Friday, January 21, 2022
Opinion | ‘Constitutional Conservatives’ Have Some Reading Up to Do - The New York Times - All conservatives have ever cared about is conserving their economic and political power by disenfranchising a significant minority of people.
‘Constitutional Conservatives’ Have Some Reading Up to Do
"Much of what’s in the Constitution is vague, imprecise or downright unclear. But some parts are very straightforward.
For example, Article 1, Section 4 states that “the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.”
Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia — quoting a previous ruling — argued in 2013 in his opinion for the court in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, “The power of Congress over the ‘Times, Places and Manner’ of congressional elections ‘is paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which it deems expedient; and so far as it is exercised, and no farther, the regulations effected supersede those of the State which are inconsistent therewith.’”
The legal scholar Pamela S. Karlan put it this way in a 2006 report on the Voting Rights Act: “The Supreme Court’s recent decisions under the elections clause have confirmed the longstanding interpretation of the clause as a grant of essentially plenary authority.” In other words, Congress has absolute, unbending power to regulate federal elections as it sees fit.
For this reason among many, it has been strange to see Republican politicians — including some self-described “constitutional conservatives” — denounce the Democrats’ proposed new voting rights legislation as an illegitimate “federal takeover” of federal elections.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former Vice President Mike Pence denounced the bills and the effort to pass them as a “federal power grab over our state elections” that would “offend the Founders’ intention that states conduct elections just as much as what some of our most ardent supporters would have had me do one year ago.”
On Twitter, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, called the bill — which would allow for same-day voter registration, establish Election Day as a national holiday and expand mail-in voting — “an unconstitutional federal takeover of our elections” that would “make it easier to cheat.”
Not to be outdone, Mitch McConnell slammed the bill as a “sweeping, partisan, federal takeover of our nation’s elections.”
“We will not be letting Washington Democrats abuse their razor-thin majorities in both chambers to overrule state and local governments and appoint themselves a national Board of Elections on steroids,” the Senate Republican leader declared.
Although Reeves is the only lawmaker in this group to have called the Democratic election bill “unconstitutional,” the clear implication of the Republican argument is that any federal regulation of state elections is constitutionally suspect. We already know that this is wrong — again, the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate state elections for federal office — but it’s worth emphasizing just how wrong it is.
In addition to the Supreme Court, which has affirmed — again and again — the power of Congress to set “the Times, Places and Manner” of federal elections, there are the framers of the Constitution themselves, who were clear on the broad scope of the clause in question.
Alexander Hamilton defends it in Federalist 59 as a necessary bulwark against the interests of individual states, which may undermine the federal union. “Nothing can be more evident than that an exclusive power of regulating elections for the national government, in the hands of the State legislatures, would leave the existence of the Union entirely at their mercy,” Hamilton writes.
“If the State legislatures were to be invested with an exclusive power of regulating these elections,” he continues, “every period of making them would be a delicate crisis in the national situation, which might issue in a dissolution of the Union.”
“Every government,” he says with emphasis, “ought to contain in itself the means of its own preservation.”
Similarly, as the historian Pauline Maier recounted in “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787—1788,” James Madison saw the Election Clause as a measure that would “allow Congress to use its power over elections against state electoral rules that were ‘subversive of the rights of the People to a free & equal representation in Congress agreeably to the Constitution.’ ”
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, expanded and reaffirmed the power of Congress to regulate federal elections, stating that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and that “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Both the Enforcement Act of 1870, which established criminal penalties for interfering with the right to vote, and the Enforcement Act of 1871, which created a system of federal oversight for congressional elections, were passed under the authority granted by the Elections Clause and the 15th Amendment. The proposed Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have allowed voters to request direct federal supervision of congressional elections, was also written pursuant with the government’s expressly detailed power under the Constitution.
It is one thing to say that a new election bill is unnecessary and that it attempts to solve a problem that does not exist. In large part because of the efforts of voting rights activists trying to overcome the obstacles in question, voter suppression laws do not appear to have a substantial impact on rates of voting, and overall voter turnout has increased significantly since the Supreme Court undermined the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
But there is no question, historically or constitutionally, that Congress has the authority to regulate federal elections and impose its rules over those adopted by the states. Nor does this have to be bipartisan. Nothing in Congress does.
The 1960s were one of the few times in American history when support for voting rights — or at least the voting rights of Black Americans — did not fall along strictly partisan lines. For a part of the 19th century, Republicans took the lead as the party of expanding the vote. Today, it is the Democratic Party that hopes to secure the right to vote against a political movement whose clear ability to win votes in fair elections has not tempered its suspicion of easy and unrestricted access to the ballot.
There are times when the federal government needs to take election rules out of the hands of the states. Looking at the restrictions and power grabs passed by state Republican lawmakers in the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat, I’d say now is one of those times. It may not happen anytime soon — the voting rights legislation in question went down to defeat this week — but it should remain a priority. The right to vote is fundamental, and any attempt to curtail it should be fought as fiercely and as aggressively as we know how."
Thursday, January 20, 2022
Joe Biden never ended the war in Afghanistan
"The U.S. never ended the war in Afghanistan — it just changed form, and millions are suffering.
President Joe Biden withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August. But unbeknownst to most of the public, he didn’t end the war.
Following the American withdrawal, international funding for Afghanistan, equivalent to 40 percent of the country's GDP, was severed in compliance withsanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council. That delivered “an almost globally unprecedented level of economic shock” to the war-torn nation, William Byrd, an economist specializing in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. The U.S. also blocked access to billions of dollars of the Afghan government’s foreign currency reserves held in the U.S., worth more than a year’s worth of imports to a country heavily dependent on them.
The primary premise for these actions has been to take aim at the Taliban, who took over the country as the U.S. withdrew, swiftly laying bare the grand failuresof the U.S.’s two decades-long nation-building project in Afghanistan and humiliating the most powerful country in the world. Now the Afghan people are paying the price.
While the soldiers and planes have left, the brutality of the U.S. war is continuing in a different form.
Nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population — 23 million out of 39 million people — already don’t have enough to eat and are suffering from acute hunger. Aid groups say many lack shelter and, between inflation and income loss, are being forced to make harrowing decisions between buying fuel for heat to survive the winter or food for their families. People in Kabul can be seen waiting for hours just to get a piece of bread. Public employees such as teachers are being paid sporadically at best, the public health system stands on the brink of collapse and people can’t withdraw cash from banks. A U.N. Development Program report noted that it took five years of civil war in Syria to achieve the economic contraction that Afghanistan is expected to see within the year; David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program, has deemed it “the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.”
Afghanistan has long been an impoverished country, but the exceptional nature of its current crisis is born of a deliberate policy regime designed to cripple it. While the soldiers and planes have left, the brutality of the U.S. war is continuing in a different form. “The U.S. has transitioned from a hot war to an economic war,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute who focuses on security, trade and rule of law in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me.
Collectively punishing the Afghan people through their economy is morally heinous: it marks the evolution of a project of imperial sadism against a people who have already endured tens of thousands of casualties and terror after decades of a vicious U.S. occupation that never needed to happen. It’s also backward as a geopolitical strategy: If the country collapses into a failed state, it will become vulnerable to takeover by the exact kind of ambitious terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State Khorasan, that drove the U.S. to war in the first place.
In my conversations with over half a dozen regional experts and economists, it became clear that there is a widespread belief that the Biden administration is unwilling to take steps to dial back the harshness of its policy because it fears the optics of looking soft on the Taliban. Beleaguered by a slide in the polls that began around the time he withdrew troops from Afghanistan, Biden is starving millions of Afghans in a bid to preserve his diminishing political capital on other issues. This is the great scandal of the Biden administration.
Afghanistan’s economy was already struggling before withdrawal — between the cost of conflict, drought, a loss of investor confidence and the outbreak of Covid, the economy was entering a downward spiral before the troops were evacuated.
But the crucial bit of context for understanding Afghanistan’s crisis is its existence as a rentier state — one that relies on foreign aid to stay afloat. Afghanistan, an extremely rural, landlocked nation of tremendous geopolitical significance to its neighbors and the West, is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, and before U.S. withdrawal, a full three-quarters of its public spending was funded by international donors. The abrupt cut-off of that international funding has devastated the ability of the government to pay workers and provide services. Sanctions have frozen the country out of global banking and commerce and most aid. There are narrow exceptions to the sanctions regime to allow for humanitarian aid, but economists say international businesses and donors are terrified of being slapped with punishing sanctions for sending money into the country in case it slips into the hands of the Taliban, who populate the government and are the primary targets of the sanctions. One of the most remarkable illustrations of the asphyxiating effects of these sanctions is that the Afghan government cannot even print its own money because fear of sanctions has inhibited the European company that printed its bank notes in the past, Byrd explained to me.
Icing any country out of the global economy would devastate it, but doing so to a country that survives on international aid is existentially threatening: It’s ripping out the country’s life support.
It should not go unnoticed that the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the intensity of Afghanistan’s dependency. Despite the fact that the U.S. spent moreon nation-building in Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II, it focused primarily on arming Afghanistan to the teeth rather than fostering a sustainable economy. Anand Gopal, the author of “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes'' and a trained sociologist who has traveled around Afghanistan for years, told me that the U.S. manufactured an “extreme dystopian neoliberal society where everything was privatized and everything was tied to foreign aid, and there was no endogenous economy, there was no attempt to develop local industry.” He pointed out that when basic infrastructure like roads were built, the U.S. often outsourced the work first to U.S. companies, circumventing the kind of direct transactions with locals that would’ve helped develop the economy sustainably.
Biden should draw from the same strength he displayed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Aid groups and progressive advocates are calling for the U.S. to relax sanctions and release the roughly $7 billion in Afghanistan's foreign currency reserves it has held in the U.S., which would be critical for mitigating the country’s cash crisis and price instability. A lawsuit on behalf of 9/11 victims has tried laying claim to those funds based on the rationale that the Taliban was complicit in 9/11. But a number of analysts have described the lawsuit as questionable and politicized. Previous administrations have sought to block similar attempts at lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally; and while Osama bin Laden did seek safe haven in Afghanistan, no Afghans were involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Perhaps more importantly, economists point out, those funds were primarily accumulated during the U.S. war in Afghanistan when the Taliban were not in power. Shah Mehrabi, a member of Afghanistan’s central bank board, told me the foreign exchange reserves don’t belong to the Taliban but are “the property of the Afghan people.” In order to deal with the issue of not giving the Taliban free rein with the cash, he has proposed the idea of conditionally and incrementally releasing the funds and using independent auditing to ensure that the funds are used solely for the purpose of stabilizing currency and price stability.
The Biden administration could challenge the lawsuit and take steps to release the currency reserves, experts say. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for it in the administration.
“Biden is allergic to Afghanistan. He doesn’t want to touch it,” Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department and a fellow at New York University, told me, explaining that Biden fears the optics of “trying to give money to the Taliban” while spending limited political capital on trying to move legislation through Congress. Rubin said that Biden has left it in the hands of officials and staffers who are unlikely to change course if he does not “exercise leadership.”
More from MSNBC Daily
Biden should draw from the same strength he displayed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though he took extraordinary heat from mainstream media and the national security establishment, and he did make serious mistakes in overlooking refugees, he was right to stick to his guns on pulling American troops out. Avoiding taking action now to let the Afghan economy function because it might be perceived as enabling the Taliban is to condemn millions to death out of expediency.
Moreover, it's simply impractical to work around the Taliban entirely. “I think it is impossible to try to address the humanitarian issue, given the scale of it, without providing ancillary benefit, if even unintentional, to the Taliban regime,” Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst who directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia, told me. He explained that the U.S. can make demands of the Taliban to nudge it toward reform while relaxing its sanctions, but those demands have to be grounded in political reality about the nature of the Taliban.
Realism is on display in many areas of American foreign policy, and to deny it is hypocrisy. The U.S. doesn't just decline to sanction plenty of other governments that violate human rights or thwart democracy, it actively aids them. That's because, despite rhetoric of promoting liberal values, core U.S. foreign policy is guided by geopolitical interest in access to resources and influence over the global arena.
The primary case for rolling back sanctions on Afghanistan and unfreezing its reserves is that it is wicked to starve a massive civilian population because one does not want to acknowledge having lost a war. But since that may not convince many in Washington, it is important to also emphasize the utter irrationality of this policy from the perspective of U.S. national security interests — analysts say Afghanistan as a failed state will become a hotbed for the kind of internationally oriented extremist activity that initially helped cause the war on terror. A stable Afghanistan rather than one spiraling toward collapse is in the interest of Afghans, its neighbors and the global community.
Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation and elsewhere. "
By Charles Blow
It is sad, depressing and enraging to watch as the Senate refuses to defend voting rights, largely those of Black and brown people.
This rue-the-day moment is also a déjà vu moment. As a country, we have been here before, and it ended in about 70 years of brutally effective suppression of Black voters during the Jim Crow era. There was a democracy in America, a white one. African Americans and some other nonwhite Americans simply weren’t part of it.
It didn’t have to be this way. The courts could have stopped Southern states from implementing Jim Crow, but they didn’t. Congress could have stepped in, but it, too, failed to act, refusing to protect Black people and their access to the ballot.
As Michael Waldman, president of Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, writes in his brilliant book, “The Fight to Vote,” Republicans — the liberal party at that time — took control of the presidency and Congress, still committed to securing the right to vote for all citizens, including Black ones.
As Waldman wrote:
Then, in 1890, Boston Brahmin congressman Henry Cabot Lodge proposed legislation to federally supervise Southern elections, aimed at securing equal voting rights. Opponents dubbed the mild measure the “Lodge Force Bill” and panicked. The bill passed the House, but a thirty-three-day filibuster blocked it in the Senate. This was the first successful Southern filibuster of a federal civil rights bill: a cherished tradition begins.
And yet, as if blind to history, or in eager desire to repeat it, here we are again. The mustaches and dresses have less volume, but the racism carries the same venom.
It is important to be reminded of how that first civil rights filibuster unfolded, as well as the lead up to the fight, because the similarities today are eerie.
The year 1890 was 13 years after Reconstruction was allowed to fail, paving the way for Democrats, the conservatives then, to actively suppress Black voters in Southern states. And it was in 1890 that Mississippi became one of the first states to call a constitutional convention to write voter suppression into its DNA. Other Southern states would soon follow Mississippi’s example.
The Lodge Force Bill could have stopped them, but it faced strong opposition from Democrats in Congress, and not even all Republicans supported the bill.
That year, Democrats in North Carolina even included a plank opposing the legislation in their official party platform:
“We likewise denounce the iniquitous Lodge Force bill, whose purpose is to establish a second period of reconstruction in the Southern States, to subvert the wishes of our people and influence race antagonism and sectional animosities.”
After the bill passed the House, it encountered opposition in the Senate, and Senate Republicans eventually rewrote the bill, according to The Times, as “a much milder measure, something to which no reasonable person could object.”
While some liberals objected to the rewrite, saying the life of the original bill had been “amended out of it,” The Times disagreed, writing that the Senate bill was just as strong as the House one, only shorter. As The Times put it: “The difference between the two bills might, perhaps, best be stated by saying that Senator [George] Hoar has edited the Lodge bill and made it more compact and velvety.”
It should be noted that The Times’s coverage of the bill was not exemplary. It’s riddled with derisive framing. One article began: “Senators have abandoned all attempts to have that obnoxious measure taken up during the present session of Congress.”
Consideration of the bill dragged on into 1891, when William Pitt Kellogg, a former governor of Louisiana and a strong supporter of African American voters, chastised President Benjamin Harrison in a statement for at first not being strongly in favor of nationally supervised elections and only fully endorsing them later.
As Kellogg pointed out, Harrison had said in his Inaugural Address that some men in the South “would not find it difficult, by friendly instruction and cooperation, to make the Black man their efficient and safe ally.”
According to Kellogg, Harrison was so interested in attracting white supporters from the South that his administration “openly proposed to ignore the colored voter on committees and delegations, as in the party organizations and generally in appointments to office, and push to the front only white men, trusting to the loyalty of the colored voters to stand by the Republican Party, as they had always done in the past.”
Harrison didn’t fully engage on the election bill as it made its way through Congress. It was much later, after a tariff bill was in trouble and he began to be worried about losses in the next election, that, as Kellogg put it, “the President formulated his message to Congress for the first time openly, strongly, and unqualifiedly urging the passage of the Elections bill. Selfish interest invoked action.”
It was already too late for the president to have the influence on the debate that the office of the presidency affords.
Kellogg concluded that “the selfish, narrow policy of the administration” had “once more run upon a political sandbar.”
