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Invisible Nation reveals how ex-president Tsai Ing-wen boosted pride in Taiwanese identity and democracy

Tsai Ing-wen
Invisible Nation focuses on Tsai Ing-wen, who served two terms as Taiwan's president from 2016 to 2024.

U.S. filmmaker Vanessa Hope knew that she was witnessing history when Tsai Ing-wen became the first female elected president of Taiwan. The night of Tsai’s 2016 victory celebration, a huge electronic billboard blasted out three words in English: “We Are Taiwanese.”

The massive crowd in the streets of Taipei fervently chanted these words. This phrase—“We Are Taiwanese”—certainly caught the filmmaker’s attention.

“That’s what I needed to understand,” Hope tells Pancouver over Zoom. “Why were the blaring it? Why did it matter so much?”

Furthermore, Hope wondered why this was not already understood.

She had lived in Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, when Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election. But Hope had never seen such a blatant public expression of national identity back in those days.

Two decades later, after working on film projects in China, Hope returned to the island nation with an international delegation to observe Taiwanese elections.

“I had a local film crew and we were there when President Tsai won,” Hope says. “I was blown away and I just thought this is a huge story.”

That set Hope on a lengthy course to creating her landmark documentary, Invisible Nation, which was recently screened at Hot Docs in Toronto. It will also be shown at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver from June 7 to 15. President Tsai’s staff granted Hope unprecedented access, starting in 2017, after she and her Taiwanese producer, Sylvia Feng, had submitted a request.

“They opened her schedule for five weeks in May,” Hope says. “That was the beginning, not the end.”

The film reveals how Tsai boosted pride in Taiwanese identity and democracy, resulting in her re-election in 2020. The filmmaker points out that over the past five years, there has been a plethora of films and books linking Taiwanese identity to democracy.

Watch the trailer for Invisible Nation.

Tsai responds to world events

Hope knows her way around foreign policy. She has a PhD from Columbia University and worked at the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Invisible Nation shows Tsai advancing strong positions against Chinese military aggression and interference in domestic affairs.

“I think the biggest challenge was balancing all that we had with President Tsai with these major world events unfolding around her that we couldn’t anticipate [and] that were profound and impactful In Taiwan’s and President Tsai’s story,” Hope says. “I think that just takes time because as these events are unfolding, it’s hard to know how to analyze them or put them in context. So, the fact that we could follow a sitting head of state—a first female president over two terms—was this huge honour.”

Invisible Nation also devotes considerable attention to the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement. Activists peacefully occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to protest the China-friendly Kuomintang government’s Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China.

Hope acknowledges that Taiwan has had many powerful student and social movements over the years. However, she describes the Sunflower Student Movement as a “turning point” in the evolution of Taiwanese democracy. Two years earlier, Tsai had lost the 2012 presidential election, but the Democratic Progressive Party politician continued advocating for Taiwanese sovereignty through the student protests.

“It was major for the young people, clearly understanding President Tsai believed in the democratic process and democracy—and was sitting there with them and wanted to hear them and what they wanted—and didn’t believe that any kind of bill should be pushed through the legislature at the hands of a leader as opposed to being voted on by the people,” Hope says.

Tsai
The Sunflower Student Movement politicized many young people in Taiwan. Photo by WhoDYo.

History informs struggle for national identity

The film shows the crux of the national debate in Taiwan. Former Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou exemplifies those who want to forge a closer, more cooperative relationship with China. Tsai represents those who want to resist this.

Hope feels that it was imperative to address the country’s 400-year history to provide context. Originally populated by Indigenous people, the southern part of Taiwan came under Dutch control in the 17th century. In the same century, the Spanish colonized part of the north until they were defeated by the Dutch.

The Dutch, in turn, were defeated by Ming Dynasty warlord Cheng Cheng-kung (known as Koxinga). This colonizer was supported by heavily taxed Chinese settlers brought in by the Dutch East India Company to clear the land. More than two decades later, the Qing Dynasty seized control of the island.

Then following the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.

“Up until then, Taiwan had served as a trading port for various countries but it was Japan that fully colonized all of Taiwan for the first time,” Hope says. “It was a model colony. That history is living inside some of the people in our film.”

Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek argued that there was only one China, which he ruled from Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. But people who watch Invisible Nation could come away questioning the wisdom of the One China policy, which is vociferously advanced by Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing.

Tsai Invisible Nation
Dictators Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong promoted the idea of One China.

A two-state solution?

According to Hope, this “obfuscation of the differences between Taiwan and China” resulted from two dictators—Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong—both purporting to represent the “real China”. Moreover, Chiang referred to the island of Formosa, as it was then called, as the “Republic of China”.

In 1971, the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China.

“Chiang Kai-shek was then actually the only one who had ever been leading a party—between 1945 and 1949—[that] did control parts of China and Taiwan,” Hope says. “But the People’s Republic of China has never controlled the Republic of China, or Taiwan, for a single day. And I don’t think people know that because of the power and influence of China to control the narrative.”

Former U.S. secretary of stage Henry Kissinger, who shows up in Invisible Nation, was a key figure advancing China’s position.

“I believe it was wrong of him to never visit Taiwan, and to not allow Taiwan’s democracy to be recognized when it came into being under [former president] Lee Teng-hui in 95-96,” Hope says. “There was a call among Congress members to do just that, and Kissinger shut it down. So, I think there has been a co-opting of him and his interests. He made a fortune in China. That blinded him to real diplomatic solutions.”

Hope reveals that the international law section of the American Bar Association recently invited her team to screen Invisible Nation in Washington, D.C.

“The establishment lawyers want to make clear that in international law, Taiwan is actually a country,” Hope says. “It is a country and it deserves equal status on the world stage. It is a mistake that it was kicked out of the UN because, again, their dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, said ‘no’ at the time to a two-state solution.”

Vanessa Hope
Invisible Nation director Vanessa Hope’s film raises profound questions about how the western foreign-policy establishment has treated Taiwan. Photo from InvisibleNation.net.

Successor to Tsai faces huge challenges

This month, Tsai’s vice president, Lai Ching-te, was sworn in as new president. At his inauguration, Lai declared that he wants Taiwan to become the MVP of the democratic world.

Lai’s vice-president, Hsiao Bi-khim, is featured prominently in Invisible Nation. Born in Japan to a Taiwanese father and American mother, Hsiao speaks flawless, unaccented English. Moreover, she’s been a Democratic Progressive Party legislator and a top Taiwanese envoy to the United States.

Invisible Nation is being screened in Vancouver in the midst of wars in which debates over a two-state solution have led to bloodshed. In Eastern Europe, Russia is trying to crush the national aspirations of Ukrainians. And in the Middle East, Israel has responded with overwhelming military force against Palestinians following the October 7 attacks on Israeli citizens.

Taiwan Can Help Lai Ching-te
President Lai Ching-te says that he wants Taiwan to become the MVP of the democratic world.

Hope worries about the impact of these wars on President Lai’s efforts to continue Tsai’s legacy. Like her, Lai is standing up for sovereignty while pushing for peace and negotiations with China.

“The world is much more fraught now than it was even five years ago,” Hope says. “So, with the war in Ukraine not ending [and] with what’s happening in Israel-Gaza not ending, it does seem as if the United States and other countries may get bogged down in these other conflicts and not have enough to support Taiwan.

“It’s all the more urgent and the stakes are higher for President Lai,” the Invisible Nation director continues. “I hope that maybe this film will be somewhat helpful in increasing people’s understanding and ability to feel they have a stake in what happens in Taiwan’s future—because it’s going to impact all of us.”

Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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