In 2011, I published a book entitled Why Taiwan Matters. More than a decade later, one might well ask, does Taiwan still matter? And if so, why?
Based on the essays in this collection and the US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group that gave rise to them, the answer to the first question is undoubtedly yes: Taiwan still matters. The essays that follow provide powerful answers as to why.
The US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group was conceived in conversations at the Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS) at the University of California Berkeley. Scholars and administrators at the IEAS saw a need to cultivate Taiwan expertise among younger academics and other professionals. While earlier generations of China specialists included many who studied in Taiwan, more recent students of Chinese language have been able to study in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and many miss out on the opportunity to experience Taiwan deeply. One result is a community of China specialists who see Taiwan primarily through Beijing’s preferred lens. While they may be skeptical of that lens, it is hard for them to develop a truly independent sense of Taiwan – one that is neither PRC-centric nor US-centric. The goal of the US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group is to equip a new generation with the knowledge and access to develop their own understanding of the island and its people.
One target audience for the program is scholars and policymakers who work in China-related fields. But as the program developed, we also realized its potential value to non-China specialists whose professional expertise is in fields where Taiwan has won global recognition. One reason Taiwan matters is its remarkable achievements in important fields from manufacturing and technology to public health and medical care to public communication and information management. The US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group includes young professionals from many fields who are interested in learning about Taiwan’s successes and applying lessons from Taiwan to their work in the United States.
Another important feature of the US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group program is its commitment to transcending the view that Taiwan matters only as an economic player or geopolitical hotspot. Our participants are interested in learning about Taiwan for its own sake, as the subject of its own history rather than as an object of others’ ambitions. Their projects and interactions center Taiwanese people and prioritize the interests and aspirations of Taiwanese themselves, although they do not ignore or minimize the external challenges facing Taiwan.
In sum, the US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group starts with the idea that Taiwan still matters. It matters because it is home to some 23 million souls, each of whom matters in the way that all human beings do. It matters too because it is a community that has strived for decades to construct a shared public life marked by democratic self-government that allows all voices to be heard and all perspectives to be considered. And finally, Taiwan matters because of what it both contributes and represents to the world. Its extraordinary economic success contributes to prosperity, comfort, and connection throughout the world. Its embrace of democracy stands as proof that democratic politics can grow in cultural and political environments many assume to be hostile to representative government. And its effervescent society shows that a community can both honor its traditions and embrace change. The US-Taiwan Next Generation Working Group explores each of these dimensions. The essays in this collection are just a sampling of what our group has achieved.