Why are Taiwanese people just chilling as the missiles fly? — Q&A with William Yang

Foreign Affairs

Everybody seems to be talking about war as China ramps up its rhetoric and its live-fire military exercises in the seas and skies around Taiwan. But not so much the Taiwanese. I asked journalist and president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club William Yang: What is the rest of the world getting wrong?

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Many Taiwanese people find international media reporting about their home to be frustratingly out of touch with their lived reality. We tend to frame Taiwan stories with either Chinese or American concepts of the island’s history and future. But is Taiwan itself out of touch with the realities of its own neighborhood? 

To answer these questions and more, I turned to William Yang, a journalist from Taiwan who is the president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club and one of the best observers of Taiwanese society writing in English today. 

We chatted by video call on August 8. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation.  

Over the weekend, as Chinese missiles and planes were flying about the airspace near Taiwan, you tweeted the following: 

I did my routine bike ride around one of the busiest urban parks in downtown Taipei earlier, seeing a group of senior citizens synchronizing with their instruments while parents taking kids out for some much-needed outdoor activities under the scorching sun…On the surface, it does just feel like another normal Saturday…

Many Taiwan residents have been trying to get the real picture of what’s happening on the ground out there through [Twitter], and I’m glad some international media outlets are starting to include bits of that contrast into their coverage of the military exercise…

As many have already said: we are cautious but not indifferent. We are following closely, but do not let it completely overtake our lives. We know these threats are unlike the ones that we have been used to, but we don’t want to be completely overwhelmed by fear.

There have been a few stories in mainstream media since then — in the Guardian, Axios, and SupChina — that have described how people in Taiwan seem to be just taking everything in their stride and not really too worried about anything despite what seem to be unprecedented military exercises.

Can you talk about your tweet and the feelings behind it? 

Being a journalist who covers the region from Taipei, and looking at the huge contrast in terms of the attention and the kind of requests that we got from editors versus what people here are actually focusing on and talking about is one of the biggest takeaways for me over the last week. 

Because I felt like it just shows how much interest there is in terms of Taiwan’s geopolitical position versus what people over here actually are thinking or feeling and facing. I think that has always been the issue when it comes to the international coverage of Taiwan.

But at the same time, I felt like this particular visit by Pelosi and the subsequent Chinese military exercises really offered Taiwan a great opportunity to speak up for itself. 

I think Taiwanese people have only really started learning the power of Twitter in terms of projecting their voices to the international community over the last two to three years. I think it started with all the focus on Taiwan’s success in handling COVID in 2020. A lot more Taiwanese people actually flocked onto Twitter after that. And we see a lot more diversity in terms of the Taiwanese voices there. 

And so, prior to the trip, before Pelosi landed, most of the media focus was on how the trip was going to trigger a very harsh response from China, and the U.S. was talking about whether it was going to affect the bilateral relationships, and then some people brought up the fact that Taiwan is… The nature of Taiwan being caught in between these great powers, but there seemed to be no focus on how Taiwanese people actually viewed the trip in the beginning. 

After the military exercises started, there was more focus on Taiwan and Taiwan’s people, and then there was this contrast. Taiwanese people were celebrating Chinese Valentine’s Day on the first day of the military exercises, when four missiles reportedly flew over Taiwan. And then on the weekend, I wrote that whole thread on Saturday, when the weather was perfect here and how people were really just outdoors, doing their own stuff, minding their own business. And not too many people were actually panicking or filling the air here, in Taipei, with that anxiety. I’m sure this event is at the back of everyone’s mind, but it’s just the level of threat that people here perceive versus what a lot of the experts in D.C. or experts elsewhere actually are seeing…

And the potential level of risk that they perceive is… This is a very big contrast. I don’t think there is a right or wrong about that because they’re coming from different perspectives looking at this.  

Do you think people in Taiwan think that China’s not going to invade, they’re just not worried about an invasion at all? And if that’s the case, why are they so relaxed? As somebody who lived in China for a very long time, I know the Communist Party pretty well, and it can be pretty scary. When it says it wants to take over your house, it gets it done, it doesn’t mess about. 

So I can’t understand why people in Taiwan are so relaxed. 

I think it has to do with a combination of factors. One of the factors — I’ve been talking to many people, they said that when ally countries or countries with a lot of interest in Taiwan are not starting to evacuate their citizens, they feel like there’s no immediate danger, in terms of the level of risk that these governments are assessing. 

At the same time, I think it’s really that people have become desensitized to these military actions. I think there is also a certain level of trust in the Taiwanese military and the government here, thinking that, if there is a real level of danger, the government is going to take a more direct way of sharing all the information.

