By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Zheng Xiaoxian describes himself as “very, very nervous.” The Chinese student in his mid-20s, studying political science at a school in this region, has multiple reasons to worry about the likelihood of war breaking out. As a college student in China, he heard anecdotes from his teachers about crazed Chinese leaders. He interned at a Chinese think tank and has an awareness of the messiness of politics. Today, he checks social media constantly and was shocked to see a Chinese official calling for mass sacrifice. Finally, courses in the U.S. have shown him how Chinese were manipulated on a mass level during the Korean War.
“What if one of those fighter pilots gets emotional and pulls the trigger?” he says, referring to the Chinese jets that have been flying sorties into Taiwan air space.
Zheng, who asked for a pseudonym to speak about a sensitive topic, insists he is speaking about his and his generation’s concerns after the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan earlier this month and not spouting propaganda on behalf of his government.
Either way, the signs he points to are the kind that China watchers might be concerned about, too.
A map, recently released by the Chinese government, shows the names of shops on every street in Taipei.
“It’s so clear, you can even see the green and red traffic lights,” the caption reads.
“We’re worried this could be a signal that the government is preparing for war,” says Zheng.
Another sign he points to is the 120-mile-long bridge that China is planning to build from its coast to Taipei.
“They wouldn’t say it was ‘in the planning stage’ if they hadn’t made plans to take over the island,” he says.
Such sentiments underscore at least some of the aftermath of the visit that prompted Chinese military drills closer to Taiwan than ever in history. The irony,
however, is that those who actually face these threats are almost blasé.
From the standpoint of many Taiwanese, such threats are part of a longstanding background noise to which they have almost become inured. And even the attitude of someone like Zheng reveals a widening split between the official stance of the Chinese government and the Chinese people.
“We are in a period of high tensions between the United States and China, which is concerning to observe,” said James Lin, a historian of Taiwan at the University of Washington currently doing research in Taiwan. “From the Taiwanese perspective, however, most are not concerned, and some even argue the costs of bearing P.R.C. military, economic, and diplomatic retaliation are worth the price.”
Taiwan has been under threat from China for decades, Lin points out, including the shelling of islands controlled by Taiwan in the late 1950s. More recently, in 1995 and 1996, in what was called the Third Strait Crisis, then President Lee Teng-hui defied China’s interdiction on Taiwanese officials visiting the United States and delivered an address at Cornell University, his alma mater. China, first in warning, and then in response, lobbed several missiles in waters off the coast of Taiwan.
It may be premature, said Lin, to dub the current threats the Fourth Strait Crisis. But a consensus on the island seems to be that the visit was worth the cost.
“Many think that given P.R.C. threats are almost a given, at the very least, the congressional delegation in the U.S. is a rare event that reinforces the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, shows U.S. support for Taiwan to the rest of the world in a very public manner, and also showcases a very ordinary state policy of accepting foreign state dignitaries that is denied to Taiwan but many Taiwanese clearly cherish,” he said in an email.
A student from Taiwan studying in this region, who also asked for a pseudonym, seems similarly optimistic but also cautious.
“When I was a student in high school, I was a real hot head about Taiwan independence, but now I do see that Taiwan is just a small country, as part of a bigger international picture,” he said via a Skype call.
As part of his concern, he watches the U.S. Navy channel.
“They say that in the next five to 10 years, China could try to invade Taiwan,” he said.
During the recent exercises, a friend of his in the South of the island told him about seeing Taiwanese fighter jets and helicopters passing in the sky, responding to the Chinese drills only miles off the coast.
Taiwan is always in something of a state of being caught between larger powers, he said.
“But I still hope that something positive for Taiwan comes out of this situation. For instance, there is a discourse developing internationally about China as a bully.”
Such a sentiment has been common among Taiwanese for some time, according to a Brookings Institute survey released in February with the help of Shelley Rigger, a leading political scientist who studies Taiwan. 63% of respondents had a negative view about China, while only 8% had a positive view. Feelings were stronger among the young.
Still, there are signs that opposition to China rises and falls. During the recent presidential elections in 2020, Han Kuo-yu, a candidate espousing stronger ties with China, received almost 40% of the vote, although he was later recalled as mayor of Kaohsiung.
A second student from Taiwan studying here said that even within his own family, there is dissension.
“There are various identity recognitions within my family. Many of us have different political ideologies, but we still love each other. I think it is because, most of the time, we debate for different standpoints, but so long as our daily life is fine, this diverse composition of people living on this island still get along with each other,” said this student, who also asked to remain anonymous.
Still, he said, the visit by Pelosi gave everyone “a sense of security.”
One reason, again, is due to the ongoing threats from China.
“For the past 30 plus years in my life, the P.R.C. has always threatened Taiwan by claiming they will never give up using force to ‘unify’ Taiwan,” he said.
This second Taiwanese student, however, is also worried about his children, particularly after seeing the war in Ukraine unfold.
“I am constantly worried about my kids and their future. I don’t want Taiwan to be dragged into a physical battlefield (like in Ukraine now),” he said by email.
At the same time, he gave voice to a sentiment that China’s soft power has already started to infiltrate Taiwan and threaten its freedoms.
“I stand firmly that Taiwan is Taiwan,” this second Taiwanese student said. “I cherish every moment that Taiwan is democratic, and we can enjoy free speech, though the penetration of social media platforms already happens every second.”
Surprisingly, Zheng, for all his auguring about war, himself has reservations about China simply absorbing Taiwan. He and others of his generation underwent two “turning points” in their attitude about China and Taiwan.
The first was seeing the way the Chinese government handled Hong Kong. The second was when the case of a woman forced to have eight babies while being chained up went viral and caused huge outpourings of anger against the Chinese government by many Chinese, who saw it as a symbol for the decadence and corruption in their system.
“When someone told me about that, it made me feel that China could not impose its will on Taiwan,” he said. “At the same time, people in China do have an emotional attachment to Taiwan.”
Such a distancing from official attitudes among Chinese students in the U.S. is not uncommon, said the first Taiwanese student, who said he has friends among them.
“You can see the gradual process of them giving up the idea of going home and wanting to stay here,” he said.
Nevertheless, if that is the case with Zheng, his awareness of U.S. intervention is still palpable.
“It was a real humiliation to China for Pelosi to visit because she had been a strong critic of China,” he said. “She was not what you would call an ‘old friend’ of China.”
Moreover, he said that whenever the U.S. has a problem with China, it “plays the Taiwan card.”
“Does the U.S. government really care about the people of Taiwan?”
When asked if his generation was concerned about the U.S. using Taiwan as a base for some sort of attack on China, he first clarified what was meant by “attack.”
Then he said, “When I was in middle school, I was taught that when you are going to decide how to interact with someone, you should base your thinking on how you’ve been treated by that person in the past.”
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.