Imagine for a minute that the Republicans and the Democrats went to war. Each amassed an army and waged long, severe battles throughout the United States. Finally, the Republicans won and installed a ruthless dictatorship.

The Democratic leadership, joined by about 2 million of their followers, fled to Hawaii  and set up their own ruthless dictatorship. The population already living in Hawaii–Republican and Democrat–was powerless to protest or resist.

In 1949, Taiwan was pretty much Hawaii in this scenario.

When Mao came to power in China, Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Nationalist Party fled to ‘Formosa’, an island off the Chinese mainland about the size of Maryland. They remained (and remain) a province of China, but in the last 60 years they’ve built their own government, infrastructure and economy.

I’m sure I’m totally screwing up a lot of the details here, and that my Hawaii analogy is inapt in a million glaring ways, but that’s as close as I’ve come to understanding the history and ongoing tensions in Taiwan after traveling here for the last week.

A lot of the interesting stuff, of course, happened after Taiwan set up its own mini-tatorship next door to the big one. Taiwan’s per-capita GDP is currently almost four times that of mainland China’s. Taiwanese people earn as much as Finnish or British people on average, while Chinese people earn as much as Bosnians and El Salvadorans.

There are a million other vast differences like this in wealth, health and well-being between Taiwan and mainland China. Walking around Taipei feels like a cheaper, more crowded version of any EU capital. People wear brand-name clothing and walk around with earbuds. Cashiers unerringly hand out receipts whenever you buy anything, and attempts to haggle are greeted with bemused refusal. You never see beggars or touts. Most people don’t speak English, but within 30 seconds they can find one who does.

It’s also demonstrably not a dictatorship anymore. The Taipei Times reports criticism of the government and speaks out about media censorship, even in China-China. I saw two street protests in three days in Taipei, both peaceful and both sentried by the same bored-looking cops you see outside in ‘Free Speech Zones’ in the US.

You can see how Taiwan’s history and current situation leave some lingering tensions. All the Taiwanese who were forced to live under Nationalist rule for 30 years aren’t exactly over it, even if things are way better now than they were. There are linguistic and cultural tensions between the Mandarin people and the Taiwanese. Not to mention the issue of whether Taiwan should be fully independent from China or attempt further integration.

I don’t know how Taiwan went from being The Dictatorship Next Door to the middle-class economic tiger of today, and I’m looking forward to finding out. When I arrived, I imagined Taiwan as a sort of alternate-reality China, a version demonstration of what China would be now if Mao hadn’t so profoundly prevented its growth and prosperity. As I depart, I think of Taiwan less as an example of what China could have been, and more as a model of what it should be.

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