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Taiwan Can Help: an island nation’s offer to the world

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

#TaiwanCanHelp. It’s a simple hashtag that sums up the spirit of an island nation.

This phrase, “Taiwan Can Help”, turns up in a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs brochure introducing President Lai Ching-te (a.k.a. William Lai) to the world. On May 19, officials distributed this English-language document at a dinner in Burnaby held to celebrate Lai’s swearing-in ceremony.

But what does “Taiwan Can Help” really mean? And is it reflected in how this democratic nation of 23.5 million people interacts with the world?

On the cultural side, Taiwan has provided a haven for indie musicians from several Asian nations.

“Taiwan is one of the foremost cultural powerhouses of East Asia,” wrote Dante Scaglione in a research report for the New York-based India China Institute. “Taiwan’s popular music is one of its most significant cultural exports.”

In addition, Scaglione noted that the island nation “has been the world’s largest producer of Mandarin language pop music (Mandopop) since the 1980s”.

With the lifting of martial law in 1989 and full freedom of expression in 1992, Taiwan emerged as a hub for indie music production. Artists recorded songs with brazenly political lyrics, emboldening young fans. Many of them became supporters of Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party.

Scaglione attributed the rise of Taiwanese indie music to three developments: the interplay between various groups of Aboriginal, Japanese, and Chinese peoples on the island; the history of occupying regimes in the 20th century; and the suspension of martial law and opening up of economy and political life.

“These factors all play a decisive role in the musical styles, languages, attitudes, and politics found in modern Taiwanese music,” Scaglione stated.

This Democratic Progressive Party campaign ad was a hit with Taiwanese voters.

Writers thrive with help from Taiwan

In recent years, Taiwan has also offered a refuge for writers and poets from Hong Kong seeking to escape Chinese government crackdowns. In April, writer Desmond Hok-Man Sham highlighted this in Taiwan Insight, which is published by the Taiwan Research Hub at the University of Nottingham.

“After the ‘exodus’ of Hongkongers since 2019/2020, I have also observed that Hongkonger diasporic communities use different methods, such as organising markets, festivals, and exhibitions, setting up community libraries, and creating artworks and cultural products, as a way to preserve Hong Kong culture, express Hong Kong identity, and communicate with the local and the wider Hong Kong diasporic communities,” Sham wrote. “How overseas Hongkonger identity will evolve is something worth further observing and examining.”

Taiwan has also been a haven for outspoken authors from China, such as Alison Zhao. Furthermore, writers from several other countries—including New York-born Esther Kim , Canadian-born John Groot, Korean-born Rex How, Vietnamese-born Nguyen Thu Hang, and Indonesian-born Justto Lasso—have all felt free to pursue their craft in Taiwan.

Taiwan also has a thriving film sector, which is gaining attention around the world. At last year’s Taiwan Creative Culture Fest convention, government representatives of France and Taiwan signed an agreement to advance cooperation between the two countries’ film and TV industries.

‘We have the same philosophy of a cultural exception and commitment to democratic values,” said the director of Bureau Francais de Taipei, Franck Paris, according to Variety.

Taiwan Can Help
In Invisible Nation, Taiwan’s ex-president, Tsai Ing-wen, speaks about how her country is responding to China.

Film conveys Taiwan’s fighting spirit

Meanwhile, the 2023 film Invisible Nation tells how Taiwan’s transformed from authoritarianism to freedom. Directed by Vanessa Hope, the documentary shows Lai’s predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, galvanizing the public to protect Taiwanese democracy. Hot Docs will screen Invisible Nation at 3:45 p.m. on Friday (May 24) in its theatre. (For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website.)

The director, Hope, points out in her film that Taiwan has been repeatedly colonized throughout its history. The Netherlands, Spain, Ming and Qing dynasties, and Japan all oversaw part or all of the island at different times. Moreover, Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek moved en masse to Taiwan and imposed control after losing the Chinese Civil War.

