When I was in Taipei recently to talk to Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen, about their prospects in the island's Jan. 14 elections, I dropped by the elegantly understated Fine Arts Museum. It was showing works by the global Chinese icon Ai Weiwei. All his signature pieces and installations so celebrated worldwide were on display: the bronze Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, the Coca-Cola urn, the catholic portraiture, an upgraded (specially for Taipei) Forever Bicycles.
To spotlight Ai's inability to attend, the exhibition was called "Ai Weiwei absent." Ai has become one of Beijing's public enemies for his outspokenness about what's wrong with China: he was jailed for nearly three months last year. Once, Ai was a darling of the Chinese establishment, but now it's inconceivable that any Ai event would be allowed in China or its supposedly autonomous satellites Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan, which mainland China claims as part of the People's Republic, stands apart. That Ai's art has found a home indeed, a refuge on the island precisely during its intense election season makes total sense: Ai has an independent spirit, and so does Taiwan.
There's another parallel. Also like Ai, Taiwan is caged. The People's Republic insists that it is the "one China," and most governments and multilateral institutions comply. As a consequence, Taiwan is not acknowledged as a sovereign entity, operates in deeply restricted international space and is often underrated or simply off the world's radar. Yet Taiwan's coming contests for the presidency and the legislature the first of some two dozen elections taking place worldwide in 2012 remind us that this small island matters big time to the global community.
Economically, Taiwan punches above its weight. Its IT industries, for example, rank among the biggest anywhere, as does its hoard of foreign-exchange reserves. Geopolitically, it is a perennial potential flash point. For the Chinese leadership and most mainland Chinese, Taiwan is a charged issue. Beijing has labeled Taiwan a renegade province that one day must return to the motherland, by force if necessary. (By some estimates, China has as many as 2,000 missiles locked and aimed at Taiwan.) Washington, through Congress's 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, is obliged to help arm the island. Whenever the U.S. sells Taipei military hardware, especially warplanes, China vehemently protests the action as interference in its internal affairs. Conflict over Taiwan between the two powers, while improbable, cannot be ruled out.
There's a more crucial, cosmic element to Taiwan. It is worth defending, if not as a territory, then as an idea: that freedom is compatible with the Chinese world. Taiwan could do a better job strengthening rule of law and fighting corruption. But in many stellar ways, it is the un-China: a vigorous democracy; an alternative fount of Chinese language and culture; an arena of fiercely competitive (and partisan) media; a crucible of creativity (tech, film, food); a haven of environmental consciousness (you'll find recycling bins on remote hilltops). Heck, even the people are nicer literally a civil society. China has muscle; Taiwan has soul. It's the true people's republic.
Taiwan's voice, particularly during elections, is strong enough to reverberate even on the mainland. The islanders take politics very seriously it seems to suffuse their lives because they know their votes really count. In the presidential contest, the 99% figure a great deal: Tsai and her opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accuse Ma and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) of pandering to Big Business and ignoring income inequality. But beyond livelihood issues, the giant shadow of the mainland looms largest. The elections are, in truth, a referendum on China.