The racists won and Black voters lost because the party they supported and considered their friends did not fully mobilize to defend them from the party that sought to oppress them.
Switch a few names and dates, and this story could read like today’s news. The great tragedy is that, in spirit, it is today’s news.“
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
‘We Are Taiwanese’: China’s Growing Menace Hardens Island’s Identity
"More than ever, Taiwan defines itself by its democratic values. Beijing’s military and diplomatic threats only reinforce the island’s separateness.
CHIAYI, Taiwan — When Li Yuan-hsin, a 36-year-old high school teacher, travels abroad, people often assume she is Chinese.
No, she tells them. She is Taiwanese.
To her, the distinction is important. China may be the land of her ancestors, but Taiwan is where she was born and raised, a home she defines as much by its verdant mountains and bustling night markets as by its robust democracy. In high school, she had planted a little blue flag on her desk to show support for her preferred political candidate; since then, she has voted in every presidential election.
“I love this island,” Ms. Li said in an interview. “I love the freedom here.”
Well over 90 percent of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is distinct from that of their Communist-ruled neighbor. Beijing’s strident authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s identity, now central to a dispute that has turned the Taiwan Strait into one of Asia’s biggest potential flash points.
To Beijing, Taiwan’s push to distinguish itself from the mainland poses a dangerous obstacle to the Chinese government’s efforts to cajole, or coerce, Taiwan into its political orbit. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, warned in October against the trend he sees as secession: “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end.”
Most of Taiwan’s residents are not interested in becoming absorbed by a Communist-ruled China. But they are not pushing for formal independence for the island, either, preferring to avoid the risk of war.
It leaves both sides at a dangerous impasse. The more entrenched Taiwan’s identity becomes, the more Beijing may feel compelled to intensify its military and diplomatic campaign to pressure the island into respecting its claim of sovereignty.
Ms. Li is among more than 60 percent of the island’s 23 million people who identify as solely Taiwanese, three times the proportion in 1992, according to surveys by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Only two percent identified as Chinese, down from 25 percent three decades ago.
Part of the shift is generational — her 82-year-old grandmother, Wang Yu-lan, for instance, is among that shrinking minority.
To Ms. Wang, who fled the mainland decades ago, being Chinese is about celebrating her cultural and familial roots. She paints classical Chinese ink landscapes and displays them on the walls of her home. She spends hours practicing the erhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese instrument. She recounts stories of a land so beloved that her grandparents brought a handful of soil with them when they left. She still wonders what happened to the gold and silver bars they had buried beneath a heated brick bed in Beijing.
Ms. Wang was nine when she landed in Taiwan in 1948, part of the one million or so Chinese who retreated with the Nationalists during China’s Civil War with the Communists. The island is about 100 miles off China’s southeastern coast, but to many of the new arrivals, it felt like another world. The Chinese settlers who had been there for centuries — and made up the majority — spoke a different dialect. The island’s first residents had arrived thousands of years ago and were more closely related to the peoples of Southeast Asia and the Pacific than to the Chinese. Europeans had set up trading posts on the island. The Japanese had ruled over it for 50 years.
Ms. Wang and the other exiles lived in villages designated for “mainlander” military officers and their families, where the aroma of peppercorn-infused Sichuan cooking mingled with the pickled scents of delicacies from southern Guizhou Province. Each day, she and other women in the village would gather to shout slogans like “Recapture the mainland from the Communist bandits!”
Over time, that dream faded. In 1971, the United Nations severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and formally recognized the Communist government in Beijing. The United States and other countries would later follow suit, dealing a blow to mainlanders like Ms. Wang. How could she still claim to be Chinese, she wondered, if the world did not even recognize her as such?
“There is no more hope,” Ms. Wang recalled thinking at the time.
Ms. Wang and other mainlanders who yearned to return to China had always been a minority in Taiwan. But a few generations later, among their children and grandchildren, that longing has morphed into a fear of Beijing’s expansive ambitions. Under Mr. Xi, Beijing has signaled its impatience with Taiwan in increasingly menacing ways, sending military jets to buzz Taiwan on a near-daily basis.
When nearby Hong Kong erupted in anti-government protests in 2019, Ms. Li, the schoolteacher, followed the news every day. She saw Beijing’s crackdown there and its destruction of civil liberties as evidence that the party could not be trusted to keep its promise to preserve Taiwan’s autonomy if the sides unified.
