Imagine you live in a country that for nearly seventy years has been a nation state in every way, including being a founder of the United Nations. You have a flag, a currency, and a strong economy that is among the strongest 25 in the world, complete with Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.
Yet, your country struggles to gain recognition as a nation state, and is claimed by your huge neighbour to the west, whose more than one billion population dwarfs your 23 or so million people. Your neighbour, whose power in the world has grown dramatically in the last 30 years, uses its diplomatic and economic muscle to intimidate any would be friends to keep away.
This is the reality of Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, in contradistinction to its neighbour, China also known as the People’s Republic of China. China is not even content to let Taiwan name itself and insists on the country being referred to as Chinese Taipei. There are few things as demeaning as others denying the identity you want for yourself. Moreover, China now lays claim to Taiwanese citizens deported from other countries!
We witnessed this in Kenya recently when court ordered deportations of Taiwanese nationals were repatriated to China, where they have no roots! Kenya could have done the right thing and sent them back to the country whose passport they carry, as required by international law, but it seems today that policy for Kenya is made as much in Beijing as it is in Nairobi. I spent some days recently in Taiwan, hosted by the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, discussing how to enhance the freedom of assembly in Taiwan. And I left impressed by the dedication to human rights that I encountered, especially given that Taiwan was under martial law from 1949 to 1987.
I was often asked why Kenya would deport nationals of one country to a different one. I could only mumble that the regime in Kenya works in ways that often defy rational thought. Martial law was despotic and repressive and claimed hundreds of thousands of victims, who were executed or jailed. Torture was common, during this “White Terror” time.
While there was massive economic growth especially from the 1960s, and improvements in health care, education and infrastructure, there was also massive corruption by the ruling clique that created huge inequalities that still influence politics and policies.
Then, Taiwan was solidly backed by the West as a bastion against communism which gave the Kuomintang (KMT) regime a free pass. Foreign investments flowed and Taiwan became a leading industrial nation known for its electronics. During the White Terror, the Taiwanese mounted heroic resistance efforts, using protests and other non-violent actions to force change. Often they were met with bloody force by the police but that did not deter people from continuously standing up against repression. Ironically, the KMT that was the bulwark against communist China changed its tune sometime after the 1990s and begun to focus on “better relations” with China.
In 2008, it sought to force laws to enact preferential trade laws with China that many thought were a backdoor to ceding sovereignty. The draft laws were fiercely opposed by a growing majority of Taiwanese—especially youth--who wanted nothing to do with China.
So the KMT smuggled in the laws, and the Sunflower movement was born in response. I met some of the participants and organizers of the Sunflower movement who are still amazed at how well it all turned out.
Some young people decided to “occupy” the Congress Hall to signal their anger at the KMT. They numbered between 100 and 200 and they expected a harsh response from the state. But as soon word went out across the country, tens of thousands of Taiwanese came out in support surrounding the building as acting as human shields against police actions. At the height of the occupation—which forced the retraction of the laws—there were more than half a million people gathered outside the Congress in an atmosphere of celebration and calm. And soon after the Sunflower revolution, the KMT was overwhelming voted out and the opposition DPP took over.
So what can Taiwan do to claim a space globally? Were I Taiwanese, I would focus on being the “not-China” and become the beacon for human rights and democracy not only in Asia but globally. That means being an example on expanding democratic space, reforming corrupt and anti-democratic institutions, and also being the center on creating and sustaining people’s movements as the strongest guarantors of sovereignty, independence and freedom. It also means focusing more on people—to--people engagement globally, rather than state to state, especially at this time in history when soft power has been under-rated.
For Kenya, the lesson has to be that we need to be resilient, persistent and courageous and never give up. We don’t know when we will reach that breaking point that rejects the political machinations and games that continue to engulf us. But when it comes, we may well have our own people’s revolution just like the Sunflower movement.