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 Hsiao Bi-khim, the Taiwanese representative to the United States, taking a tour of the Chicago River on Sept. 28. Her nation is under constant threat by Communist China.
Hsiao Bi-khim, the Taiwanese representative to the United States, taking a tour of the Chicago River on Sept. 28. Her nation is under constant threat by Communist China.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

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Taiwan ‘cat warriors’ evade China’s jaws

The spunky little democracy is in a constant struggle to stave off communist aggression.

A wolf and a cat are born on the same day. The wolf pup is much bigger, maybe a pound at birth. The kitten, closer to four ounces. But they roll and tumble, playmates if not friends.

Time passes. Both grow. The wolf becomes 150 pounds. The cat, 10. The wolf is sharp-eyed, fierce and hungry, looking for its next meal. The cat is anxious, constantly trying to keep from ending up in the wolf’s belly.

Welcome to the China-Taiwan relationship, circa 2021. Both nations were founded at the same time, in the late 1940s. Taiwan was never part of Communist China. But China insists Taiwan is its possession anyway and wants it, eventually.

Communist China is much, much bigger: 1.3 billion people over 3.705 million square miles. Taiwan has 23 million people on almost 14,000 square miles, or less than 12 of 1 percent the area of China.

Which leads to the question of why China is so keen to snap it up, even though doing so would plunge the global economy into chaos? And the answer is: because they’re China, growing in power and aggression, keen to claim everything it thinks is its due, Hong Kong was returned from Britain and is being brutally suppressed.

Next on the agenda is Taiwan, which it describes as a “renegade province.” Trouble is brewing. On Friday, the Chinese sent 38 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone. The whole flap over the United States selling submarines to Australia is about keeping China from gobbling up its neighbors.

Trying to keep a distracted world aware, if not exactly focused, on their delicate situation is a continuing task for Taiwan. That’s what brought Hsiao Bi-khim, the Taiwanese representative to the United States, to Chicago last week, and how we ended up sitting in the prow of Chicago’s First Lady, politely balancing paper plates of deep dish pizza that neither of us wanted on our knees, and talking international relations as the glittering riverfront skyscrapers slid by.

“Taiwan and the United States share common values and interests,” said Hsiao, who went to school at Oberlin and Columbia University. “Those values are in democracy and freedom. Those interests in the stability of the Indo-Pacific region and economic prosperity.”

Taiwan calls her “an ambassador,” though in reality the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, at the insistence of China, which shrieks at the smallest recognition of Taiwan as an independent country.

“China has certainly tried to block Taiwan’s international engagements, including our relations with the United States,” she said, noting a new boldness on our country’s part. “In recent years, there has been a new perspective on the need to engage with Taiwan.”

Warming toward Taiwan was one of the few things that Donald Trump got right.

In years past, there was a significant movement in Taiwan to accept Chinese authority. That quieted down after the crushing of civil rights in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has certainly had an impact on the public mindset in Taiwan, fortifying our determination to defend the freedom and basic rights that we have in Taiwan,” Hsiao said. “Obviously, they have reneged on their commitments to basic rights in Hong Kong.”

Thousands of Americans study in China, and they’d like them to consider studying in Taiwan instead.

“Our agenda here in Chicago, in addition to the economic and business engagements ... is [to promote] educational opportunities,” she said. “American schools want to study and learn in an environment free of coercion and censorship. We are providing Taiwan as an alternative for Chinese and Mandarin education. We cherish academic freedom and the freedom of speech, all the values that American universities cherish.”

In theory, given how easily places like DePaul yank away the welcome mat from speakers who stray a toe away from current cant. Which raises the question of how the United States can, with a straight face, encourage democracy abroad while seeing it undermined so perilously at home?

Maybe by contemplating how much worse off we’ll be should China carry out its threats against Taiwan. As bad as that would be for the boisterous democracy there, it would also be terrible for us, already squirming under the heel of the ascendent communists.

I hate to put another concern on the groaning buffet table of worries. But at least when the crisis comes — tomorrow, or next week, or next year, but someday soon — at least you can say, “Hey, I read something about that ...”

Before I let Hsiao go back to Washington, I had to ask her. When she took her position last year, she said she would bring a “cat warrior” approach to facing China. What’s that all about?

“It originated when the press asked me how I would confront the wolf warriors of China,” she said. “I think the spirit of a cat warrior does exemplify where Taiwan is. That is, we need to be nimble and flexible and survive in small spaces. Cats are more likable than wolves, obviously. Another important aspect is cats cannot be coerced. You cannot force a cat to do something. We have a mind of our own, We can survive in very challenging circumstances. That’s the spirit of the Taiwanese people.”

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