In the eyes of the world, the People’s Republic of China is a colossus in comparison to its arch rival across Taiwan Strait.
After all, China’s gross domestic product exceeded US$17 trillion in 2021, compared to US$688 million in Taiwan.
Moreover, China’s population of 1.4 billion is 60 times that of the independent island nation—which China claims as a long-lost province.
Despite these gargantuan differences, Taiwan’s top envoy in Canada maintains that China, rather than his country, faces a far more perilous future.
“China is suffering now,” Harry Ho-jen Tseng tells Pancouver in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office boardroom in Vancouver.
“China is in big trouble,” he adds. “There is huge uncertainty in China. I won’t bet on the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”
Tseng, a former Taiwan deputy minister of foreign affairs, points to China’s “vacillating” policy on COVID-19 as just one example. According to Tseng, the Chinese Communist Party headed by Xi Jinping has done a 180-degree turn, going from COVID-Zero approach to allowing the disease to spread.
“The result today is that the number of cases surged to the extent that they don’t have enough medical people to take care of the patients. In Beijing!” Tseng declares. “This is the capital. In Beijing, they were not able to deal with that kind of situation.”
He contrasts that with Taiwan’s impressive streak of 253 consecutive days without any locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. “That record cannot be broken,” Tseng insists.
China fears U.S. firepower
Meanwhile, the CCP says it will complete its “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by taking control of Taiwan by 2049. That year marks the 100th anniversary of Chairman Mao Zedong’s rise to power.
Tseng, on the other hand, dismisses the chance of this ever occurring—the CCP can say whatever it likes but Taiwan will never dance to its tune.
“We will continue to grow affluent and prosper,” he says.
Tseng claims that China knows it will face war with the United States if it ever tries to invade his country. “And they don’t want to pay a heavy price to take back Taiwan because this is simply not cost-efficient.”
For now, Taiwan is not sitting around waiting to be rescued by anyone, investing heavily in its defences.
“We belong to the so-called alliance of the willing,” Tseng says.
These countries embrace freedom and democracy, he says, as well as respect for human rights and the rule of law.
“I think that’s the most important similarity between Canada and Taiwan,” Tseng says.
To support his argument that Taiwan is in excellent shape, he cites decennial Atlantic Council reports on the future of China. According to Tseng, after the U.S. government discontinued its recognition of Taiwan in 1979, the think tank predicted in 1980 that the island nation was “almost doomed”.
“But when they did another white paper in 1990, they were surprised that Taiwan was continuing to grow economically,” Tseng says.
That report came a year after the CCP had crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It also came as the then president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, was ushering in constitutional democracy after four decades of martial law.
Taiwan prospers under democracy
Tseng points out that the Atlantic Council report in 2000 coincided with the first peaceful transition of political power in Taiwan’s history.
“More than 20 years onward now, I think the world [has] started to appreciate the value that Taiwan can contribute to the international community,” the envoy says.
Tseng encourages Canadians to reach out to Taiwan, but not out of sympathy.
“We are not begging,” he says. “We can make it.”
Tseng says that his sympathies lie with those living under dictatorship in China.
He points to ecommerce companies like Alibaba and Jingdong [a.k.a. JD.com] as examples of Chinese creativity. He expects more success stories like this after the CCP loses its grip on power, possibly within his lifetime.
“The Chinese people are very smart, very intelligent people,” Tseng states. “Let them show their innovation. But the Chinese Communist Party—they are there to control everything, It is not good for the Chinese people.”
In the first pandemic year of 2020, two countries fared exceptionally well in resisting the international trend: Taiwan and Vietnam. Both were on the doorstep of China, where the COVID-19 virus first spread in the city of Wuhan.
Some predicted that Vietnam and Taiwan would be hard hit 2020. But that didn’t happen, in part because neither of these countries trusted the CCP
As a result, Tseng says that Taiwan took extraordinary measures to contain the spread.
For example, in late December of 2019, Taiwan’s Centres for Disease Control wrote to the World Health Organization asking for more information about “atypical pneumonia cases” in Wuhan.
The World Health Organization did not respond, Tseng says.
The WHO has not given Taiwan the same standing as other countries because of its reluctance to alienate China.
Trip to China led to COVID success
But that wasn’t the end of it, as far as Taiwan was concerned. On January 13, 2020—two days after President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide reelection—Taiwan dispatched a small team of researchers to Wuhan to find out what was going on.
“They came back to say, ‘No, it’s not looking good,’ ” Tseng says.
As a consequence, the Taiwanese government began isolating and testing travellers who had been to Wuhan.
It wasn’t until January 23, 2020, that China declared a lockdown in Wuhan. And the U.S. intelligence community later came under criticism for not alerting authorities to the danger to national security posed by the virus.
Tseng says that he’s happy that the U.S. House Intelligence Committee spent two years looking into this issue.
On December 15, the committee released a damning report. It concluded that the intelligence community “was not well positioned or prepared to provide early warning and unique insights on the pandemic”.
Freedom stimulates Taiwanese arts
Taiwan’s economic achievements generate a great deal of attention in the media. In particular, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company attracts coverage because it’s the world’s most valuable company in this sector.
The western media often don’t notice that Taiwan also has a thriving arts and cultural scene. Whether it’s film, visual arts, fashion, or the performing arts, the country has an enviable reputation in Asia.
Tseng links this to the country’s political environment.
“You have to have a free environment for the artists to be able to use their imagination,” he says. “That’s a must if you want them to be creative.”
This climate of freedom has also resulted in improvements for Taiwan’s Indigenous communities.
Tseng says that when he was a junior officer in the foreign service, there were nine registered tribes in the country. Now, there are 16.
“If you don’t have a policy that is respecting Aboriginal background, you won’t have new tribes to come out to register. That’s for sure,” he says. “So, something good must be happening that the Indigenous people in Taiwan feel that they are protected. They are respected.”
In addition, seats are reserved in the national legislature for Indigenous representatives. He also says that his government offers incentives to Indigenous people to attend postsecondary institutions.
India-Taiwan friendship blossoms
Tseng is particularly pleased that Canada recently released its Indo-Pacific Strategy. In part, that’s because it supports economic empowerment of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.
The document notes that Indigenous peoples from across Canada have established ties with their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.
“I think something good is happening,” Tseng says. “It’s clearly stipulated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
As the interview approaches an end, Pancouver asks Tseng about the relationship between Taiwan and India.
With that, the envoy launches into a discussion of President Tsai’s signature New Southbound Policy. Overseen by cabinet minister Deng Cheng-chun, it aims to improve Taiwan’s relationship with 18 countries.
“He led quite a few delegations to visit Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the past two or three years,” Tseng says.
Taiwan’s representative in Canada describes India as the most important nation in this strategy. He notes that one Taiwanese company, Vanguard International, is developing a semiconductor plant in that country.
“You will be surprised if you visit Taiwan’s Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu,” Tseng states. “Tsing Hua University is just next to the science park in Hsinchu. Easily, you will find more than 1,000 Indian students on the campus of Tsing Hua. We have a policy to invite them.”
In the days after Christmas, the New York Times reported a surge of COVID-19 cases in China, just as Tseng had predicted.
“In recent days, local governments have reported hundreds of infections a day,” reporter German Lopez wrote in the paper’s morning newsletter on December 28. “Sick patients are crowding hospital hallways, videos obtained by The Times showed. In a video from The Associated Press, a medical worker at a hospital in Zhuochou, a city near Beijing, asked that a patient be taken elsewhere because the facility was out of oxygen.”
This Reuters video reveals the growing COVID-19 crisis in China.