TAIPEI, Taiwan — Three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Annette Lu, a former vice president of Taiwan, stood before reporters to promote a wildly unpopular idea. China and Taiwan, she said, should form a commonwealth that would be integrated economically, like the European Union, but remain separate politically. She called it One Zhonghua — a word that means “Chinese” in a cultural, ethnic or literary sense but is distinct from the word that refers to China in a political sense. It was a wink at the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that there is only one China and that Taiwan is an inextricable part of it.
One Zhonghua is not a new idea. The notion of a commonwealth or federation of independent Chinese states has been touted as a solution to Taiwan’s dilemma for decades by academics, editorials and minor officials on both sides of the strait. But when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, it surfaced again.
“For the first time, Taiwanese people realized that war is real,” Andrew Hsia, vice chair of the K.M.T. opposition party in Taiwan, told me last month. He had just returned from a rare and controversial visit to mainland China — an attempt to improve the quality of life for Taiwanese people working in China and get to know the new Chinese leaders responsible for policy toward the island. He was dubious of the idea of a commonwealth but said that “any idea that can maintain the existing way of life and avoid conflict is worthy of discussion.”
One Zhonghua is a fantasy, of course. President Xi Jinping of China, who considers Taiwan a rebellious province, has shown no appetite for anything that would leave Taiwan’s sovereignty intact. In fact, China is expected to announce a sped-up timeline for reunifying with the island by force if necessary. Across the water, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan stands firm on the island’s right to determine its own fate and rejects anything that smacks of a union with China.
Yet the quixotic One Zhonghua campaign gets at the heart of the unsolved riddle of what Taiwan’s relationship to China should be. The vast majority of Taiwanese people want to keep the status quo of undeclared, de facto independence, according to polls. Yet roughly 40 percent also said in a recent survey that they want better economic relations with China while a smaller percentage said economic ties should be reduced. Some one million to two million Taiwanese — nearly 10 percent of the island’s total population — are estimated to live and work on the mainland.
As the rivalry between the United States and China heats up, many Taiwanese people are asking themselves how to preserve their incredibly innovative and prosperous open society. Should they prepare to fight like Ukraine or try to hammer out a deal to avoid conflict? How Taiwanese voters answer that question will determine who wins Taiwan’s presidential election in January — and the fate of the island’s fledgling democracy.
For the Democratic Progressive Party, the party currently in power, the best way to avoid a war is to bolster ties with the United States and buy enough weapons to make China think twice about launching an invasion. These days, Joseph Wu, the foreign minister, keeps a Ukrainian flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers in a prominent place in his office, next to two pairs of boxing gloves that were given to him by the mayor of Kyiv. In December, the administration announced that it was extending the length of compulsory military service from four months to one year.
Yet Taiwan is not Ukraine. In political terms, it is not recognized by the United Nations as an independent country. In practical terms, it’s an island that would run out of natural gas in roughly eight days if it were ever blockaded. The Chinese economy, despite significant challenges, is vastly larger, more diverse and more attractive than the Russian economy. On the eve of the invasion, the Russian military was roughly four times larger than that of Ukraine. Today, the Chinese military is nearly 12 times larger than that of Taiwan.
Regardless of whether Taiwanese people admit it, part of the country’s prosperity comes from the fact that it has been a gateway to the biggest market in the world. At a nightclub in Taipei, I hung out with a concert promoter who couldn’t wait to put on another event in Shanghai, where he earns more money, and a Nigerian British female rapper named Brazy who came to Taiwan to learn to rap in Mandarin, hoping that her songs would go viral in China.
These days, a feeling of uncertainty hangs over Taipei. Almost nobody I spoke with had confidence that Taiwan could withstand an attack without the direct involvement of American soldiers. Bill Stanton, a retired American diplomat who once headed the equivalent of the U.S. embassy in Taipei and also served in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square massacre, told me he’d faced bullies as a kid and that he sticks up for Taiwan for that reason: “They are small, they are easy to pick on,” he said. “I think we all need to stand up for the little guy.”
President Biden has vowed four times over the past year or so to do just that, partly because defending Taiwan is seen as integral to defending Japan, South Korea and international shipping. But American policy has been deliberately ambiguous about exactly what support the United States would provide Taiwan in the event of a crisis. Social media accounts have flooded the island with warnings that Americans will ultimately abandon them to their fate.
