Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews

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

too independent.

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

Public Square.