Fiona Rintoul: Across the world, island nations are wilfully misunderstood by big, burly neighbours

New Year is, traditionally, a time for reflection. This year, it has been hard not to dip into pessimism.

The world feels like a much scarier place than it did this time last year. Serious commentators are using the phrase “third world war” worryingly often.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the global peril that we face better than the situation in Taiwan. Threatened with non-voluntary reincorporation into the People’s Republic of China, the disputed island nation’s position looks increasingly precarious.

When I look across the Minch from the Outer Hebrides to the mainland these days, I often think of the time I spent in Taiwan in the late 1980s. These are two very different places, but they have surprisingly much in common.

Like the Outer Hebrides, Taiwan lies across the sea from a much larger and more imposing neighbour. Like the Outer Hebrides, it has sometimes been part of that looming larger landmass and sometimes not.

I don’t remember ever being able to see China from Taiwan, the way you can see the mainland of Scotland from our home in Harris on a clear day. But China is close. Just 130km separates Taiwan from the People’s Republic at the narrowest point on the Taiwan strait. And China makes its proximity felt, sending fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace on a daily basis.

Christmas lights in Taipei. Image: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the late 1980s, China’s threats to reclaim Taiwan felt empty. To us foreigners, China’s posturing about Taiwan seemed as ridiculous as Taiwan’s claim to be the government in exile of the Republic of China.

That anomaly stemmed from the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century. When the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the defeated Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan to continue the Republic of China under its leader Chiang Kai-shek.

The whole thing seemed profoundly silly to us. Everyone was playing make-believe – and the global community had colluded. Until 1971, the Republic of China represented China at the UN.

However, on the ground, none of it seemed to matter. The friends I made in Taiwan didn’t worry about China. They hardly mentioned it. They worried about the Nationalist Party’s domination of Taiwanese politics – since broken – and about freedom of information and expression.

China’s threats are real

I remember smuggling a Chinese translation of Sterling Seagrave’s book The Soong Dynasty into Taiwan from Hong Kong for a friend. She received it as a precious object. It blew the lid on the dirty dealings of Chiang Kai-shek, whose widow, Soong Mei-ling, was then still alive, and on the brutality of the Nationalist regime before it was expelled by the Communists.

Reports from Taiwan, which goes to the polls on January 13 to elect a new president, suggest that people are still getting on with their lives, despite China’s sabre-rattling. But only a fool would dismiss the situation as silliness now.

Hands up anyone who thought Putin would never invade Ukraine. Too risky. Too stupid. Too provocative. Yeah, me too.

We’ve all learnt our lesson. China’s threats are real. I worry about my old friends in Taiwan.

Traigh Mhor beach and its grassy dunes at North Tolsta on the Isle of Lewis. Image: Stephen Bridger/Shutterstock

Living in the Outer Hebrides, I feel I understand the threat better than I might if I were living in, say, London or Berlin. It’s about being on an island.

You are always aware that you are on an island in Taiwan. And, on an island, there’s nowhere to run. Just the great thrashing ocean at your back. You’re usually the smaller, weaker party, misunderstood – sometimes wilfully – by your burly neighbour.

The Chinese Communist Party’s position on Taiwan is that it is an inalienable part of China and must one day be reunified with the mainland. Listening to a People’s Republic of China spokesperson expounding this view on the radio recently, I felt much the same frustration that I do when I hear Scottish politicians failing miserably to get the isles or UK politicians dismissing Scottish ambitions for independence as narrow nationalism.

“Can’t you even try to understand?” I wanted to scream.

We must try to understand each other

Polls show that the people of Taiwan have no desire to rejoin the mothership, and who can blame them? Look at Hong Kong. And Taiwan is its own place with its own history. Much of the population moved there from Fujian province in the 17th century and consider themselves Taiwanese. The indigenous peoples are not Han Chinese and settled in Taiwan 6,000 years ago.

China doesn’t want to understand this. It’s expedient not to do so. In much the same way, some UK politicians don’t want to understand Scotland – or certain sides of it. And some Scottish politicians – most, I’d humbly suggest – don’t want to understand our islands.

But if this past year, with all its brutal conflicts, has one lesson for us, it is that whichever real or metaphorical island we’re on, we must try to understand each other. Bad stuff happens if we don’t.

Fiona Rintoul is an author and translator

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