Taiwan’s Ex-President On China, Nuclear Power And ‘The Most Stupid Policy In The World’

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TAIPEI, Taiwan ― Like much of the world, Ma Ying-jeou believes Taiwan is part of China and should eventually reunify with the mainland.

As president of the self-governing island from 2008 to 2016, he pushed for more trade to integrate the two economies. In 2015, Ma held a historic summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, becoming the first Taiwanese leader to meet his Beijing counterpart since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949.

Ma’s successor, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, takes a different view. Her Democratic Progressive Party believes Taiwan should remain a de facto sovereign nation. While China has grown more authoritarian under Xi, Taiwan ranks alongside countries like Iceland and Estonia for transparency and democratic openness, far ahead of the United States. And though Tsai has stopped short of triggering potential war by declaring independence or formally disavowing the country’s official title of “Republic of China,” her administration has hewn closely to the U.S. as the global superpower increasingly jockeys with Beijing for military and economic supremacy in Asia.

You might think then that Ma’s approach to his country’s energy problems would be to make Taiwan more dependent on China while Tsai would seek a system capable of withstanding whatever blockade or amphibious invasion the People’s Liberation Army might attempt.

You’d be wrong. Among the biggest policy differences between the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party is on what Taiwan’s two biggest parties want to do with the country’s four nuclear power plants.

An ardent supporter of atomic energy, Ma tried to complete construction on Taiwan’s fourth and most advanced nuclear power station to date, though he ultimately caved during an election year to anti-nuclear protesters’ demand to pause work on the plant.

Longmen Nuclear Power Plant, shown on Nov. 23, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. The plant has never opened.
Longmen Nuclear Power Plant, shown on Nov. 23, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. The plant has never opened.

After taking office in 2017, the Tsai administration went in the opposite direction, passing a law mandating the phaseout of all nuclear energy by 2025. The government aims to generate most of the highly industrialized republic’s electricity from fossil fuels, particularly natural gas and coal. Tsai had promised that wind and solar would help make up for the zero-carbon generation lost when the nuclear reactors shut down. But those renewables today generate a tiny sliver of Taiwan’s power, almost certainly putting even the government’s revised-down goals out of reach.

The debate over nuclear energy mirrors those in South Korea and Japan, but there’s an extra element at play here: Taiwan’s precarious statehood. Unlike those two East Asian neighbors, who represent themselves at the United Nations and can count on the U.S. military to defend them, most of the world recognizes China’s claim to Taiwan. And Washington remains committed, at least on paper, to its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether and how it would fight to defend an island whose government it works with but does not formally recognize.

Despite all the punditry drawing parallels with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s impossible to definitively predict how a Chinese takeover of Taiwan might pan out.

But some things are certain. Taiwan has only a week’s worth of natural gas in storage, and a blockade like the one that followed a controversial visit last summer by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would send gas barges scrambling away from Taiwanese ports. Coal similarly requires steady imports to the island. Same with oil. And while China can’t darken the sun or halt the wind, Taiwan has limited space and resources for solar panels, turbines and batteries, and their supply chains also overwhelmingly run through the mainland.

By contrast, nuclear reactors can pump out steady carbon-free electricity for two years or more without needing fresh uranium fuel.

I interviewed Ma toward the end of a two-week trip to Taiwan in November, during which I spoke with executives, activists and academics about what could happen if the government successfully ends atomic energy production in the next two years.

Professor Tsung-Kuang Yeh, a nuclear scientist at the National Tsing Hua University, has become an outspoken advocate of saving Taiwan's nuclear reactors since the current government's shutdown policy went into effect.
Professor Tsung-Kuang Yeh, a nuclear scientist at the National Tsing Hua University, has become an outspoken advocate of saving Taiwan’s nuclear reactors since the current government’s shutdown policy went into effect.

Among them was Tsung-kuang Yeh, a prominent nuclear engineer and professor at the National Tsing Hua University. He asked if I would be interested in meeting one-on-one with former President Ma to speak about this issue. On Nov. 23, two days before my return flight to New York, I drove with Yeh to the office in a glassy Taipei tower where Ma’s foundation is headquartered.

Ma’s assistant served boba milk tea and, after a few minutes, Ma strode into the conference room with a big grin as he pointed two index fingers at his chest. His blue T-shirt featured polar bears and the English words “Nuclear can help.”

We spoke for more than an hour. His staff had been hesitant about me asking about anything other than nuclear energy, but Ma answered every question, touching on his party’s authoritarian past, growing tensions with Beijing and why he doesn’t think Taiwan should be compared to Hong Kong.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to start with a question about what Taiwan is. Many of my readers in the U.S. might not have a full understanding of Taiwan’s status in the world, its statehood. There’s a book I read before coming here that compared Taiwan to Israel, the “Israel of the East,” a small country with powerful friends in the West, a world-class technology sector and military prowess.

But a comparison I have thought about a lot during my time here, and one that’s very close to my heart, is with Puerto Rico, an archipelago whose sovereignty is controlled by a nearby superpower and whose party politics revolve around questions of status. Where do you feel Taiwan falls between those two places? Are those similarities correct?

Usually the world sees Taiwan as a small country facing a big enemy. As you know, we had a civil war with the communists in the late 1940s. Eventually we lost the mainland and moved to Taiwan. In the last almost 70 years, we’ve built an economy which is unparalleled in many ways. Particularly in high technology. A lot of countries actually depend on the supply of [semiconductor] chips from Taiwan. In addition to that, we also showed the world that we’re able to build Taiwan and feed 23 million people and educate them. This is something we’re proud of. But, of course, we have encountered many difficulties: Our relationship with the mainland, our energy problems and a lot of others.

No matter what the problems and how difficult they are, I think we have accomplished a lot in the last 70 years, ever since we came here in 1949. We’re proud of our accomplishments, but we also understand the difficulties we’ve had.

Another country Taiwan is frequently compared to these days is Ukraine. Do you see that as a fair analogy?

Not quite, because Ukraine is connected with the Soviets by land. We’re separated from the Chinese mainland by the Taiwan Strait. It’s more than 100 nautical miles. On the one hand, this is part of our defense. On the other hand, in case we had military difficulties, we have no place to go. That is why wisdom is very important in dealing with a strong neighbor. We speak the same language. We have relatives over there. So we hope we can avoid a war. We have to make all the necessary preparations for war. But we have to try to avoid it and try to seek peace.

This is actually the essence of my administration from 2008 to 2016. Before that, we had very little contact with the mainland. When I became president, I tried to establish a relationship never before seen in this part of the world. We concluded 23 agreements with the mainland, covering almost all walks of life. Eventually I had an opportunity to meet with their leader, Mr. Xi Jingping, in Singapore, and we agreed we should solve our differences through peaceful means. I told him, ‘Listen, we’re building a great bridge of peace across the Taiwan Strait. As long as we follow the traffic rules, either side could use it.’ This is what I accomplished as president.

Unfortunately, after I stepped down, everything changed. Just giving you an example: An important newsmagazine, The Economist, in their editorial in 2015, they said the meeting between Taiwan and mainland Chinese leaders is the biggest concession the mainland Chinese made regarding the status of Taiwan.

That was 2015. Six years later, in 2021, the same magazine had as its cover story: Taiwan, the most dangerous place on Earth. What happened in the six years? Well, the change of government. The policy of the current government made us face this difficult situation.

Can you explain what the 1992 consensus is and what it means today?

The ’92 consensus is the consensus that binds the two sides together. Mainland China says there’s one China ― they’re that one China. We say the same. Both of us believe in the one-China principle but differ on its interpretation. So the ’92 consensus means one China, respective interpretations.

Of course, the current government in Taiwan does not accept that. They have an even more difficult situation with the mainland than we did in those years. The ’92 consensus is the very important common political basis for our relationship.

How would you summarize your interpretation of the ’92 consensus?

This concerns the respective constitution of the two sides. In our constitution, it says that currently China has two parts: Taiwan and the mainland. The mainland’s says the ’92 consensus is the compass of our relationship. Both sides attach a lot of importance to that concept, because either side of the Taiwan Strait maintains that there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of that China, though we differ on the interpretation.

You can see a comparison in the two Germanys before 1972. As you know, in 1972, the two sides of Germany reached an agreement. In English it’s called the [Basic Treaty]. In German, it’s Grundvertrag. That’s how they define each other. That agreement was able to maintain peaceful relations between the two sides in Germany, and eventually they were reunified in 1990.

We don’t know if we’ll be reunited with the mainland or not. But at least the existence of the ’92 consensus gives the two sides a reason to treat the other side peacefully.

Going off that ― and I only just learned this while I was here ― but the U.S. once proposed that Taiwan and China should have two separate seats at the U.N. At the time, Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek said he didn’t want that and that reunification with the mainland would eventually happen. In hindsight, was that the right decision?

Reunification is still very far from us because we need to do a lot of things before we can do that. The most important thing is to maintain a peaceful relationship, otherwise nothing can be done. What I did from 2008 to 2016 was to build that basis of relationship. People asked me: Why didn’t you sign a peace treaty with the mainland? I said, I have signed 22 peace treaties. All these agreements, without peace, cannot be accomplished.

So, only one seat at the U.N. was still the appropriate pathway, you think?

We haven’t reached that point yet. The mainland would never allow Taiwan to become independent.

On the other hand, they want to incorporate Taiwan now. Obviously right now the people of Taiwan do not accept that either. It’s important for the two sides to at least maintain the kind of relationship I helped establish from 2008 to 2016, what I called a peaceful development relationship. Whether we can go from there to reunification is something else that takes time. But at least we have to make the relationship peaceful.

You were born in Hong Kong. Obviously the crackdown there since 2019 has changed a lot of people’s views about the reality of “one country, two systems.” Has what we’ve seen in the Special Administrative Region changed your view of what is possible with the mainland?

Hong Kong shouldn’t be a good example for Taiwan because Hong Kong used to be a British colony. Taiwan isn’t any other country’s colony.

In Hong Kong, before they were part of the mainland, they had freedom and rule of law, but they didn’t have democracy. This is very different from Taiwan. We have all three of these things in Taiwan.

You have called Taiwan under President Tsai an “illiberal democracy.” Can you explain that?

This idea is from Fareed Zakaria, who used to be a writer for Foreign Affairs, in a book called ”The Future of Freedom.” If a leader who was popularly elected but, once inaugurated, starts to end his own term or to criticize or squeeze the opposition party, then the country is no longer a liberal democracy. It becomes an illiberal democracy. I’m afraid Taiwan is going through that process.

You’re probably not aware, but about three years ago one of our TV news stations was shut down by the government.

Which one?

Chung T’ien Television. It was in 2020. [Taiwanese regulators declined to renew the pro-China station’s broadcast license over its alleged repeated airing of what the government called disinformation.]This is really incredible. No free or democratic country ever did that.

In December 2020, one of the professors in National Taiwan University was taken by the police to the police station and interrogated for about two to three hours because he criticized the government’s cultural policy. For me, this is unthinkable. It doesn’t sound like a democratic country. There are quite a few examples, which I assemble here. This is what Fareed Zakaria believes are symptoms of illiberal democracy.

Former President Ma Ying-jeou said it takes time for people to understand the importance of nuclear energy. "Fortunately, in the last couple of years, the situation is getting much clearer and clearer, that the world cannot survive without nuclear power."
Former President Ma Ying-jeou said it takes time for people to understand the importance of nuclear energy. “Fortunately, in the last couple of years, the situation is getting much clearer and clearer, that the world cannot survive without nuclear power.”

Taiwan has consistently scored above my own country, the United States, on rankings like the Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index and the Varieties of Democracy’s Liberal Democracy Index. In fact, three out of those four saw an increase in Taiwan’s ranking in the years since you left office. The fourth, BTI, stayed constant. So, what do you think that those scores are missing?

In the last couple of years, many people in the United States have considered that American democracy is also in crisis. Your people say this is no longer the United States of America, it’s the Divided States of America.

Again, do you think these rankings I listed are ignoring the incidents you’ve highlighted of illiberalism?

That’s right. When people have power, sometimes they abuse it. But they have to understand it takes many people’s efforts to have democracy. So they have to be very careful in using their power.

You held this historic meeting with Xi Jinping. What do you think is the biggest misconception people in the West have of the Chinese leader?

China, everybody knows, it’s a dictatorship. In dealing with mainland China, we certainly have to be careful. But we also have to be fully cognizant that there should be only one China, although we do have different conceptions of what that one China is. On that basis, the two sides can talk to each other and even make some progress on the relationship. The issue of reunification is not an easy one, and it takes many years to accomplish.

I’m sure you have read the book by Grant Addison, ”Destined for War.” He studied 12 or 16 cases of European countries to show that war is inevitable. I told him that in China, we had a history of 4,600 years, and 70% of the time China was unified. The other 30% it was divided. From unification to division, or from division to unification, it always took war.

