The recent visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and China’s responses have captured worldwide attention. Yet in many international media, Taiwan is often seen as a passive entity or a pawn in agencyless US-China relations.
The country, however, has been an active participant: its people elect its own president and its diaspora creates communities overseas, often excelling in business ventures and leading the debate on Taiwan’s future.
Growing up in Taiwan and living abroad for the past few years, I have discovered that the challenges posed only make Taiwanese people stronger. They find their way diplomatically, economically and culturally – even in Argentina.
Alternative diplomatic relations
After Nicaragua severed ties with Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), at the end of 2021, Taipei had only 14 allied countries left in the world. In Latin America, they included Paraguay, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Argentina stopped recognizing Taiwan as a country in 1972, but the two still maintain economic and cultural ties through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Argentina.
The current director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Argentina, Ambassador Miguel Li-jey Tsao, points out that there are still multiple alternatives through which the two countries can cooperate, despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations.
“First, the economies of Argentina and Taiwan are complementary: agriculture and livestock on the one hand, and technology on the other – which includes computers, medicine and semiconductors, among other remarkable industries,” Ambassador Tsao, 62, said in an interview with the Time.
“In 2021, as the global economy collapsed due to the Covid pandemic, bilateral trade between the aforementioned countries increased,” he revealed.
Data from the Taiwan Customs Agency shows that Taiwan’s imports from Argentina reached $453.25 million, a significant increase of 73.3%, while exports stood at $267. $59 million, with growth of 42.4%.
“In addition, a 50% increase was recorded for the first quarter of 2022,” Ambassador Tsao added.
The office also works to create a Taiwanese cultural presence in Argentina through the promotion of the country’s cuisine, language, and tourism resources. Recent initiatives include the showing of Taiwanese films at various venues in Buenos Aires, as well as educational support including scholarship programs, professional training workshops and think tank cooperation.
Ambassador Tsao, who previously served in Peru and Panama, is optimistic about the diplomatic challenges he faces, despite the obstacles. A former vice minister of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) with 36 years of experience as a diplomat, Tsao is keen to bring Taiwan’s history to a wider audience.
Immigration to Argentina
Taiwan’s presence in Argentina has been led by immigrants. In Buenos Aires, the famous Barrio Chino (Chinatown) sector of Bajo Belgrano was initially centered on Calle Taiwán, in reference to the influx of Taiwanese who arrived there in the early 1980s, while the supermarkets that Argentines call ‘chinos‘ today were first owned by Taiwanese immigrants, who then sold them to Chinese immigrants who arrived in large numbers a decade later.
The main wave of Taiwanese immigration was caused by a combination of several factors, including economic, political, and educational.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, many young people between the ages of 30 and 40, including myself, moved to Argentina for the next generation, so that our children could grow up in a better environment, receive a better education”, Kun- Yao Lee, 72, a consultant for the Taiwanese Civil Association in Argentina and a volunteer historical researcher who has researched Taiwanese immigration to Argentina, said in an interview.
In the early 1980s, Taiwan was still under martial law, which was finally repealed in 1987. Internationally, the United States established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These political uncertainties contributed to the reasons Taiwanese moved to Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s.
Susana Chen, 68, owner of Asia Oriental, an East Asian supermarket in Barrio Chino, told me her story of immigrating to Argentina, recalling her early language difficulties.
“When we arrived, we didn’t speak Spanish well. My husband had kidney stones and my daughter had an ear infection. At one point, we regretted coming because of communication difficulties with these health issues,” she recalls.
“But we were so surprised because they didn’t care whether we were carrying our IDs or not, they insisted on giving them care, not asking us to pay anything. I don’t know if it was education that formulated this, but they have a lot of love and they care about our lives despite our different nationalities, they put life first. That’s what I love about Argentina – their love, their kindness, their passion and their beauty,” the grateful trader said.
The Taiwanese have maintained their roots through the organization and participation of religious groups, mandarin schools and cultural events held in Argentina. The activities help ensure that Taiwanese identity is passed on to the next generation.
“Initially, when the Taiwanese gathered [together]they didn’t know it preserved Taiwanese culture,” said Diana Huang, 64, president of the Taiwanese Civil Association in Argentina.
Nevertheless, like many third-culture children, children of Taiwanese parents in Argentina often doubt whether they are really “Taiwanese” or not, especially when many Asians are often called chinos by locals, a term that generalizes Asians as Chinese.
“We hope that by continuing to establish an understanding of Taiwan’s homeland through the association, we will pass on to future generations a sense of identity, to remember their Taiwan roots.” considered Diana. While the Taiwanese diaspora left Taiwan for different reasons, they maintain their Taiwanese identity while continuing to build community and support each other along the way, especially in the face of common hardships as immigrants.
So how are Taiwanese and Chinese different? The most obvious difference dates from recent history, particularly since 1895, when China’s Qing dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War and handed Taiwan back to Japan. Taiwan went through 50 years of Japanese colonization and even shifted to a Japanese identity until the end of World War II in 1945, when Taiwan was returned to the ROC, first established in 1911. Four years later, when the Chinese Civil War broke out in 1949, the ruling ROC Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan awaiting an opportunity to reclaim China. However, in the absence of the KMT, the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China, leaving the KMT stranded on the island of Taiwan. Since then, China and Taiwan have existed as two separate and independent governmental entities, the PRC (China) and the ROC (Taiwan).
Some differences are due to politics: China experienced a cultural revolution from 1966, adopting the one-child policy. They use simplified Chinese characters, and today Chinese citizens face strict restrictions on internet usage. Taiwan, by contrast, had its first democratically elected president in 1996, legalized same-sex marriage, uses traditional Chinese characters and allows religious freedom. These policies also formulate different structures on how people live their lives and what values are upheld in different societies. The similarities are also evident – the two countries share linguistic and cultural ties as most Taiwanese ancestors, with the exception of many Taiwanese indigenous groups, came from the Chinese province of Fujian three centuries ago.
However, recent events highlight the challenges ahead. Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, announced that “reunification” must be “achieved” and on August 3, the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, declared on television that “after the reunification”, the Beijing government would “implement re-education”.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I know the past and the stories of my people. We are a versatile people, who always find a way with their will, just as the local diaspora here in Argentina has managed. I know I’m Taiwanese, like 23.5 million other people.
Any attempt to erase the Taiwanese identity is therefore doomed to failure. As long as there is freedom of expression elsewhere in the world, our diaspora will remember its roots and continue to transmit its culture and identity. This is our story, this is what we have been through.