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Should America just chill out about China and Taiwan?

I freelance journalist who lives in Taiwan has written an opinion piece for CNN about Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. According to Clarissa Wei, most Taiwanese people she knows aren’t nearly as worked up about this as the American media seems to be.

There’s a jolting disconnect between how the outside world perceives Taiwan (as a potential flashpoint for world war), and how we in Taiwan see Taiwan (our dear home where we live). And part of that disconnect is because the international conversation about Taiwan is filtered through a geopolitical lens and almost always in the context of China.

But what’s most frustrating about the reaction to Pelosi’s visit is not the prophetic declaration of imminent doom, but the expectation of fear and the surprise that follows when people realize that we aren’t all panicking in Taiwan — as if the calm we exude in light of unprecedented threats is a symptom of our ignorance of the facts before us…

…as a fellow Taiwanese friend put it, the Chinese threat is like a cancer in remission that continuously threatens to come back. We’ve been infected with it for decades and are acutely aware that it very well might kill us this time around. However, these are long-standing issues the Taiwanese people have been raising for years — more often than not to deaf ears.

Pelosi’s visit is a very welcome gesture of solidarity, but the hyperbolic alarms sounding off as a result of her visit only play to China’s advantage and supports the illusion that Taiwan is not a democratic country with its own laws and borders. Many are criticizing Pelosi’s visit as upsetting the delicate balance of geopolitics, but lawmakers have every right to visit the island and have done so many times in the past, despite Chinese ire…

I do not think about China on a regular basis and have to continuously remind myself that any anxiety I feel from the consequences of Pelosi’s visit is externally influenced. I’ve been asking my Taiwanese friends for reassurance of this, and they too have told me that no one in their circles is talking about the Pelosi visit. “I’m sure China and their trolls are going to be pissed about that,” my friend joked.

I don’t doubt that the author is accurately reflecting a lack of panic among her friends and family. On Twitter she even posted an exchange with her mother to prove the point:

Clearly there is a disconnect between the international conversation and the one happening in Taiwan. That disconnect is at least partly the result of Taiwan facing this threat for years. The comparison to cancer in remission is an interesting one. At a certain point, you can’t be in a constant panic about the potential for cancer to kill you. You have to try to carry on living your life apart from that fear.

I guess there’s a certain wisdom in that. But if we extend the metaphor a bit further, a person still has a choice in how they decide to live with cancer. They can choose to ignore it to the point that when it returns they don’t even notice until it’s too late or they can make an effort to improve their health and keep a wary eye for any signs of its return. Neither option is a guarantee of a good outcome when it comes to cancer, unfortunately. But generally speaking it’s better not to skip follow up appointments with your doctor just because you’re busy with life and feeling fine. You can in fact go too far in shrugging off the threat.

Metaphors aside, there is some reason to think the threats against Taiwan are qualitatively different than they have been in the past. For one thing, Xi Jinping is setting himself up at the most important Chinese leader since Mao and he has vowed that reunification will happen. And there’s plenty of evidence that he’s serious about that. Mainland spending on the military has increased dramatically under Xi.

We’ve also seen him completely end the independence of Hong Kong. Three years ago there were protesters in the street waving American flags. By May of 2020, China had effectively put an end to Hong Kong’s independence. Less than a year after that, mainland China was demanding “patriotism” from Hong Kong leaders. Freedom of the press came to an end. The point is that there can be an existing threat for a long time, to the point that you barely think about it anymore. And then over a period of two years, that threat can completely destroy your society. We’ve seen a much more violent version of this dynamic playing out in Ukraine since March.

Should everyone in Taiwan be in a state of constant panic over Chinese saber rattling? No, of course not. Should they recognize that the threat is potentially more serious than it has been in the past? I think so. Don’t panic but do get ready because Xi has already done this once and you’re next on his hit list.