There’s also been a flurry of arrests of alleged spies, including a Taiwanese military official who was reportedly paid to surrender on command.
Recently, Matt Pottinger, who was a National Security Council staff member in the Trump administration, gave a pep talk in Taipei. “A fiery resolve to defend one’s homeland, family and way of life can compensate for inferior equipment, inferior numbers and inferior odds,” he advised in a speech he gave in Mandarin, which cited the lessons from Ukraine. “But will must be cultivated.”
For the D.P.P., part of that fiery resolve involves reorienting trade away from China and toward Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, a project known as the “Southbound” policy.
That might work when it comes to computer chips, Taiwan’s most lucrative industry. But fish farmers and orchard owners are skeptical that the Chinese market, which buys about 42 percent of the island’s exports, can be replaced. Last summer, China banned Taiwanese grouper and wax apples, leading some farmers to change their stance. “Of course we want to have an independent Taiwan,” one orchard owner told Lung Ying-tai, a former minister of culture. “But at what cost?” Taiwanese officials vowed to find new markets for the fish or consume them domestically. During a fancy lunch in Taipei, the deputy foreign minister removed the lid on a succulent dish and declared, “This is our freedom fish!”
Mr. Hsia, the vice chair of the K.M.T., told me that he asked for the ban on grouper to be lifted during his recent trip to China. He described the response of Chinese officials as cooperative and said they welcomed a delegation from Taiwan’s fish farming association days later. If China ends up lifting the ban, it would bolster the K.M.T.’s claim that it is the party that knows how to handle China.
The K.M.T. has a long history of arguing for economic integration with China. The party’s roots date back to the nationalist army that lost a civil war against Chinese Communists in 1949 and escaped to Taiwan to regroup. K.M.T. officials, who initially ruled as a military dictatorship, were so committed to the dream of returning to the mainland for a rematch that, a Ming Chuan University professor told me, they routinely barred active-duty soldiers from getting married, out of fear soldiers would be diverted from their cause. The closest that Taiwan has ever come to One Zhonghua occurred between 2008 and 2016, under the administration of President Ying-jeou of the K.M.T. He signed a raft of agreements with China, including a sweetheart trade deal that allowed many Taiwanese goods to be sold in China with reduced tariffs, without giving China the same access in return. That deal remains in place, and it’s seen as vital to Taiwan’s economy today.
But a second trade deal, which focused on services, was a bridge too far. Spooked that Taiwan was growing too close to China, protesters took over the legislature building in 2014 and helped push the K.M.T. out of power two years later in what was called the Sunflower Movement.
Since the D.P.P. won the 2016 election, it has announced changes that underscored the separateness of the Taiwanese identity, shrinking the size of the words “Republic of China” on passports while making the word “Taiwan” much more prominent. The number of people who consider themselves Taiwanese has grown from 17.6 percent in 1992 to 60.8 percent in 2022, according to Ching-hsin Yu, director of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Young activists are dismayed that Ms. Lu, who once served five years in prison under the dictatorship for trying to bring democracy to Taiwan, is peddling One Zhonghua.
“Lu’s proposal is actually very outdated,” said Fei-fan Lin, a former protest leader who became deputy secretary general of the D.P.P. and is now a board member of the New Frontier Foundation, a D.P.P. think tank. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong starting in 2019 removed any doubt that China would dismantle Taiwan’s political system if it got the chance.
“Can Chinese Nationalists (or Their Apologists) Please Shut Up About Zhonghua?” ran the headline of an article by Brian Hioe, a chronicler of progressive activism in Taipei, in New Bloom magazine last August. On Twitter, he has suggested that figures like Ms. Lu, who is now 78 years old, need to be “put out to pasture.”
Yet for the older generation in Taiwan, the idea of being Chinese still holds deep cultural power. Lung Ying-tai, the former culture minister, told me that since China was unified in the year 221 B.C.E., many in China have harbored the notion that Chinese people should all live in unity under the same ruler.
Those who tried to break away from the emperor never lasted long. “In thousands of years of recorded history, Taiwan is the first open society of Chinese people,” she told me. “It is a miracle. How we survive will be another miracle.”
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