We, as the offsprings of those ancient people, should be smarter than they are. We should learn how to solve disputes in a peaceful way. This is what I told Mr. Xi Jingping in Singapore, face to face. I told him that, where we sit with “one China, respective interpretations,” we will not interpret that as “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan” or “Taiwan independence.” We do this not to please you. Rather, this is just not tolerated in our constitution. We have to find another way to accommodate each other’s differences in a peaceful way. I’m confident we can do this.

I want to switch to energy now. Nuclear power once provided more than half the electricity in Taiwan. Now it’s down to about 10%, and the government plans to phase it out completely by 2025. What do you see as the biggest motivator for the “nuclear-free homeland” policy we’re seeing implemented now?

If I understand correctly, the nuclear-free homeland idea came up when President Tsai Ing-wen was chairwoman of the DPP. So, 11 years ago. At the time, what happened in Fukushima [the 2011 disaster at the nuclear plant in Japan] really scared everyone. The DPP from the very beginning was opposed to nuclear power.

For a country like Taiwan, nuclear power is so important. We started using it about 40 years ago, and we’ve had a relatively good system. I don’t know if you have seen the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency [on countries’ “unit capacity factor,” a measure of how efficiently nuclear plant operators are running reactors]. There are 31 countries in the world that have nuclear power. We have actually been among the top five in the world for quite a while. That means we have actually outperformed at our plants at roughly 90%. This is something we’re proud of.

I met with President Tsai six years ago, after she was first elected. We had a meeting about the transition. I said, “You’ve got to understand, you plan to amass 20% of energy to renewables, but this is not possible.” Bloomberg Intelligence predicted Taiwan can do only about 9%. My economic minister said no more than 10%. But Tsai wants to have 20% by 2025. I think that’s not possible.

Her response was shocking. She said, “My energy expert told me it is possible.”

That’s convenient.

What happened next is, a year later, we had nationwide blackouts in 2017. So far we’ve had five of these big blackouts, precisely because we do have an electricity problem.

It was in 2014, when you were still president, that the fourth plant was mothballed. I imagine you intended that to be temporary?

The decision was made by me. The reason being, at the time, there was a big difference between the two parties. I thought, maybe we should make that decision sometime later. I thought, this is the right decision, at least to avoid the imminent clash between the two political parties.

We believe that after a while we may be able to do it again. But it takes time.

When you say “clash between the two parties,” do you mean you were concerned it would take an electoral toll on your party if you did not postpone the power plant?

Yes. There was a very acute clash between the two parties. At the time, people thought nuclear power was really dangerous. They didn’t understand we’ve done very, very well ever since we’ve had nuclear power.

So you were hoping that, in the two years, the KMT would be reelected and you could help educate people in the interim?

Yes. It takes time for people to understand how important nuclear power is. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, the situation is getting much clearer and clearer, that the world cannot survive without nuclear power. That’s the reason I wear this T-shirt.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi had a similar message at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt just last week.

Earlier this week, I was on Lanyu, where a past KMT government decided to store low-level radioactive waste. Once the indigenous Tao people discovered what was going on at the facility, which I actually just visited yesterday, they protested, and it helped to fuel the anti-nuclear movement. What do you think that the government could have done differently back then? Was it a mistake to put the waste on Lanyu in the first place?

When we did it, it was more than 30 years ago. After 30 years, people there and elsewhere understand it’s not as risky as people thought. This is very important. People there certainly now hope the waste will stay so they continue to get the subsidies. We’re looking for other places in order to deposit the nuclear waste. But people understand it’s not as dangerous as they thought.

One of the arguments I’ve been hearing a lot from anti-nuclear people is that there’s not any room to store the waste. It makes me wonder if there’s enough room, then, for all the renewables you need to replace nuclear power. Do you think that there is enough room to keep what spent fuel you have and continue to produce nuclear energy?

The current government’s policy to develop renewable energy to replace nuclear power is, I think, the most stupid policy in the world. No country has done that. Why? Because nuclear power is considered green energy already.

We should use renewable energy to replace coal or natural gas. But not nuclear.

What do you think of the current government plan to become more dependent on liquefied natural gas? I know they’re building a new import terminal in Taoyuan County. What are your biggest concerns with that plan?

Just recently, when our president talked to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Lee Yuan-tseh, the Nobel winner asked the president: “If you do this, what will happen in 2025?” Her answer was really shocking. She said, “Well, my term ends in 2024, so anything after that, I don’t know. I won’t be responsible.”

