Globalization, the Taiwan Dilemma, and the Intersection of Identity and Economic Policy: Interview with Syaru Shirley Lin

Syaru Shirley Lin is a member of the founding faculty of the master’s program in global political economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She currently teaches political science at the University of Virginia and offers courses on theories of international political economy and cross-Strait relations. Lin graduated cum laude from Harvard College and earned her masters and Ph.D. from the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.


Lin’s most recent book, Taiwan’s China Dilemma: Contested Identities and Multiple Interests in Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Economic Policy (Stanford University Press, 2016) explores how, as Taiwan has become increasingly dependent on mainland China economically, its policies toward China have fluctuated between liberalization and restriction. This study uses a framework that links national identity and economic interest to explain the ongoing debate over Taiwan’s cross-Strait economic policy and the oscillations this debate has produced.


Lin gave a talk at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College on November 15th, 2016. This bio is adapted from


The CJLPP: Why did you feel that the Claremont Colleges was the place you wanted to talk about China-Taiwan economic relations?

Lin: I visited Claremont McKenna last year and was very impressed with everything I saw and its focus on leadership. I saw a lot of kids who were interested in policy, as opposed to pure theory, which is very important, seeing the ways in which theory can be put into work. My work is interdisciplinary, it’s not just politics or economics or sociology, so I thought it was uniquely suitable to give a talk here. So when my book came out, I contacted Claremont McKenna. The second reason—in addition to the fact that my subject is interdisciplinary, how national identity dives economic policy—is because the greater Los Angeles area has one of the most enthusiastic Asian American community in America. The LA area also has a lot of investment in China, so it will understand the importance of the China Dilemma very well.


The CJLPP: Do you think you’re going to talk about Trump’s policy and the impact on Taiwan and China?

* Editor’s Note: Please not that this interview took place prior to the 2016 Election results.

Lin: It is too early to tell with Trump’s exact policies, because he is always contradicting himself on his China and Taiwan policy. Taiwan was hoping to be in the second round of the TPP, but with Trump’s objection the TPP, it’s hard to know if that’s going to go ahead. [Whether or not they are going to be] a part of the TPP or not is very important for Taiwan’s economic future and whether it can support itself or not, so that’s one of the implications of Trump’s uncertainty on Taiwan. One upside I can think of is that the US policy towards Taiwan has not changed since 1979 with the Taiwan Relations Act, so under Trump, because he’s so unpredictable, something could change, which could be perhaps very positive or very negative.

The aspect of the rise of Trump that I’m very interested in is that, like support for Brexit, there is a similar thing happening in Taiwan. There is the backlash against globalization. The young population in Taiwan’s unemployment is 12%, versus the general population which is 6%. So there’s a backlash, an anger, against economic liberation. There is also support for the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, because they are a party that is more focused on Taiwan’s autonomy than trying to integrate with China. This support that comes from a younger generation comes from a sense of their identity being threatened, which relates to Brexit and rise of Trump.


The CJLPP: Do you think that perhaps in the next decade there’s going to be a massive shift against globalization? How do the anti-globalization populations vary around the globe?

Lin: The support of Trump and Brexit are among older generations in the US and Europe, but in Asia, it’s among the younger generation. The problem in Asia is that they are not focusing on the younger population. The demographic shift you see more in what I call the ‘high income countries,’ like Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, [and] Taiwan, where basically the demographic change means that younger people have more of a welfare burden on them and a less secure future. You see a decreasing fertility rate, and no massive immigration unlike the US. So, the end result is you have a massive economic shift against the younger population, which is why often the younger population is very bitter. In the U.S., Europe, and Asia alike, you see a wave against immigration, which has historically happened after periods of economic liberation—which is what happened after World War I. Most people are skeptical of globalization. Many Taiwanese are skeptical of globalization with China, because they believe it should not be indiscriminate, it should be selective to be benefit the majority of the people, not just a few, which is just crony capitalism.


The CJLPP: What dangers come with unstable relations between Taiwan and China?

Lin: Well, let me frame my book for you—the book basically focuses on “Taiwan’s Dilemma”, which is that for the past thirty years they’ve become more interdependent on China. So the dilemma is this: should Taiwan increase it interdependence on China so that it can grow economically, or reduce its interdependence so it can become more politically autonomous? This is Taiwan’s dilemma in a nutshell. No Chinese leader is willing to renounce military force against Taiwan. With the passage of time, national identity on the island has moved towards people identifying as Taiwanese, with 90% supporting autonomy and not unification. It used to be a lot higher; even at the start of my study, almost a quarter supported unification.


The CJLPP: We live in a globalized world that simultaneously sees significant backlash against globalization; will the rise in national identity ever converge with globalization to perhaps create a new globalization?

Lin: It used to be that national identity and globalization were not mutually exclusive. Identity is something that we all have whether we talk about it or not. But, it should be assumed that whatever America does should be good for Americans. The essence of my book [is that], if people can’t decide who they are, [then] they can’t choose an economic policy [and thus] they can’t choose whom to benefit. Even if people do not specifically express their views on identity, when they talk about their view of policy, it invariably comes out in their view of their identity. Identity is not in contrast to economic policy; it all works together. It is time for policy makers to realize that globalization and technology need to create jobs and give people a sense of identity and belonging, and [that] only these values can drive people to want to be in a global economy. The backlash is due to poor policy, not to an indescribable force within globalization.


The CJLPP: Thank you for your time and expertise.


Editor’s Note: This interview has been minimally edited for the purpose of clarity.

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