Unleashed Voice: Andrew Nagorski

Photo by Christina Nagorski
Taiwan's punching very much above its apparent weight

For nearly half a century, Andrew Nagorski has traveled the world as a brilliant observer of the international scene—a foreign correspondent par excellence, for Newsweek, thinking large thoughts for the East West Institute, then drawing on his vast background and reading surrounding the history of Germany and Central Europe producing a succession of masterful books for Simon & Schuster publishers, the most recent being,  Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom.

Recently, he returned to the scene of one of his earlies reporting triumphs—the island of Taiwan—to test the waters at a most opportune moment. Just as Congress was bending itself into knots over aid and military supplies, support for its democracy, these very waters separating the island from mainland China, were being roiled by Beijing's leaders who have continued to insist the territory is little more than another communist Chinese province, its people subject to the whims of the ruling Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Nagorski found a somewhat different story after his arrival.

Nagorski begins his yarn as an Unleashed Voice at a most opportune spot—just below the towering bronze statue of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei that had sheltered him following his precipitous arrival from the mainland in 1949 as described last year by another of our Unleashed Voices, the incomparable Audrey Ronning Topping. It may be one of Nagorski’s last opportunities for this backdrop. On the cusp of erasing among the last traces of the civil war they lost more than a half century ago, while still clinging to their identity as a democracy in the shadow of an increasingly powerful China, the Taiwanese government announced this week that it would be making an effort to remove more than 760 statues of the generalissimo. While the ultimate fate of Chiang's memorial hall with its giant statue is uncertain, the country is moving on. So let’s see what Nagorski did find….

David A. Andelman

When President Carter announced the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in December 1978, I immediately flew from Hong Kong to Taipei to report on the reaction there. Suddenly, the Nationalist government on Taiwan was no longer considered the legitimate representative of China, and the U.S. Embassy in Taipei was about to be stripped of its diplomatic status and renamed the American Institute in Taiwan. By the time I rushed from the airport to the embassy building, angry protesters had gathered, waving banners denouncing “the U.S. and the Communist bandits.” Spotting an embassy station wagon., they splattered eggs on its hood while onlookers cheered.

I edged in to get a closer look and found myself facing a group of young men who were pointing and yelling at me. I was an easy target for their fury since I was the only American in sight; the embassy building was shuttered, and the diplomats had vanished. One of the young men raced ahead of his colleagues, charging straight at me. He made it look like he was giving me a hard shove, but he only pushed lightly on my chest as he leaned forward to give me a message: “You go home, American, you go home.”

It then dawned on me that, while trying to look like the tough guy for his buddies, he was intent on saving me from them. As a rookie foreign correspondent for Newsweek, I felt grateful for his warning and quickly got out of there. I had more than enough color about the anger and anxiety triggered by Carter’s announcement. There would be even more anger on display—and more eggings of official vehicles—two weeks later when Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Taipei, ostensibly to mend fences.

Taiwan is back in the news again—but this time, as I discovered on a recent return visit, the anxiety level about its prospects is distinctly lower there than in the United States and there is no anger in sight.

The headlines in American publications like Foreign Affairs (“The Taiwan Catastrophe”) and The New York Times (“The Risk of a War Over Taiwan is Rising”) are not matched by similar alarmist coverage in Taiwan’s media.

To be sure, China’s military buildup and frequent incursions by its planes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, along with the more aggressive posture of its naval vessels in the Taiwan strait, are monitored closely. So is the often strident rhetoric of China’s President Xi Jinping, who asserted in his New Year’s speech that “reunification” with Taiwan is inevitable.

But the most striking characteristic of Taiwan today is its overall sense of confidence. This island with a mere 24 million inhabitants, as compared to 1.4 billion in China, has made huge strides economically and politically since that period when it was shaken by Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing. Taiwan has not only survived: it has blossomed in numerous ways.

It has done so in large part because it has lived with the threat that it could be swallowed up by its gigantic neighbor ever since Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Kuomintang, or Nationalist, forces fled to Taiwan in 1949. The result has been that most people treat it largely as background noise. As former Premier Liu Chao-shiuan told me, “The tension that is talked about outside Taiwan is not felt here.”

