Is California becoming another Taiwan?
Taiwan is an independent nation—in its ambitions, its economy, its
democracy. But many countries refuse to recognize it as a separate
country, deferring to mainland China, which claims Taiwan as a
possession and responds with threats whenever Taiwan goes its own
California shares aspects of this conundrum. Our state has the
ambitions, economy, and democracy of a leading nation. But it remains
very much a part of the United States, which responds with threats
whenever California goes its own way.
Yes, Californians fervently hope that our current conflict with the
American government is temporary. But since California’s differences
with America predate President Trump, our status as a halfway country
will likely outlast him.
I spent last week in Taiwan, learning about being a smaller country in
the shadow of a larger power. The challenges resemble those of
California, and younger siblings everywhere. How do you defend
yourself against bullying big brother while also developing yourself into
a success, even a global model?
Of course, comparisons only go so far. While Californians suffer legal
and verbal attacks from the federal government, the Chinese
government threatens to seize Taiwan by military force if it becomes
Still, Taiwan and California have much in common. Both are
overachievers. California has the world’s sixth largest economy, though
with just 40 million citizens, it ranks 35th among nation-states by
population. Taiwan has built the world’s 22nd largest economy, with
just 23 million people, making it 55th most populous worldwide.
Even in an era of rising nationalism, both Taiwan and California remain
stubbornly internationalist, committed to free trade and immigration.
Both Taiwan and California see themselves as defenders of democratic
values that are at odds with the increasingly authoritarian governments
of their national big brothers.
That authoritarianism has inspired independence movements in
Taiwan and California. Two former Taiwan presidents are campaigning
for an independence referendum, and multiple ballot initiatives seek
California independence. Both movements pose the same question:
how much must we suffer from Beijing or Washington before enough is
There are many Taiwanese answers. The mainstream response, via
premier Lai Ching-te: “We don’t want to be in conflict with China. But
we won’t bend to pressure either.”
But I also heard more robust answers.
First, be opportunistic in building solidarity. Whenever the Chinese
issue threats, use them to develop a shared identity. A generation ago,
most Taiwanese told pollsters they were Chinese. Now, after decades
of Chinese bullying, most Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese.
Second, when the larger power leaves a void—for example, in the U.S.
government’s retreat from addressing climate change or leading on
international trade—heighten your own power by filling it, with your
own policies and international agreements.
Finally, conflict is competition, so you must be friendlier, more
democratic—and more attractive than the larger power menacing you.
The most interesting conversations I heard were about whether Taiwan
should respond to China’s militaristic behavior by declaring itself
officially a neutral country, like Switzerland, unwilling to participate in
wars outside its boundaries. Such a stance might win Taiwan more
international support. (Just imagine if California declared that it would
no longer support America’s endless wars.)
We shouldn’t take California-Taiwan comparisons too far. “The
mainland has missiles pointed at us,” one Taiwanese journalist
reminded me. “Does American have missiles pointed at California?”
No. But I took heart that Taiwan and California are pursuing strategies
based on a similar faith: that a smaller country, through the power of
its own example, can change a larger place.
In Taichung’s Literature Museum, I encountered one of the most
magnificent trees you’ll see outside Sequoia National Park. It’s a banyan
that has grown so many different roots and trunks, that it now appears
to be many trees.
“In this way,” said a guide, “a tree becomes a forest.”
BIO: Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo