In 1953, my dad was a 23-year-old soldier in the US Army deployed to wartime Korea. He had been drafted the year before and arrived in theater after the battle front had stopped moving and a stalemate set in while peace negotiations were tried. Both sides of the conflict carried on massive shelling and bombing campaigns seeking to influence the negotiation, and Sgt. Tom Roush was subjected to these many horrific bombardments.
Eventually, a treaty was worked out and the 38th parallel reverted to being the border between the Soviet and Chinese client state of North Korea. South Korea carried on as a democratic, capitalist country.
Peace meant that the prisoners of war both sides held could be exchanged, and so a sort of ‘gate’ was set up for truckloads of prisoners to pass through. The Americans called this ‘Freedom Gate’ and my dad, being a bandsman, was in a military band that stood on the southern side of the gate playing patriotic marches as the emaciated American prisoners came south.
But there were also trucks going north carrying Korean and Chinese POWs who had never had so much food as they had in the American camps. Also, courtesy of the Americans, the POWs had access to news that was forbidden in North Korea and China, which included stories about Taiwan.
Taiwan is an island off the Chinese mainland that is only 13,800 square miles big, and only 112 miles across the Straights of Taiwan from China. The Dutch and Portuguese called it Formosa, but the Republic of China, as they call themselves, has been the authority there since 1945, depending on how you interpret the chaotic early 20th century history of China. When the communist forces under the direction of Mao Zedong prevailed in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Formosa, and carried on under the banner of the Republic of China, while the communist forces under Mao created the People’s Republic of China, or as we know it today, Communist China. Taiwan is the name for the island itself.
The ROC was not a freedom-loving place under Gen. Kai-shek but it was certainly freer than the Communists on the mainland, and under the ROC government, private enterprise was allowed to thrive as it was in British-controlled Hong Kong. Both locations became thriving economic hubs, while China under Mao suffered extreme poverty and mass starvation. If one was choosing between the competing Chinas and prosperity was the deciding factor, Taiwan was a more appealing place.
In the following years, many kinds of low-cost manufacturing moved to Taiwan, and the island became a hotbed of mass production. Higher technology grew there as well, which included the manufacture of advanced computer chips. Taiwan grew in affluence as Communist China floundered under evermore bizarre and deadly edicts which flowed from an aging, demented Mao.
The Communists on the mainland never forgot about Taiwan, however, and never stopped referring it to it as a part of China. The government on Taiwan was never the Republic of China to them. They have always insisted that it is a renegade province they would reclaim in due time.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon went to China and met with Mao. It was an odd pairing; Nixon had made his bones in the United States as an ardent anti-Communist. But, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, saw a way to gain advantage of the even more menacing communist challenge presented by Soviet Russia, so they parlayed with the Chinese and set the two countries on the path of cooperation. As part of that deal, the United States was never to recognize the ROC on Taiwan as a separate country, and the United States never has. The agreement was referred to as the ‘one China’ policy which meant never aiding Taiwan to thrive as an independent nation.
Nixon, Kissinger, and all the Western leaders and businesses that followed created the only viable form of communism that the world as ever known in mainland China. Taiwan had offered law-cost labor to the world, but they had nothing on the Chinese labor pool available on the mainland. After Mao died in 1978, and the next generation of Chinese leaders embraced greater economic freedom, western leaders exported manufacturing to China with abandon. The Chinese did not open politically, as was predicted, but they grew at a phenomenal rate economically. Sure, many of their corporations were state-owed and they operated with stolen technology, but the country grew and prospered and became the behemoth it is today after they were offered a path to the world’s capital markets in 1972.
In the last few years, in no small part to the efforts of President Donald Trump, the American relationship to China has changed. The United States is economically entwined with China, but both countries are beginning to act as if they were adversaries. China is more powerful than ever and clearly has reached the status of a hyper-power, at least in Asia.
And, China has clearly not forgotten about Taiwan. Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft are flying towards and over Taiwan on a weekly basis. American ships in the area are shadowed by Chinese naval vessels. There is a marked increase in saber-rattling on the part of the Chinese and, given the heft of Chinese economic power, there is a decreasing willingness on anyone’s part to side with Taiwan. Even mentioning Taiwan will draw a Chinese rebuke, which John Cena recently learned the hard way. All in China have seen how democracy advocates were treated in 1989 in Tiananmen Square and more recently in Hong Kong.
The Russians recently invaded the Ukraine after having concluded that they could afford to do so both militarily and economically. Under Putin, the Russians are settling scores from the old Soviet days. Around the world, the United States is not seen as the dominating nation it once was so older ambitions and rivalries are emerging.
In Taipei, the capital of the ROC in Taiwan, they must be scanning the skies, knowing that the Communist Chinese Dragon will strike at some point and the Americans will likely do nothing. Freedom, to the degree that it has been a part of the Chinese world view, will die on Taiwan when that day comes.
In 1953, Taiwan was already known as ‘free China,’ and one of those POWs headed the wrong direction at the Freedom Gate threw a patch from the truck he was riding in just as he passed by dad. My dad picked it up and put it in his pocket. Later, he looked more closely at it and saw it was a message from a Chinese soldier who did not want to go north, back into the grinding poverty that was communist China. He wanted to go to Taiwan. He wanted freedom, and he was willing to die for it.
If he was still with us today, his chance to die for freedom and Taiwan may have finally arrived.