Ms. Li’s wariness has only grown with the pandemic. Beijing continues to block Taiwan from international groups, such as the World Health Organization, a clear sign to her that the Communist Party values politics above people. Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus, despite these challenges, had filled her with pride.
Watching the Tokyo Olympics last year, Ms. Li felt indignant that athletes from Taiwan had to compete under a flag that was not their own. When they won, the song that played in venues was not their anthem. Rather than Taiwan or Republic of China, their team carried the name Chinese Taipei.
Taken together, these frustrations have only steeled the Taiwanese resolve against the Chinese Communist Party. The global criticism of China for its handling of Covid and its repression at home rekindled a longstanding debate in Taiwan about dropping “China” from the island’s official name. No action was taken, though; such a move by Taiwan would have been seen by Beijing as formalizing its de facto independence.
To young people like Ms. Li, it was also unnecessary. Independence to them is not an aspiration, it is reality.
“We are Taiwanese in our thinking,” she said. “We do not need to declare independence because we already are essentially independent.”
That emerging confidence has now come to define Taiwan’s contemporary individuality, along with the island’s firm embrace of democracy. To many young people in Taiwan, to call yourself Taiwanese is increasingly to take a stand for democratic values — to not, in other words, be a part of Communist-ruled China.
Under its current president, Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan government has positioned the island as a Chinese society that is democratic and tolerant, unlike the colossus across the strait. As Beijing has ramped up its oppression of ethnic minorities in the name of national unity, the Taiwan government has sought to embrace the island’s Indigenous groups and other minorities.
Taiwan “represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,” Ms. Tsai said last year.
Many Taiwanese identify with this posture and have rallied around the countries willing to support Taipei. When Beijing imposed an unofficial trade blockade to punish Lithuania for strengthening ties with Taiwan, people in Taiwan rushed to buy Lithuanian specialty products like crackers and chocolate.
Democracy isn’t just an expression of Taiwan’s identity — it is at its core. After the Nationalists ended nearly four decades of martial law in 1987, topics previously deemed taboo, including questions of identity and calls for independence, could be discussed. Many pushed to reclaim the local Taiwanese language and culture that was lost when the Nationalists imposed a mainland Chinese identity on the island.
Growing up in the 1980s, Ms. Li was faintly aware of the divide between the Taiwanese and mainlanders. She knew that going to her “mainlander” grandparents’ house after school meant getting to eat pork buns and chive dumplings — heavier, saltier food than the Taiwanese palate of her maternal grandparents, who fed her fried rice noodles and sautéed bitter melon.
Such distinctions became less evident over time. Many of Taiwan’s residents are now proud of their island’s culinary offerings, whether it is the classic beef noodle soup — a mix of mainland influences unique to Taiwan — or bubble milk tea, a modern invention.
In Taiwan’s effort to carve out a distinct identity, officials also revised textbooks to focus more on the history and geography of the island rather than on the mainland. In school, Ms. Li learned that Japanese colonizers — whom her grandmother, Ms. Wang, so often denounced for their wartime atrocities — had been crucial in modernizing the island’s economy. She and her classmates learned about figures like Tan Teng-pho, a local artist who was one of 28,000 people killed by Nationalist government troops in 1947, a massacre known as the 2/28 Incident.
Now, as China under Mr. Xi has become more authoritarian, the political gulf that separates it from Taiwan has only seemed increasingly insurmountable.
“After Xi Jinping took office, he oversaw the regression of democracy,” Ms. Li said. She cited Mr. Xi’s move in 2018 to abolish term limits on the presidency, paving the way for him to rule indefinitely. “I felt then that unification would be impossible.”
Ms. Li points to Beijing controls on speech and dissent as antithetical to Taiwan.
She compares Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which she visited in 2005 as a university student, with public spaces in Taipei. In the Chinese capital, surveillance cameras loomed in every direction while armed police watched the crowds. Her government-approved guide made no mention of the Communist Party’s brutal crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters that she had learned about as a middle school student in Taiwan.
She thought of Liberty Square in Taipei, by comparison, a vast plaza where people often gather to play music, dance, exercise and protest.
“After that trip, I cherished Taiwan so much more,” Ms. Li said."