Supporters of the opposition Nationalist Party cheer during a November election campaign in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Why civic values are Taiwan’s best defense

In a public debate, the leaders of China and Taiwan reveal what it takes to create a national identity rooted in shared ideals.

In a rather public debate, the leaders of China and Taiwan have revealed what it takes to create a national identity rooted in shared ideals. Let’s just say the small island nation off China’s coast won, as its president’s statements make clear.

On Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan gave a New Year’s speech in which she said her 24 million people insist on freedom and democracy, unlike on the mainland. “China has to face the fact that the Republic of China [Taiwan] exists,” she said. It should use “peaceful and equal terms” to deal with differences.

The next day, in a speech solely about Taiwan, President Xi Jinping said in Beijing that “differences in [governing] systems” should not be an excuse against unification, an idea he called “inevitable” and perhaps made possible someday by force. The people of Taiwan are part of the same “family,” Mr. Xi insisted, which he called the “Chinese nation.”

In response, Ms. Tsai then took the high road, far above any claim to shared bloodlines or ancient cultural ties. “Democracy is a value and lifestyle cherished by the Taiwanese people,” she simply said.

Taiwan’s identity, in other words, is rooted in civic ideals such as the rights of individuals and equality of all before law. That fact is clear by the vibrancy of its democracy since 1992. Polls show about half of its citizens see themselves as “Taiwanese only.” Taiwan also notices how China has used threats to clamp down on liberties in Hong Kong since retaking the territory in 1997.

The model of authoritarian rule, an “option” offered to other countries by Xi, is rejected widely in Taiwan. Since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949, it has steadily seen itself as free and independent. The island has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s clarity on the need for shared values rather than common interests to define national identity is a lesson for other peoples in conflict. It may also help explain Britain’s great divide over its 2016 decision to leave the European Union even though it shares so much with the democracies on the Continent. “Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share,” said Prime Minister Theresa May last year. “We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The debate in Britain is instead mainly over how much to reclaim power over aspects of trade, regulations, and immigrant flows. Civic values are not an issue. In fact, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says the difficult work to decide on Brexit “is part of the joy and blessing of being a community.”

A values-based debate is essential to peace both within and between nations. With his threat of force to unite Taiwan with China, Xi throws out one key value – respect for the Taiwanese – in making a choice on their future. Yet with due respect for him, the island nation’s leader merely pointed out Taiwan’s democratic character. Point well made.

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