Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Could Taiwan be the next Ukraine?

TAIWAN / The democratic spirit of Taiwan and its complex relationship with its powerful neighbour.

Currently screening as part of the 20th Biografilm Festival in Bologna.

Taiwan had just demonstrated a fierce democratic spirit when the pro-sovereignty candidate William Lai was elected as their new president. Mr. Lai is a follower of Tsai Ing-wen, who just finished her eight-year-long presidency. Much to China’s chagrin, this is the third election in a row where a representative for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency. The party’s growing popularity is due primarily to its strong anti-Chinese stance. With a vote turnout of 72%, the 26 million Taiwanese have shown how committed they are to democratic responsibility. It seems as if China’s brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong in 2019 was a wake-up call for many Taiwanese. Naturally, they want their country to be acknowledged as a sovereign nation as a new generation of Taiwanese feel that their identity is separate from China.

On the other side of the 160 km wide Taiwan Strait lies its powerful neighbour, China, who insists that one day these two nations will be «peacefully reunified» as «one country under two systems.» It is hard to imagine how such a «reunification» could ever be peaceful when each state is developing in its opposite socio-political direction.

While China continues to rule under authoritarian leadership, Taiwan has become one of the most liberating, free-spirited democratic nations in Asia. Its international rank in freedom of the press, civil liberties, and the functioning of government places the country on the same level as that of the Scandinavians.

Invisible Nation Vanessa Hope
Invisible Nation, a film by Vanessa Hope

A tribute to democracy

Invisible Nation, by Vanessa Hope, pays first and foremost a tribute to the president at the time, Tsai Ing-wen. What makes the documentary unique is the close access that the crew gets to Taiwan’s first female president and to the other party members of the PPT. What strikes us right away is the youthfulness of many of its leaders. Rock stars and LGBT members turned into active civil servants. Indeed, Taiwan was the first country in Asia to acknowledge same-sex marriage.

Their fluent American English reveals a very close tie with American culture and, most probably, to the educational system in the US. Tsai Ing-wen originally wanted to become an archeologist, but upon arriving at the prestigious Cornell University in New York, she became aware of her desire to fight for Taiwan’s sovereignty. Despite continuous warnings from China, Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy has been to deepen the connections with Washington. It is not by chance that all the experts talking in Invisible Nation are from the US.

While China continues to rule under authoritarian leadership, Taiwan has become one of the most liberating, free-spirited democratic nations in Asia.

International Isolation

Tawain’s unofficial friendly ties with the US have been particularly important since 1971, when it lost its representation in the UN in favour of China. Since then, Taiwan has been losing its international friends. Over 50 nations have cut their diplomatic ties with Taiwan since the 70s. As these lines are being written, BBC News reports that the tiny island of Naur just ended its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China. That leaves Taiwan with only 11 nations who are still holding on to their diplomatic ties with Taipei.

While China is persistently conducting military practice in the Taiwan Strait, they are also vigorously working on isolating Tawain internationally. As an American expert expressed himself in Invisible Nation, «Authoritarian regimes want to destroy democratic nations one by one… That is why being isolated is so dangerous.»

Invisible Nation Vanessa Hope
Invisible Nation, a film by Vanessa Hope

Could Taiwan be the next Ukraine?

The former Eastern European countries have resisted China’s pressure the best. They know what it is like to have a powerful and aggressive nation as their closest neighbour. Vanessa Hope draws a connection between Taiwan and Ukraine by showing film sequences of war destruction in the latter country at the end of her film. Drawing this parallel, she asks us if Taiwan could share the same fate as Ukraine.

While China’s military budget is 20 times greater than that of Taiwan, the Taiwan government has clearly said that they are ready to defend themselves. Yet, considering the threat of escalation, the possibility of a full-blown war in the Pacific seems to me to be rather minute.

Although the US government does not recognise Taiwanese independence, they would never passively watch China take over Taiwan. The reason is Taiwan’s unique geopolitical position. If Taiwan was to fall to China, Japan would no longer be able to defend itself from a potential invasion. The same goes for the Philippines in the south. The possibility of a «domino effect» of democratic nations being overthrown by authoritarian rule is something that the US government would most probably not allow to happen. In other words, they would not hesitate to intervene if China invaded Tawain.

The growing gap between the very rich and those who lack creates dissatisfaction among its citizens and can potentially destabilise any democratic government.

Internal threats

What Invisible Nation fails to address is that the greatest threats to democracy do not have to be external aggressors but can come from internal pressure. The growing gap between the very rich and those who lack creates dissatisfaction among its citizens and can potentially destabilise any democratic government. With it comes the unpopularity of long working hours and the growing housing shortage. Invisible Nation does not explore these issues. On the contrary, the film could easily be confused for an information film ordered by the PPT themselves. It is otherwise a well-informed documentary despite lacking a critical voice.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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