The recent visit of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan and China’s responses has seized attention worldwide. Yet, in many international media outlets, Taiwan is often seen as a passive entity or a pawn in the US-China relationship without agency.
The country, however, has been an active participant: its people elect their own president and its diaspora creates communities overseas, often excelling in business activities, and leading debate about Taiwan’s future.
Growing up in Taiwan and living abroad in recent years, I have discovered that the challenges posed only make Taiwanese people stronger. They are finding their way around diplomatically, economically, and culturally – even in Argentina.
Alternative diplomatic relationships
After Nicaragua cut ties with Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), in late 2021, Taipei had only 14 allied countries left in the world. In Latin America, they included Paraguay, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Argentina stopped recognising Taiwan as a country in 1972, but the two still maintain economic and cultural connections 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, stresses that there are still multiple alternatives through which both countries may cooperate, despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations.
“Firstly, Argentina and Taiwan’s economies are complementary: agriculture and livestock on one hand, and technology on the other – which includes computer science, medicine, and semiconductors, among other outstanding industries,” Ambassador Tsao, 62, said in an interview with the Times.
“In 2021, whilst the global economy plummeted due to the Covid pandemic, bilateral trade between the aforementioned countries increased,” he revealed.
Data from Taiwan’s Customs agency shows that Taiwan’s imports from Argentina reached US$453.25 million, a significant increase of 73.3 percent, while exports stood at US$267.59 million, with a growth of 42.4 percent.
“In addition, a 50 percent increase was recorded for the first quarter of 2022,” added Ambassador Tsao.
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 have included the showcasing of Taiwanese films at various venues across Buenos Aires, as well as educational support including scholarship programmes, professional training workshops and cooperation between think tanks.
Ambassador Tsao, who previously served in Peru and Panama, is optimistic about the diplomatic challenges facing him, despite the obstacles. A former vice-minister of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) with 36 years of experience as a diplomat, Tsao is keen to bring Taiwan’s story to a larger audience.
Immigration to Argentina
Taiwan’s presence in Argentina has been spearheaded by immigrants. In Buenos Aires, the famous Barrio Chino (Chinatown) sector in Bajo Belgrano initially centred 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 30 to 40-year-olds, including myself, moved to Argentina for the next generation, so our children could grow up in a better environment, receive a better education,” Kun-Yao Lee, 72, consultant of Taiwanese Civil Association in Argentina and history research volunteer who has done research on Taiwanese immigration to Argentina, said in an interview.
In the early 1980s, Taiwan was still under martial law, which was eventually repealed in 1987. Internationally, the United States established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These political uncertainties contributed to the reasons why Taiwanese people moved to Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s.
Susana Chen, 68, the owner of Asia Oriental, an East Asian Supermarket in Barrio Chino, shared with me her tale of immigrating to Argentina, recalling her initial language difficulties.
“When we first came, we did not speak Spanish well. My husband got kidney stones and my daughter got an ear infection. At some point, we regretted coming because of communication difficulties with these health problems,” she remembered.
“But we were so surprised because they didn’t care if we carried our ID or not, they insisted on giving them treatment, not asking us to pay anything. I don’t know if it’s the education that formulated this, but they have a lot of love and they care about our lives despite our different nationalities, they placed life at the forefront. This is what I love about Argentina – their love, kindness, passion, and beauty,” said the grateful shopkeeper.
Taiwanese people have retained their roots through the organisation and participation of religious groups, mandarin schools, and cultural events held in Argentina. The activities help to ensure that Taiwanese identity is handed on to the next generation.
“Initially when Taiwanese gathered [together], they did not realise this actually retains the Taiwanese culture,” said Diana Huang, 64, president of the Taiwanese Civil Association in Argentina.
Nevertheless, like many third-culture kids, kids with Taiwanese parents in Argentina often doubt whether they are truly “Taiwanese” or not, especially when many Asians are often referred to as chinos by locals, a term that generalises Asians as Chinese.
“We hope as we continue to establish an understanding of the motherland of Taiwan through the association, we pass on to future generations a sense of identity, to remember their roots from Taiwan.” considered Diana. While the Taiwanese diaspora have left Taiwan due to different reasons, they retain their Taiwanese identity as they continue to build community and support each other along the way, especially facing common difficulties as immigrants.
So how are the Taiwanese and the Chinese different? The most obvious difference dates from recent history, especially since 1895 when China’s Qing dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War and handed Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan went through 50 years of Japanese colonisation 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 party of the ROC, Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan waiting for 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 separated and independent governmental entities, the PRC (China), and the ROC (Taiwan).
Some differences are a result of policy: China went through a cultural revolution starting in 1966, adopting the one-child policy. They use simplified Chinese characters, and today, Chinese citizens face strict internet usage restrictions. Taiwan, on the other hand, had its first democratically elected its president in 1996, has legalised gay marriage, uses traditional Chinese characters, and allows religious freedom. These policies also formulate different structures on how people live life and what values are upheld in the different societies. The similarities are also evident – both countries share linguistic and cultural ties as most Taiwanese ancestors, apart from numerous Taiwanese indigenous groups, came from China’s Fujian Province three centuries ago.
Recent events, however, highlight the challenges ahead. Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, has announced that “reunification” must be “fulfilled” and on August 3, China’s ambassador in France, Lu Shaye, declared on TV that “after reunification,” the government in Beijing would “implement re-education.”
I do not 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 our will, just as the local diaspora here in Argentina has managed. I know that I am Taiwanese, along with 23.5 million other people.
Any attempt to erase Taiwanese identity, therefore, is bound to fail. As long as there is freedom of expression elsewhere in the world, our diaspora will remember its roots and continue to pass down our culture and identity. This is our story, it is what we have lived through.