02/18/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Save Taiwan

Taiwan must survive. It's not just democracy. It's not just five thousand years of culture. It's not just sweet-smelling hills and rivers like perfume. Nor is it cliffs like granite collapsing into oceans like glittering marble. It's not just a belief among the people that justice, goodness and morality are not just abstractions. It's not just clean air, so far. And clean water, for the most part. It's not just a rancorous media. It's not just that it is the only place in the greater Chinese world where people actually elect their officials. It must survive so that the 1.3 billion people of China have a role model.

Taiwan is the shining city on the hill. Perhaps that is why the Chinese Communist Party is so adamant about destroying its liberties. So long as Taiwan survives, the masses of China, chained in pollution and poor food, chained in lives of poverty and hell, chained to a dictatorial system that brainwashes them rather than heals them of the trauma of centuries of collapse, so long as Taiwan survives, something will exist that is so scary to the communist leaders that it will threaten their very survival. That something that must survive, to translate it into our language is: hope.

Americans scarcely comprehend the cynicism of most Chinese. Granted, deep below the exterior, the hardness built up by generations of fear, is often warmth and kindness. But cynicism about other people, about anything higher than selfishness as defining human life, is rampant. It is like the ghost that rampages through the countryside and major cities. Its trappings are the pollution and wasted lives of most but the very few elite. Perhaps the elite are the most cynical of all.

Taiwan and China have started having direct political talks for the first time in a long time. Taiwan watchers with direct connections with the tourism business have another explanation for it. Until recently, China sent millions upon millions of tourists to the island, bringing in much-needed cash to the starving economy. The locals, on Taiwan, rejoicing at the largesse of their former enemy, spent massively on infrastructure. They built hotels, roads and resorts, sinking their precious savings into what appeared to be a stable and solid future that would define relations between the two rivals. Taiwan would be a resort. The mainland would supply the tourists.

But then it all dried up. China suddenly implemented sanctions against Taiwan by restricting the flow of tourists. According to industry experts, last year the number of tourists reached 2.5 million. This year, it has been reduced to a trickle.

It is well known that Taiwan has invested billions in factories on the mainland. In addition, forty percent of its exports go to the mainland market. A decade ago, at a talk in Taiwan, Harvard historian William C. Kirby predicted that economic ties across the Taiwan Strait would not determine the political outcome of their relationship. He argued that it was usually politics, rather than economics, that determine the course of human events.

But are sanctions considered a political or an economic tool? You might get a different answer if you talked to an anthropologist or a political scientist. China is engaging in economic sanctions against Taiwan. Is this soft power? Or is this warfare?

So how do we understand these new talks between Taiwan and China? And what do they mean for us?

Here's the answer: Taiwan has just surrendered in the Chinese Civil War. We thought it was over. But now we see it's been going all this time. The Nationalists will say they had no choice, that the island's survival depends on pulling closer to the former enemy.

But it's more complicated than that. The Nationalists were distracted by the dream of a greater China. They thought that they could share in the wealth of a rising China. They thought that nationalism, the idea that all Chinese would stick together against a hostile world, would efface any political differences. After all, it's been over half a century since Mao and Chiang Kai-shek fought.

But they underestimated the mentality of the communists and they underestimated their own value as a beacon of hope to the discouraged and traumatized masses of China.

What does this mean for us?

As the United States frets over how to deal with China's foreign cash reserves, pollution, military build up, global posturing, investments in Africa and the Caribbean, influx of students to our higher institutions of learning, we are losing our focus. The Chinese will solve their problems one way or another. Either things are going to get a lot messier, more dictatorial, more nationalistic, more hopeless. Or somehow, the democratic experiment that has taken hold in Taiwan will someday serve as a model to the communist party, or at least those elements that want to reform.

We need to make sure that there is a model still around in a decade or two when the Chinese, reaching a state of ultimate crisis, when their lands are destroyed, when they are bankrupt and bereft of even their helpless cynicism, have nowhere else to turn but their former enemies across the Taiwan Strait. We need to make sure that Taiwan's democracy survives, even if only as a museum relic, to show the Chinese that there are other ways of governance.

Actually, it's not democracy itself that matters. What matters is the mindset, created by a culture of openness, a culture that contains enough true confidence to embrace and experiment with foreign articulations of social organization. China at its height imported Buddhism. Then during another period of openness, this time brought about by internal chaos, imported western ideas such as democracy.

On Taiwan is preserved this long, long tradition of culture. It was not destroyed, as it was on China, by the pogroms against landlords. Landlords were the culture bearers in traditional China. Mao found it necessary to exterminate most of them as he remolded society. The rest of them escaped to Taiwan, bringing with them 5,000 years of culture.

Idealism exists on Taiwan. Materialism on the mainland.

Sure it's not quite this simple. But without the preservation of Taiwan's culture as it is now, something will be gone that will be irretrievable. You cannot rebuild a culture that has been absorbed and reduced to ashes.

Save Taiwan.