Why a poised Taiwan welcomed Pelosi

The controversial visit of the House speaker, while riling China, helps reinforce Taiwan’s best defense: national unity on civic values.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, is greeted by Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as she arrives in Taipei, Aug. 2.

Social media in Taiwan – as vibrant and playful as the island nation’s democracy – was in full swing for the controversial visit by Nancy Pelosi this week. One widely popular meme depicted the U.S. House speaker as a goddess from Taoist fairy tales. The meme’s point: The Taiwanese may share a cultural heritage with China, yet their collective identity is firmly grounded in the global family of democracies.

Taiwan’s growing national consciousness around shared civic values is what really worries China’s autocratic leaders – more so than a visit by Ms. Pelosi. In Beijing, the symbolism of the visit in signaling Taiwan’s independence may weaken Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He is bidding to stay in power and someday unite the island with the mainland. Yet the visit also reinforces how much the Taiwanese are admired – as are Ukrainians fighting Russia – for safeguarding a young democracy that is accountable, egalitarian, and transparent.

Through free and open elections, Taiwan has had three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000. Such freedoms help it maintain a gross domestic product per capita that is nearly three times that of China.

“Taiwan, by virtue of both its very existence and its continued prosperity, represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,” wrote the country’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, last year.

While Taiwan’s military still needs more reforms as well as greater U.S. security assistance, the island’s best defense remains its unity around a civic identity.

“We are Taiwanese in our thinking,” Li Yuan-hsin, a high school teacher, told The New York Times. “We do not need to declare independence because we already are essentially independent.”

Taiwan’s values of equality, freedom, and diversity are creating a “post-materialist” national consciousness, writes Simona Grano, director of Taiwan studies at the University of Zurich. While China is in a “wolf warrior” mode, Taiwan is fighting back differently, she writes in the online publication Taiwan Insight. Its new identity, based on civic and democratic values, proclaims Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

Visits by foreign dignitaries such as Ms. Pelosi only confirm what the Taiwanese simply know to be true.

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