Politics

Life goes on more or less as normal for people in Taiwan – even amid a geopolitical crisis

Rachel Chen, managing editor of Big Issue Taiwan, talks of daily life in Taiwan in the shadow of China's power

Illustration: Big Issue Image: Alamy / Courtesy of Big Issue Taiwan

The relationship between Taiwan and China, which considers it one of its provinces rather than its own independent country, is at a precarious stalemate. A recent election has brought these tensions to the surface. There may be the threat of invasion but despite this, life goes on more or less as normal for the people of Taiwan, even amid a geopolitical crisis. Rachel Chen, managing editor of our sister paper The Big Issue Taiwan – one of dozens of street papers operating across the world – explains the situation, ahead of the inauguration of the new president taking place in May.

The Big Issue Taiwan’s Rachel Chen Image: Courtesey of Big Issue Taiwan

A note from Rachel Chen: “Before answering the questions, I declare myself currently a supporter of DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and I am pro-democracy. My statements cannot represent The Big Issue Taiwan and all Taiwanese.”

How is daily life in Taiwan impacted by a constant threat from China?

The threat has always been there. However, it feels more and more real after we saw what happened in Hong Kong and how Russia invaded Ukraine. For eight years, Taiwan has been governed by president Tsai Ing-wen, and our attitude towards China has been clear. We won’t do anything to provoke China, [unless] they do anything to harm our democracy.

It is true that we are afraid of China’s invasion of Taiwan by force, but we are trying to make our own democratic institutions more complete, so that more disadvantaged people can be taken care of, and to help each other in the international arena with the countries that support democracy and freedom, without being overbearing. All of the current provocations come from China, whether it’s military planes circling Taiwan or economic and diplomatic sanctions. But our freedom and democracy cannot be compromised or sacrificed for fear of this, and we are very firm on this. We should not make any decision based on ‘whether it will provoke China’.

President Tsai came up with the name “Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan” for our country, which I think is very smart. This encompasses people of all stripes: supporters of Taiwan’s independence, supporters of the Republic of China, supporters of maintaining an ambiguous status quo. Now, she is about to leave office. Many people thought that having a DPP president who is not close to China would lead to war, but that has not happened. China’s Cognitive Warfare is more worrying than war. This includes pervasive fake news and information warfare on social media.

How do you report on elections?

The Big Issue Taiwan does not report on this subject any more. In Taiwan, talking about these issues can occasionally lead to very serious confrontation and division. In particular, supporters of the pro-China party Kuomintang (KMT) and the DPP have been at odds with each other for a long time, and this year there is the emergence of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). While I personally believe that Taiwan’s elections are a choice between democracy and authoritarianism, many people think that people who talk about politics just want to argue. So you have to be very careful when talking about these issues in Taiwan, it can become very problematic when a media outlet is labelled with a specific political stance.

Ahead of the election, what were the biggest issues discussed by people? Was it China or issues closer to home like jobs and the economy?

In presidential elections, the relationship with China and the United States is usually a major concern. This is followed by housing justice (for high housing prices), fertility policy (for low birth rates), green energy development (for prevention of nuclear disasters, environmental sustainability, and stability of power supply), and gender equality (more support for women).

What were the main differences between candidates?

If we were to compare the differences between the three groups, we could probably talk about it for three days! Let’s take the most important relationship – the one between China and the US – as an example:

Lai Ching-Te and Hsiao Bi-khim of the DPP were mainly continuing President Tsai’s route. They are more distant from China and closer to the US. With the slogan of “democracy against authoritarianism”, they will try to win the support of all democratic countries in the world. Hsiao’s diplomatic background – she served as our representative in the United States – helped Lai a lot during the election.

The KMT has been pro-China  for the past 20 years. They advocate exchanges, talks, and more trade with China. The main message of their election campaign was that “the DPP is choosing to fight with China”, claiming that voting for the KMT is the only choice that will not provoke China.

The new TPP, led by Ko Wen-je, fluctuated in their statements on China. The DPP helped Ko’s rise by pushing him to become a candidate when he was unaffiliated. However, Ko was then critical of the DPP, and during the election process, Ko discussed working with the KMT to put forward a combination of candidates, rather than running separately. This has confused many people: what exactly is Ko’s position? His answer is: “Let the people live a good life.” Very abstract. However, being an emerging political party, this kind of ambiguity in policy has attracted many young voters who are tired of blue and green, and that’s the main reason why they got 26% of the vote.

Was it a surprise when the DPP won?

It is no surprise that Lai and Hsiao won the election because the KMT and TPP ran separately, which gave the DPP a better chance of winning. But the TPP does have potential. As an emerging party running for president for the first time, they took 26.46% of the vote. This left Lai and Hsiao with only 40.05%, the lowest in the last three presidential elections.

What do you think will happen next?

Let’s wait and see. The DPP will really tremble in these four years because they don’t have more than half the seats in congress. Whether it can handle its relationship with China well is the biggest test, and it also needs to appease the KMT voters who are particularly concerned about the economy and making money, and the TPP voters who are particularly concerned about rationality and efficiency.

This is the first time in history that the same political party has stayed in power for a third term. As a result, there will be no honeymoon period for Lai’s government. He will need to have great communication skills to try his best to avoid a deadlock in the congress.

Have recent events impacted vendors?

The DPP’s long-standing support for culture and democracy is the best result for street papers as of now. The KMT is very conservative in the cultural industry. The TPP uses science, rationality and pragmatism as its slogans, and it has not even proposed any cultural policy.

Can you tell us a bit about the vendors you work with? 

We now have more than 70 salespersons, aged 64 on average, most of whom are middle-aged unemployed, physically or mentally challenged, or homeless. They are referred by social welfare organisations to us for selling magazines. They sell magazines in crowded places, such as school entrances, metro stations, store entrances and street corners. Taipei has the largest number of sellers. In other places we work with local social welfare organisations and bookstores to deposit magazines, so that the local vendors don’t have to come all the way to Taipei.

The Big Issue Taiwan has been around for 14 years, and we’ve definitely helped a lot of our vendors become self-sufficient and at least be able to rent an apartment without having to live on the streets or go hungry.

What messages would you like to give to readers from around the world?

Welcome to Taiwan. You will enjoy the democracy and freedom, the warmth and hospitality of the people, the delicious and cheap night markets, and the large modern shopping centres like Taipei 101. If you hear the word “Taiwan”, we are a country with a completely different style of life than China. And certainly not part of China. If you agree with democracy, please make our voice heard. It sounds very patriotic, and I know that there is always room for improvement, but we are often so misunderstood, I want to say these things whenever I have the chance.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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