In the film, Chinese president Xi Jinping menacingly declares that he will not renounce the use of force against Taiwan. Despite or perhaps because of Xi’s belligerence, the Taiwanese people re-elected Tsai in 2020. Four years later, her vice president, Lai Ching-te, succeeded her, marking the first time that the same party had won three consecutive presidential elections. Both Tsai and Lai insist that Taiwan has always been independent.

The phrase “Taiwan Can Help” emerged in English in a big way during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic when Taiwan had an extremely low number of confirmed cases and deaths. This occurred despite its proximity to China, where the virus originated.

According to the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, Taiwan “enacted laws, formulated policies, and established institutions to empower experts during epidemics, which has improved its epidemic preparedness”.

“Much of this work occurred after Taiwan’s SARS outbreak in 2003, in which 73 people died,” wrote Asia-Pacific Foundation post-graduate research scholar Yoel Kornreich and junior research scholar Yiwei Jin.

President studied public health

In 2020, Taiwan generously donated half a million masks to Canada to help it deal with COVID-19. It’s in keeping with the Taiwanese record of helping countries needing emergency relief. The Taiwan-based Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, for example, has provided secular relief care in 133 countries.

President Lai is a former physician with a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. But despite Taiwan’s sophisticated approach to health and its demonstrated track record, the World Health Organization refuses to grant the island nation observer status at the World Health Assembly, which begins on Monday (May 27).

Taiwan can help. However, the WHO won’t allow this for fear of alienating the Chinese Communist Party–controlled government in Beijing.

But the phrase “Taiwan Can Help” goes well beyond public health and arts and culture. It’s also apparent in the business world where its largest corporations help others succeed rather than shining a spotlight upon themselves.

The leading example of this, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is the world’s second-most valuable corporation in its sector. TMSC designs and manufactures semiconductors for AMD and NVIDIA—both headed by Americans who were born in Tainan, Taiwan. Other TSMC clients include Apple, Broadcom, Marvell Technology, and Qualcomm.

TSMC
TSMC semiconductors help other companies succeed. Photo by TSMC.

TSMC’s know-how helps others succeed. The same can be said for another successful Taiwanese company, Foxconn, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics products. By making iPhones, iPods, and iPads, it has helped Apple become the second most-valuable public company in America.

Last year, Germany’s minister of education and research, Bettina Stark, Watzinger, visited Taiwan—and enraged China—by signing a science and technology accord. She also pushed TSMC to establish a facility in Germany’s state of Saxony.

TSMC invests tens of billions in America

In April, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged one trillion yen (CDN$8.7 billion) for a reliable supply of chips. This came during a visit to a TSMC-controlled plant in southern Japan.

Germany and Japan aren’t the only countries seeking TSMC’S help. In 2020, the corporation promised a US$12-billion investment in an advanced semiconductor manufacturing fabrication plant in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2022, the company announced another US$28-billion investment for a second plant in Phoenix. Then with US$6.6 billion in funding under the CHIPS and Science Act, TSMC promised a third plant in 2024—adding up to total direct investment of US$65 billion.

Then there’s Taiwan’s international assistance. The island nation is offering significant humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which is also near a larger and hostile neighbour that wants to crush its national identity. This, too, is highlighted in Invisible Nation.

President Tsai says in Invisible Nation that all Taiwanese have a duty to share their nation’s story with the world.

In his inaugural address, President Lai did precisely that. He pointed out that Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Lai also maintained that democracy outperforms authoritarianism in fighting pandemics.

“As for international affairs, we will continue working with other democratic nations to form a democratic community, and share our experiences across a range of fields,” Lai said. “We will work together to combat disinformation, strengthen democratic resilience, address challenges, and allow Taiwan to become the MVP of the democratic world.”

In effect, President Lai is saying that “Taiwan Can Help.”

Judging by recent agreements and investments, this message clearly resonates with France, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Is Canada also willing to take the new president up on his offer?

Hot Docs will screen Invisible Nation at 3:45 p.m. on Friday (May 24) in its theatre. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website. 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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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society is grateful to be held on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, that is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge our privilege to be gathered on this land, and commit to work with and be respectful to the Indigenous peoples whose arts and stories inspire us to bring communities together.