Expert Eye: Is Taiwan a Democratic Commodity in the US-Chinese Trials of Strength?


In early December, while President Joe Biden was hosting the global Summit for Democracy, Nicaragua severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with China. A short while earlier, China had released a white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works,” specifically detailing the development of democracy in China. Evidently, the hostilities between the United States and China continue their daily combustion — and Taiwan has a front-row seat.

Although the Summit for Democracy was well attended, as its themes were the prevention of authoritarianism, the fight against corruption and the promotion of human rights, it was more of an American stunt to further its alliance-building so as to contain China. In truth, American democracy has long been criticized due to its incessant racial disputes at home; the scourge of firearms; the wars and indiscriminate killings abroad; and this year, on Jan. 6, a mob storming Capitol Hill and going so far as to threaten the physical safety of members of Congress. The violent scenes are still fresh in our minds; it is truly astounding how the banner of American democracy has lost its luster. The most ironic example at the moment is Afghanistan, where the U.S. Army was stationed for 20 years before withdrawing, its tail between its legs, showing the limited and exclusionary nature of American values.

In particular, the summit’s participants included Turkey and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, countries which could hardly be described as democratic. Turkey’s support for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang meant that the United States turned a blind eye to the bloody reality of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s iron-fisted crackdown on his own opposition party a year ago, bringing the Summit for Democracy into disrepute.

The issue of Xinjiang is the failure of terrorism as sown by Christians and Muslims, and of which the 9/11 attacks were the latest manifestation. Later on, the U.S.-orchestrated Arab Spring added fuel to the fire, with terrorist ideologies and models spreading to Muslims in Xinjiang and leaving the Chinese to bear the brunt of their disastrous effects — and this is grossly unfair. Besides, Beijing’s handling of matters has consisted entirely of counterterrorism and self-defense with a view to resolving the violence, both for its own benefit and for that of others. The West’s high-handed criticism is an attempt to subvert China, and its motives are suspect. Conversely, were Chinese governance to lose control, the damage to the region and even the world would be unimaginable.

In contrast, prior to the summit, the Mainland released a 13,000-word white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works,” with content to the effect that the Chinese Communist Party is leading citizens in bringing about a whole-process people’s democracy and results-oriented democracy. The paper states, “The people’s status as masters of the country is the essence of a people’s democracy,” emphasizing that a country’s democracy should be determined by its people and should not be judged by outsiders, a stance that is not to be censured too strictly.

Moreover, “[d]emocracy is the right of the people in every country, rather than the prerogative of a few nations.” There are many ways to bring about democracy, and no “one size fits all.” To scrutinize a political civilization from a single point of view is undemocratic in itself, an argument which, to some non-Western countries, may not be wholly unappealing.

In fact, the maxim “Water can carry the boat, but can also overturn it” can be a practical test of democracy’s soundness: If the Chinese Communist Party were truly as authoritarian and forbidding as the West alleges, it would have been overthrown by the people ages ago. This goes to show the difference between Chinese and Western civilization. If anything, comparisons of the Mainland’s overall development today compared to past situations show that, in 1949 for example, the average life expectancy in China was only 40 years, while today it is 79, and so on. The evidence is as irrefutable as it is admirable.

Given the varying levels of development among countries, the number of developed countries in the West only accounts for about one-quarter of the nearly 200 countries worldwide, and only about 12% of the population, with the European Union and the United States combined only numbering 800 million people. If the United States wants to take the lead in changing the world in the way it has always done, it still has a long road ahead. In point of fact, for the vast majority of non-Western countries, the socialist democracy proposed by China is indeed more suited to its relatively backward and even agrarian situations, industrially and commercially speaking.

In relation to this, the case of Nicaragua can be analyzed on three levels. First, with Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista regime long being at odds with the United States, and the results of its general election in November of this year not being accepted by the West, Taiwan has adopted a distant attitude toward Nicaragua. Second, in terms of bilateral relations, due to the diplomatic assistance provided by Taiwan being mostly limited to financial aid, and Nicaragua’s demands having been exorbitant on several occasions, Taiwan has struggled to manage this relationship the way we would like it to.

Third, and more important, is the “Game of Great Powers:” The fact that Taiwan and Nicaragua severed diplomatic relations the very day of the Summit for Democracy showed not only that China and Nicaragua had long been collaborating closely, but it has also dealt the United States’ Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020 a major blow. Caught between the two, Taiwan would appear the innocent victim, but although it has sustained serious injuries, whether this will lead to any ripple effects remains to be seen.

In short, Taiwan is already choosing sides between the United States and China, but it remains debatable whether such a stubborn choice is in Taiwan’s interest. The current cross-strait alarm is a serious warning sign; how to resolve the hostilities should be the uppermost priority.

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About Matthew McKay 98 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. Matthew is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting in the UK, and of the Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters in Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

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