Most people are far more preoccupied with their own well-being. “Taiwanese people are very pragmatic; they want to lead a good life,” says Kwangyin Liu, the managing editor of CommonWealth magazine and host of the Taiwanology podcast.

One of the four “Asian tigers” whose economies took off in the 1980s (the others are Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea), Taiwan is a leading exporter of a wide range of products—and, most significantly, the source of about 90% of the world’s most advanced microchips. Almost every technological advance of the current era has been fueled by the output of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). To say that Taiwan punches above its weight is a vast understatement.

Taipei is not nearly as visibly prosperous and glitzy as Hong Kong, but it now boasts a truly democratic system with unrivaled freedoms that the former British colony can only envy. In the wake of the repeated draconian crackdowns on dissent that have made a mockery of the “one country, two systems” rhetoric that China employed before its takeover in 1997, Hong Kong has now lost all political autonomy. Earlier efforts to introduce sweeping “national security” measures met with massive protests, but there was no such opposition left when it voted on Article 23, formalizing its vast powers of repression, last month. Human Rights Watch minced no words:

When I lived in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, it was the regional hub for most international news agencies and publications, where correspondents could operate and report freely.

Now, Taipei is attracting journalists looking for similar conditions. At an event organized by the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club, I heard references to “the press in exile” and “democracy tourists.” Sandrine Fontaine of Reporters Without Borders points out that her organization set up its East-Asia bureau in Taipei in 2017, citing “security reasons” for not choosing Hong Kong instead. Last year, it was expansively renamed the Asia-Pacific bureau, with responsibility for monitoring press freedoms in 33 countries.

Taiwan’s reputation as a bastion of freedom is relatively new. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime imposed martial law in 1949 and imprisoned 140,000 people suspected of dissent. Even after Chiang’s death in 1975, martial law remained in place until 1987, and the first free presidential elections did not take place until 1996.

China’s rulers have repeatedly signaled their discontent with the results of this succession of free elections, which have increasingly favored the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang’s rivals who have on occasion flirted with the notion of Taiwan independence. Since their victory in 2016, official contacts between China and Taiwan have been largely frozen. Lai Ching-te, the current vice president from the DPP, emerged victorious in the latest election, as Andelman Unleashed chronicled, and he will be inaugurated on May 20.

Once an open proponent of Taiwan independence, which is staunchly opposed by Beijing, he now vows to support “the cross-strait status quo,” leaving Taiwan in its current ambiguous position. As Don Shapiro, a longtime American resident and senior advisor of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan, puts it, “There’s no need to declare independence; doing so would imply they didn’t have it before.”

President-elect Lai also pledges to strengthen the island’s deterrence capabilities, particularly emphasizing the need to learn the lessons provided by Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia. Last month, he pointedly visited a research and development facility for Taiwan’s emerging drone industry.

Successive administrations in Washington have continued to sell arms to Taiwan, despite the lack of a formal defense alliance since the breaking of official diplomatic relations—and continuing protests from Beijing. However, some policy makers worry that the initial fears of a possible dwindling of American support for Taiwan have been replaced by unjustified complacency. “Many people here still believe the U.S. would send troops if Taiwan is threatened,” says former Prime Minister Liu. “I believe that is naïve.”

There is one development that could shake Taiwan’s sense of self-confidence. “If the U.S. walks away from Ukraine, there will be growing distrust in Taiwan,” says journalist Kwangyin Liu. “More people will think the U.S.
is willing to abandon its allies.” Which is what makes the vote on a Ukraine aid package by Congress as critical and central to America's standing the world as a parallel vote on Taiwan assistance.


But for now, the people of Taiwan look intent on relishing their formidable economic and political accomplishments. They are neither dwelling on the past, when the Nationalist government claimed it represented all of China, nor overly fretting about the future. They are hoping to prove that the present and the future are one and the same.