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Maintaining the dream of a democratic Taiwan

How Taiwan is facing China's threat to its democracy
How Taiwan is facing China's threat to its democracy 07:24

Everyone agrees Taiwan, a lush tropical island, produces some of the world's finest handpicked teas – and the world's most sophisticated microchips. It has deep cultural links to China. But is it part of China?

That's where things get messy. China's President Xi Jinping insists that it is, and is threatening to impose Beijing's rule by force. China's military has held exercises around Taiwan that look a lot like rehearsals for an invasion.

But millions of Taiwanese see their island as a nation already fully-formed. This serious difference of opinion goes back a century, to mainland China's civil war. In 1949 the Communists won, and Chiang Kai-shek's defeated nationalists fled across the sea to Taiwan. To this day a memorial in the capital Taipei honors him, the man who set up a government in Taiwan to oppose Communist China.

The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.  CBS News

Seventy years on, a lively open society has bloomed here. At a busy food market in Taipei, Berton Lee was asked if he believes Taiwan is already an independent country. "We have already independence," he replied. "We have our military, we have our economic system, our own kind of currency, our people, our policy."

Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer with Tess Shu and Berton Lee at a market in Taipei. When asked if she thinks of Taiwan as a country independent of China, Shu replied, "Yes. Definitely." CBS News

Michael Cole, Taipei political analyst for the Republican Institute, said, "For young Taiwanese, their only experience is living in a liberal democracy, a vibrant liberal democracy with a highly politicized civil society."

How liberal? Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage. And consider Audrey Tang, the country's digital minister, and Asia's first transgender Cabinet member. "I feel blessed that I do not face any discrimination whatsoever in Taiwan," said Tang, a software engineer, and a celebrity, whose mission is to protect Taiwan's internet from Chinese cyberattacks – or an invasion. "Ensuring proper communication infrastructure, including the local resilience of the public cloud providers like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, in Taiwan, that is our highest priority," said Tang.

In spite of China's looming threat, life ticks along here. At rush hour, a torrent of commuters heads for the city center in Taipei focused simply on getting to work.

The capital is a cyclist's dream, and the TSC Bike Club includes several ex-pat Americans who do business in China. When asked if he thinks there will be a war, Benjamin Schwall said, "I hope not. I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have a war. I think that [cooler] heads will prevail, and the tensions will subside."

If so, says Peter Kurz, it going to need some skillful diplomacy: "We need to make sure that we don't back them too deeply into a corner, that they have no choice, in their mind, [but] to come out fighting. We need to think creatively about how Taiwan can position itself in a way that's not to be too threatening to China."

A short flight from Taipei is an outlying island, Kinmen, where the last round of fighting, in a "hot war," ended in 1979. It's where China and Taiwan traded shellfire, and where defensive steel spikes were installed on the island's beaches to repel Chinese landing craft.

Sen-Bao Dong, a Kinmen politician, pointed out mainland China – almost close enough to swim to.

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Palmer asked, "A lot of people think that you are so close to China, you might as well be China?"

"Yes, the older people think that," said Dong. "But we've had democracy since the country was founded. It's never been Communist."

Tending the garden in front of her house, Yu Fong Wang is one of those older people. When asked if she feels more Chinese or Taiwanese, she replies instantly, "Chinese!"

She may not care that joining China means totalitarian rule, but Yorke Wu does. He showed Palmer the loft of his B&B in a lovingly restored Chinese-style house. "We respect China's culture," Wu said, "but not its government. I love freedom. And I love the opportunity to express ourselves freely."

China's maneuvers this spring were an explicit threat. So was a graphic video, released by the military, depicting missiles raining down on the island. The message? Resistance is futile.

The Chinese military created a computer simulation of an attack on Taiwan.  CBS News

President Biden has hinted that if China does invade, the U.S. will help. America is already selling weapons to Taiwan's military.

In spite of Taiwan increasing its defense budget and enforcing mandatory conscription, the fact is neither its air force, its army or its navy is any match for China's military might.

"If it is a war, we are going to be destroyed," notes retired Major General Richard Hu. So, he says, better to avoid it. He believes Taiwan should just join China, but negotiate autonomy. "Beijing could just leave Taiwan alone, and so we could enjoy our freedom and also political system," said Hu.

Palmer said, "There is nothing about modern China under Xi Jinping that suggests that's possible. This is a government and a party that wants complete control."

"Well, I think there is still hope," said Wu.

It's a hope shared by Taiwan's main Kuomintang political party, but not by Taiwanese young people, who watched the Hong Kong movement for autonomy from China in 2019 get crushed by Beijing.

They are now praying Taiwan's democratic dream doesn't die the same way.

Editor: Randy Schmidt. 

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