Boots on the Ground: Taiwan, at Home and Abroad

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Johns: Thank you for joining us! You’re in Puerto Rico now, but where in the world were you and what were you doing there?

Juan López: I was in Taiwan for the past three weeks on a study abroad ‘May-mester’ course, “Politics and Globalization in Taiwan,” with my school Loyola University Maryland.

MJ: What was the most interesting thing you learned or observed while in Taiwan?

JL: One of the reasons why I thought Taiwan has ‘still’ not been invaded by China was because of this whole semiconductor deal: it wouldn’t be prudent for China to invade Taiwan. That was my main guess as to the reason why they’re still a democracy. But when I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to see that their politics and democracy is very vibrant and they’re very active, they have really strong institutions. The people themselves have become accustomed to being and living in a democracy. So I feel like that is their strong suit more than the whole semiconductor industry. I think that was a big misconception that I had.

MJ: What is it about Taiwanese politics or culture that makes you say they’re very democratic?

JL: When I went, I wasn’t aware of how their political system was set up. But the number of people who do go out and vote and participate in the democratic process is significant; I would say more so than in the United States. It’s a very obviously capitalist society, and they’re very into private property and big business, but you still have very strong government involvement in people’s lives, so people feel less suspicious of their government. There’s more public transportation, and they have national health care, and things like that—and the people fight for it. You would expect that in such a rich country, people wouldn’t, really; in the United States, people are really not into having the government be in all their business. But the Taiwanese have realized: “we’re successful, our economy is moving, and we want our government to serve us.” 

MJ: What do people in Taiwan think about their relationship with the United States, especially given their relationship with China? How do Taiwanese people conceive of these relationships?

JL: I expected them to be a little bit bitter about the United States not recognizing them and instead recognizing the PRC. But that was not the feeling I was getting at all. They were very conscious and rational about that aspect, and they were very pro-U.S. But while they value the relationship with the United States, I would say they don’t rely on it. They’re prepared to fight for themselves. I feel like that’s one of their strong suits, that they’re able to kind of put two and two apart and not hold anything against the United States.

MJ: What impression did you get of how the Taiwanese think about their place in the region? There’s a lot of interesting things happening, not just with respect to Taiwan’s security challenges, but also with respect to economic development as a leader, as you say, in manufacturing and other industries. What’s the sense that you got of the Taiwanese perspective on where they are in the region?

JL: I think they’re very aware of the “power” that they hold in the region, and how influential they are, to the point that they’re protective of it. They’re protective of their institutions and ensuring that their institutions are secure from outside influences like China. They’re also aware of the hold, the impact that they have in the global market. One of the things that I was thinking about was: there’s South Korea, there’s Japan, and then Taiwan and the Philippines, and it’s like this wall that’s kind of protecting the United States. So I feel like they understand that they’re a key strategic point in that wall.

They’re also very protective of their institutions in part because of their regional position. They’re aware of how political polarization is a worldwide thing, but it’s interesting to see how China plays into local politics by investing into certain people and practices because Beijing knows it can encourage a certain outcome. So while I was there, I was seeing that they were aware of this, and they were acting towards ending this influence.

MJ: Yeah, it’s interesting how that determines politics in Taiwan, which has a rather unique party split given their history; it doesn’t track very neatly onto regular Western notions of left and right in part because of that history with China.

I want to ask you one more question. What was your favorite part of being in Taiwan?

JL: The best part of being in Taiwan. I would have to say the food. There are a lot of night markets that are open 24/7, so after a long day of just studying and reading and going to museums it was fun to know that you could just walk out of your dorm and our hotel and walk a couple minutes and just find everything under the sun. Candied strawberries, stinky tofu—you’re flying across the Pacific and you can’t be eating comfort food. You have to put yourself out there. 

MJ: Absolutely, Taiwanese street food is famous, and there are a bunch of places near me in Northern Virginia that exclusively serve it or food inspired by it. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us!

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