THE BLOG
04/29/2014 07:47 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Sunflowers, Symbols, and Nukes: A 2014 Taiwan Primer

Taiwan is the little island that has both disappeared from the political stage and is everywhere present in the everyday lives of people throughout the United States. It is not mentioned in any meaningful way in discussions of policy in the halls of our political institutions or media and it is not discussed as anything other than an afterthought in discussions of the People's Republic of China (PRC). But it is far too easy to dismiss Taiwan without a closer look. While the People's Republic of China has over 60 times the population, it is Taiwan that clocks in with a GDP four times as large per capita, a vibrant multiparty political system, religious and press freedoms that are among the best in Asia, and provisions for national healthcare that place it on par or even ahead of the EU.

Why does this all matter now? Because since the army of Chiang Kai-shek was defeated in the Chinese civil war and relocated to Taiwan, US policy rested on the imperatives of anti-communism. As such, we recognized Taiwan as the location of not only the government of the island but of all of China. Under the auspices of Chiang Kai-shek's "Republic of China" governed by his single-party Kuomintang (KMT), we recognized that the rule of provinces in China's far west was under titular control of a government in Taipei. That policy continued until Richard Nixon opened his Ping-Pong Diplomacy with the PRC and the ten years of joint communiques that followed, effectively erasing formal acknowledgment to the right of the peoples of Taiwan for self-determination. In the decades since the establishment of modern Taiwan, the island was ruled (brutally) by a single-party regime that matched and exceeded many of the human rights abuses that the PRC has been criticized for during the same period. Only in the relatively recent past was the political system in Taiwan reformed to allow multiparty elections and to resemble an actual democracy with attendant protections for civil and political rights for all.

Why should we care? Because there has been a considerable danger of backsliding. The first (and, to-date, only) Taiwanese President from outside the KMT was elected for two terms in 2000 and 2004. Subsequent to his party and alliance losing the 2008 election, it has been subjected to considerable and disproportionate prosecution compared to the horrors of the KMT itself. With uncountable court cases being brought against Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's current (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou seems intent on having Chen die in prison and his time there has certainly created, worsened, and made permanent a number of health problems. Still, Ma proceeded without any restriction, pursuing his own Minister of Justice and the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's unicameral legistlature) for deviating from the orthodoxy that Ma demanded. Finally, the restive students in Taiwan had enough with the attempt to promulgate a Service Trade Agreement that was pursued without public discussion or oversight and which threatened the principles of sovereignty that were felt to safeguard Taiwan's expanded freedoms compared to the lack of freedoms in the PRC. Gaining international attention, the Sunflower Movement garnered international attention and scrutiny at last.

Now what? Only a month or so after the Sunflower Movement willingly ended their occupation of the Taiwanese legislature, there is another mass movement afoot, this one demanding an end to the attempts to complete another nuclear power plant on the island. Criss-crossed with a very high and complex number of faults, Taiwan experiences over 200 quakes per year that are felt by the island's residents. Highly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, Taiwan doesn't want to risk the sort of nightmare that has plagued Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactor since the tsunami in 2011. To illustrate their point, they're putting themselves on the streets to show it. Once again, the response from Ma Ying-jeou's government? Riot police and water cannons to respond to peaceful assembly and protest. Born in the environmentalism of Chen Shui-bian and the Democratic Progressive Party, it is difficult to communicate how deeply aggreived Taiwan's people feel about nuclear power being rolled out further. Perhaps the KMT will perform a tactical rollback, but it has shown its true mettle with the water cannons being used. Again.

We're asking you to write your representatives in the House and Senate right now, and here's how. A physical letter is the best response to get attention. Failing that, make an actual phone call. Failing that, send an email. Tell your representatives that human rights matter, that the views of ordinary Taiwanese matter, and that the United States should support human rights and political pluralism in Taiwan and to do so in every way they can in considering trade, cultural, military, and political agreements with the island. Human rights matter. Taiwan matters. Sunflowers, symbols, and self-determination matters. Make your voice heard. Support the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for all.