I think because of the fact that Washington is only watching it from a certain distance and didn’t actually insert itself right into the military exercises, I think Taiwanese people believe that this is mostly just China’s so-called reaction. And it’s more symbolic rather than really having the goal of invading Taiwan.

What about the longer-term view from Taiwan? One of the things that surprises me about Taiwan is that even the long-term threat perception seems quite low. 

Military conscription is so light. What is it? Approximately four months now? I grew up in apartheid in South Africa. I was called up for two years. I didn’t go, I deferred, and it was over by the time I left university, but when I was growing up, the country had a paranoid mindset about being attacked, from without and within. 

Conscription in Israel is more than two years. Even Switzerland is something like 300 days. Whereas in Taiwan, it’s four months, isn’t it? You can barely learn to tie your boot laces in that amount of time. 

It feels to me like the country doesn’t have a defense mindset. Is that accurate?  

That is a very interesting question. I have to say the fact that conscription and voluntary sign-up for the military have not been that successful is because of the military’s image in society for the last few decades. 

Most of the people who went through the two-year, two-month training, in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, shared a lot of stories about how they did not really receive a lot of useful training. And at that time, Taiwan actually still had a military edge over China. So society thinks that there is no need to maintain a very strict and very active conscription for the military. 

And so, in the late 1990s and 2000s, Taiwan started introducing the so-called full voluntary and a mixture of half conscription and full voluntary military. And then they kept slashing the months that people needed to serve. For example, when it came to my generation, which was of conscription age 10 years ago, the amount of time that an average Taiwanese man had to serve in the military was between 12 months and 14 months. 

And during that time, probably 80% of that time, they’d be sitting there listening to very boring lectures, watching, honestly, very un-useful videos of dramas based on lives in the camps. And then you train how to take certain steps to turn right, turn left, and then listen to orders. Most people, even if they spent 12 months in an actual camp, they wouldn’t receive much combat-related training, or even actually lay their hands on a real weapon. 

So, after a while, more people, especially those like me who went to the U.S. for a higher degree and then came back to Taiwan, there were many different ways for you to evade actual conscription. For example, I choose to substitute my military service by teaching English in a rural area, an elementary school where there are very few resources. And honestly, if you ask me if I felt like I did the right thing, I would say because I actually dedicated my expertise to something that was in need. And I felt like I could see the improvement of these students’ situations. Whereas, if I had chosen to stay inside the military camp, most likely I’d be like, “What was I doing with my life for 12 months?” And it’s so wasteful. 

I think the government, finally, started to realize in about 2014, 2015, 2016, and there was a push, or at least a start to a very slow reform inside the military in terms of how they train normal citizens who are conscripted. And they started offering more benefits to attract more young people who do not have a particular goal in their life, or without a particular idea about what they want do with their lives, to join the military.

After [Russia invaded Ukraine], discussions [began] about going back to the 12-month conscription, and involving more reservists for more high-quality and intensive training. But now with the sense of urgency and all the scenes that came from Ukraine earlier this year, it really has and pushed some people to voluntarily want it to be one of those that was being recruited for the reservist training, the elevated version of the reservist training.

And some private companies are starting to also organize some weapons’ boot camps for normal citizens to teach them very basic usage of guns and how to act and how to react in a combat situation. And there are also organizations that are pushing to teach people more useful first aid skills to actually save lives in situations like a war. 

But you have to wonder whether this is just way too late.

What do you think the rest of the world should bear in mind when writing about Taiwan? One often gets the sense of very deep frustration from Taiwanese people that they’re not really very well understood, that the writing about Taiwan issues always tends to come from an American point of view or a Chinese point of view. Often, the actual Taiwanese point of view is left out.

I think the first thing that Taiwanese people, especially those who have the tendency of reading international media, what really triggers them are cliché phrases like renegade province…I think these phrases really make people here feel like the international media is just not interested in really incorporating Taiwanese people’s perspective, or even the Taiwan perspective overall. But I think we’re seeing that changing with more correspondents being based here.  

In your position as the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Taiwan, you must have gotten a close-up view in the last couple of years as journalists were kicked out of China. Some of them have made their way to Taiwan.

Yes. I think China has really created…I’m sure they never saw this coming…a condition for the international media to have more access to, or chances to interact and really get to understand Taiwan, and then start to actually…knowing how to differentiate and use different language to describe the two different places. Because in the past, oftentimes, the frustration is people living here would think that the media is mostly approaching a Taiwan story from Beijing’s perspective. They would send in a lot of correspondents from Beijing to cover big events here. Whereas, very few media outlets would consider actually having a very stable stringer here or a freelance journalist.

I think, over the last two years, we really see a much more diverse range of voices and characters starting to pop up in international media articles about Taiwan. So I think that is definitely a very good trend. 

Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously: 

New Zealand’s China quandary — Q&A with Jason Young