, we will take actions to solve them and improve the property. But if we are visitors, we lodge a complaint at most and that’s that, because we don’t own the business. A visitor may opt to stay longer if the hotel improves following the complaint, but he or she may simply move to another hotel.

When you pick up garbage that you spot while touring the beautiful mountains and rivers of Taiwan, you have the mind of a master. When you see it but do nothing or even litter like others, you are a visitor who has no sense of ownership. 

People with a strong sense of civil duty would often ask: “What can I do to make the country better?”

Those who are devoid of such a sense of responsibility would complain non-stop: “The country should do this and that for me, and why hasn’t it done so?”

Taiwan has been a democracy for only 26 years. However, the sense of civic duty is far from being strong to the point of two camps of people clashing with each other on some of the most important issues. 

Take for example the government’s recent decision to extend compulsory military service from four months to one year. Those with a strong sense of civic duty believe that it’s their responsibility to defend our country and our homes even if it means paying the ultimate price, and serving a few months longer is certainly not a problem. But there are those who believe it’s not their business to defend the country. Give the CCP what they want; or, “peace” is all we want, and we are provoking the CCP by extending compulsory military service, they say.    

The division tells us that, for democracy in Taiwan to continue to thrive, it’s imperative that the citizens act like we are the sovereigns of the country, which is the real foundation of a democratic society. We need to share common ideas and values so that we can unite and generate formidable strength. 

The common ideas I’m referring to are not something fanciful; all we need is to embrace and practice the spirit of the Enlightenment, starting with respect for reason and thinking independently.   

In the authoritarian era, many people were brainwashed and indoctrinated without the ability to think independently. They can have doctoral degrees but still fail in logic, like those who say they are for maintaining sovereignty of the Republic of China but oppose Taiwan independence. They don’t recognize the contradiction of their position: sovereignty and independence are the same.

If a region is not independent, it means it’s a subservient territory of another country. Such a territory, like Hong Kong, cannot decide on many issues and must present them to the superior state for approval. On the other hand, a sovereign country, like Taiwan, decides everything on its own and needs no approval from another country. A sovereign country is an independent country; because of its independence, it enjoys sovereignty.

To force their argument, the opponents of Taiwan independence would separate “the Republic of China” and “Taiwan”, claiming that they are defending the sovereignty of the ROC and the ROC covers mainland China, Mongolia, and Taiwan, and that they oppose Taiwan independence because, based on the ROC Constitution, both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the ROC.

But the ROC that covers mainland and Mongolia has long ceased to exist. It’s beyond reason why these people refuse to recognize the living and breathing ROC Taiwan that is independent and sovereign for the sake of a nonexistent country.  

Like all lives, countries grow, evolve, and change. Some of our citizens reject Taiwan’s evolution based on an outdated constitution, and they are inevitably creating division and tension.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once wrote, “Every constitution then, & every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” He believed that the laws, rules, ideas, and totems set by the older generation should be reexamined by the new generation, not allowing the dead to decide the happiness of the living. 

There were only 60 independent countries after World War II, now there are 195. Independence is the direction to which modern civilization has been trending. Numerous territories of the British Empire became independent after WWII. No one in the United Kingdom is proposing reunification with its previous territories.  

It’s been over 73 years since Taiwan and China became two countries without interdependence. While the CCP’s goal of reunification goes against the norms of modern civilization, there are Taiwanese who seem to still be living in an ancient time of subservience, assenting to the tune of reunification.  

Reason and logic aside, to achieve domestic unity, we also have to set some common standards for the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Truth is based on science in modern society. We must keep a healthy skepticism for things not proved by science and avoid spreading them. For example, in Taiwan, the danger of nuclear energy is exaggerated at the expense of ignoring the severity of global warming, a result of not heeding the conclusions of scientific research in recent years. This could cause Taiwan to be left alone from the global trend, isolated or punished.

Since the Enlightenment, “goodness” has manifested as humanism that focuses on individuals’ happiness, dignity, and freedom, as opposed to suppressing individuals’ rights and interests with hollow collectivism.  

All of the CCP’s slogans over the recent years, such as “China dream,” “great rejuvenation,” “China’s core interests,” and the “nationalist cause,” are examples of empty collectivism. If China launches an invasion of Taiwan, propelled by these slogans, it will spell disaster for people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and it will be committing a crime against modern civilization, the opposite of what humanism is all about.

Many Taiwanese are “kind and generous,” yet they are actively participating in the CCP’s coercing Taiwan to come to the table of reunification, an indication that they don’t know good and evil by modern standards. 

Narrowly speaking, “beauty” is the quality that pleases the aesthetic senses. Broadly speaking, it is “propriety.”

If you put a Chinese palace-style pagoda atop a modern skyscraper, it is ugly, not beautiful, because it is improper.

Our speech and our actions can be beautiful or ugly. They can’t be beautiful without being true and good. Truth, goodness, and beauty are the three elements of oneness, and no one element can exist without the others.  

By nature, the CCP knows no sincerity, fairness, or mercy. On the world stage, its overbearing diplomats disregard reason, often resorting to threats, intimidation, and even using violence against peaceful protesters. They are ugly by modern standards, but the CCP officials are rather proud of themselves, believing they are scoring points for their country.   

The 100-year-history of the CCP, its ideology and its actions, has been the history of going in the opposite direction of humanity’s pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty since the Enlightenment.

Today’s Taiwan has come to a crossroad where, internally, we have ideological clashes, and externally, we face the CCP’s menacing intention of annexation. Taiwan will be able to weather the storm and choose a bright path forward, only if we unite as the masters of our country in our pursuit of modern-day values by proactively giving whatever we have to shoulder the responsibility of making it a better place.  

2023 has arrived. I dedicate this article to Taiwan, my beautiful country. I wish Taiwan to be forever a land of the free and a home of the brave.

Translated by China Change from Chinese 《迎向啓蒙光明?墜回專制黑暗?台灣人面臨的選擇》


Related:

A Good Country, A Good People – Thirty Days Around Taiwan, Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2022.

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