Taiwan is an independent nation – in its ambitions, its economy, its democracy. But many countries refuse to recognize it as a separate country, deferring to mainland China, which claims Taiwan as a possession and responds with threats when Taiwan goes its own way.
California shares aspects of this conundrum. Our state has the ambitions, economy, and democracy of a leading nation. But it remains very much a part of the United States, which responds with threats when California goes its own way.
Yes, Californians fervently hope that our current conflict with the American government is temporary. But since California’s differences with America predate President Donald Trump, our status as a halfway country will likely outlast him.
I spent last week in Taiwan, learning about being a smaller country in the shadow of a larger power. The challenges resemble those of California, and younger siblings everywhere. How do you defend against bullying big brother while also developing into a success, even a global model?
Of course, there are some differences. While Californians suffer legal and verbal attacks from the federal government, the Chinese government threatens to seize Taiwan by military force if it becomes too independent.
Still, Taiwan and California have much in common. Both are overachievers. California has the world’s sixth largest economy, though with just 40 million citizens, it ranks 35th among nation-states by population. Taiwan has the world’s 22nd largest economy, with 23 million people, making it 55th most populous worldwide.
Even in an era of rising nationalism, both Taiwan and California remain stubbornly internationalist, committed to free trade and immigration. Both see themselves as defenders of democratic values at odds with the increasingly authoritarian governments of their national big brothers.
That authoritarianism has inspired independence movements in Taiwan and California. Two former Taiwan presidents are campaigning for an independence referendum, and multiple ballot initiatives seek California independence. Both movements pose the same question: How much must we suffer from Beijing or Washington before enough is enough?
There are many Taiwanese answers. The mainstream one, via premier Lai Ching-te: “We don’t want to be in conflict with China. But we won’t bend to pressure either.”
But I also heard more robust responses.
First, be opportunistic in building solidarity. When the Chinese issue threats, use them to develop a shared identity. A generation ago, most Taiwanese told pollsters they were Chinese. Now, after decades of Chinese bullying, most Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese.
Second, when the larger power leaves a void – for example, in the U.S. government’s retreat from addressing climate change or leading on international trade – heighten your own power by filling it with your own policies and international agreements.
Finally, conflict is competition, so be friendlier, more democratic – and more attractive than the larger power menacing you. The most interesting conversations I heard were about whether Taiwan should respond to China’s militaristic behavior by declaring itself officially neutral, like Switzerland, unwilling to participate in wars outside its boundaries. Such a stance might win Taiwan more international support. (Imagine if California declared it would no longer support America’s endless wars.)
Comparisons only go so far. “The mainland has missiles pointed at us,” one Taiwanese journalist reminded me. “Does America have missiles pointed at California?”
No. But I took heart that both are pursuing strategies based on a similar faith: that a smaller country can change a larger one through the power of example.
In Taichung’s Literature Museum, I saw one of the most magnificent trees you’ll see outside Sequoia National Park. It’s a banyan with so many roots and trunks, it now appears to be many trees. “In this way,” said a guide, “a tree becomes a forest.”
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.