Boston can send a big, bold message on democracy

Mayor Wu, help Taiwan retain its independence

The following commentary is written as a letter to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.


In 1984, when you were a 1-year-old in Chicago, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn promoted an ordinance prohibiting the city from investing public funds in any institution doing business with the apartheid government in South Africa and urging 100 mayors across the country to follow suit. That summer, Greenpeace protests against Iceland’s refusal to honor a commercial whaling moratorium led City Hall to boycott Icelandic fish for school lunches. Such efforts inevitably receive pushback from those who believe city government should avoid symbolic statements and stick to city business.

Rather than compartmentalize, you’ve drawn connections between local, national, and international issues, resulting in proposals like your “Boston Green New Deal” to combat climate change. On election night, you described Boston as “the city of the revolution, civil rights, marriage equality.” Throughout your campaign, you spoke of “the need to tackle the big, bold challenges to move forward.” So, while you have plenty on your plate, I hope you’ll consider adding one more challenge to the queue: the preservation of democracy, from voting rights here in the US to self-determination for the people of Taiwan, which faces an existential threat from China’s authoritarian communist regime.

In December, I asked Raymond Kuo, an expert in international security with the Rand Corporation, just how precarious a free and democratic Taiwan is in the face of aggression from China. “Taiwan probably ranks second in terms of the most threatened countries that receive some form of US military assistance,” he replied. Topping his list of the most vulnerable nations was Ukraine. Weeks before Russia attacked, even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy voiced skepticism of an invasion. Do we really want to wait and see how things play out with Taiwan?

Since he became president of China in 2012, Xi Jinping has become increasingly aggressive in his rhetoric toward Taiwan, replacing language about “peaceful reunification” with a warning in 2019 — “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures.”

Autocrats tend to telegraph their intentions. Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro preemptively characterized any election they did not win as corrupt. Xi, who successfully abolished presidential term limits in China, proposed unification with Taiwan under “one country, two systems,” then showed the world exactly what that model would look like, opting out of the 1997 agreement between China and Great Britain for Hong Kong to retain its autonomy well before the 50-year expiration date. Today, Hong Kong is as autonomous as Shanghai.

When President Biden was asked if the US would protect Taiwan during a CNN Town Hall in November, he replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” then was pressed to equivocate so as not to upset the diplomatic contortions US presidents have gone through for decades to appease Beijing.

Before 2016, when democracy was considered a patriotic principle of all Americans, support for a prosperous, model government like Taiwan might have been universal. Today, when more Republicans have a favorable view of Vladimir Putin than Joe Biden (according to an Economist/YouGov poll), their interest in upholding even our own democracy is questionable.

Meanwhile, Democratic support for Taiwan is transactional. “In progressive American foreign-policy circles,” Sarah Topol wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “China’s eventual control of Taiwan is often a foregone conclusion—a sheepish shrug at the end of an exhausted, over-rung forever war. Some even floated trading it outright for better relations with the C.C.P. [Chinese Communist Party].”

Why does an island 7,700 miles away, around half the size of Scotland, matter to Bostonians? Along with Cambridge and Quincy, Boston has the 11th largest Taiwanese population in the US. Since 1996, Taipei has been one of Boston’s sister cities.

Globally, Taiwan built the world’s largest semiconductor industry and remains a significant strategic location to our allies. The country’s success in manufacturing and managing COVID-19 led to “Taiwan can help,” an international mask outreach. Additionally, Kuo notes, “Japan and South Korea have indicated that Taiwan is integral to their security,” [and] “they and other Asian countries increasingly view the US posture towards Taiwan as a litmus test of Washington’s commitment and engagement to the region.” But support for a model democracy like Taiwan is really about support for democracy worldwide.

“I think that’s where someone like Mayor Wu could have the biggest impact,” Kuo explains. “Holding up that the people of Taiwanese (and/or Chinese descent) embrace and thrive under democracy challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative that its one-party authoritarianism is uniquely suited to the Chinese people.”

As the only big-city mayor of Taiwanese descent in the US, you know that, like Tibet and Hong Kong, Taiwan has a culture all its own. But unlike these vanquished territories, it also clings to its independence—at least for now.

Meet the Author

Andrew Levinsky

Editorial director, Regis College
Xi’s close friendship with Putin and his refusal to firmly denounce even Russia’s most egregious war crimes telegraphs his intentions with Taiwan.  We may need to avoid the landmine of formal independence to placate Xi and preserve the peace, but we must be equally clear about our resolve to defend democracy in Taiwan. As mayor, you could redirect the city’s business ties and investments from Beijing to Taipei, lobby state and federal leaders on both sides of the aisle, establish communications with Taiwan from local officials to President Tsai Ing-wen, and encourage mayors in other cities to follow suit. What are we waiting for? Let’s start a revolution in support of democracy worldwide right here in Boston.

Andrew Levinsky is editorial director at Regis College.