This is their problem: I don’t know whether they are fully aware. In Taiwan, we should develop renewable energy for sure. Actually, I was the person who pushed for the enactment of the 2009 Renewable Energy Development Act. But Taiwan’s natural conditions are not really that good for either solar or wind. Nuclear power is still very important to Taiwan. The percentage of nuclear should be at least 20% [of the national energy mix]. Renewables can hardly reach 20%. Maybe they can do 15%. I hope we can be able to have more nuclear energy that can better serve our country.

Taiwan is an economy that cannot just be stopped even temporarily without electricity.

The DPP was founded the same year as the Chernobyl disaster, so I’ve heard the argument that this has always been part of the party’s founding mythology. I’ve also heard the argument that the DPP perceives nuclear power as a partisan issue, something that the KMT pursued and which you must be against if you’re against the KMT.

In a way, it’s become the ideology of the DPP. They believed that this was a bad thing for Taiwan from the very beginning. But they fail to find out what else we can do if we lack the conditions to develop renewable energy. Certainly we’d be happy if we could develop as much renewable energy as the DPP thought they could. But it’s not the case.

When people say they’re afraid of earthquakes or afraid of Fukushima, what do you say? Like Japan, Taiwan sits within the seismic Ring of Fire. Is there something fundamentally different about Taiwan’s nuclear power plants that makes a situation like Fukushima unlikely here?

If you knew Fukushima, you’d understand there’s no single person who died out of contamination of radioactivity. Not a single one. This is also true in Taiwan. We have had nuclear power for more than 40 years. There’s no single person who’s died from radioactivity. But there are a few people who just don’t like the truth. There’s even some DPP politicians who keep finding some geological fault regarding the location of the nuclear power plant. I think it’s just very stupid.

Are you aware that nuclear power plant No. 4 was under their supervision and, because of the budgetary problems, Ms. Tsai actually increased their subsidy in order to make it work?

The DPP itself probably had an anti-nuclear ideology. But after so many years, people should understand this is really a myth. I don’t know why they still stick to it.

What about the hunger strike protest at the time, which had garnered a lot of attention?

You’re talking about the DPP politician? Lin Yi-hsiung?


You have to understand, Mr. Lin has been deified. He’s been treated like a god. Whatever he says, people have to follow. That makes it even more difficult to solve the problem.

But I’m sure after so many years people are starting to understand nuclear power is no longer something very dangerous.

In hindsight, is there a way you wish you could have responded to those protests at the time? Could you have prevented him from being deified?

The reason why I mothballed the nuclear power plant was precisely because I wanted to avoid the forthcoming clash between the people. On the fourth nuclear power plant, we still had some work to do, so we could wait for a while. But after so many years, after so many debates, I think people now understand nuclear power isn’t that bad. If we really want to move Taiwan ahead, we have to use it.

I imagine nuclear power will be part of the KMT’s platform in two years.

Of course.

What would you say to a regular voter to persuade them? How prominent do you imagine the energy issues being in that campaign two years from now?

It’s now a little easier than before to convince people that we need nuclear power because renewables, as we said, do not come so easily. They have their own problems, too. We have to have an economy with multiple energies: renewables, coal, natural gas. They all should have their respective place in the energy picture. To get rid of nuclear power isn’t very feasible or smart. It has a lot to do with, as I said, ideology.

But if you look at what happened more than 10 years ago, even the current president asked the nuclear plant supervisor to work harder to achieve our target and offered to give more money to complete the construction. This is so political that it makes people think, “Don’t trust those politicians.”

Will the deployment of small modular reactors change perceptions and make it easier to build new nuclear reactors again?

I believe so, but it takes some time for the training and to help people understand SMRs. Our American friends may be able to help us with this. Then we wouldn’t have to build a big nuclear plant, which is not so welcome by the people living nearby.

We have several science parks, which are very important in our computer and other industries. For things like that, having the small reactors would make nuclear more marketable.

Some big manufacturers in Taiwan are looking at building small modular reactors abroad, maybe in the Philippines, with hopes that someday, if policy changes in Taiwan, they can bring the technology home. Are you concerned that that demonstrates a loss of economic competitiveness for Taiwan, especially as its neighbors, such as Japan, South Korea and China, embrace nuclear energy?

The general trend of the world is quite clear. If you look at what happened in South Korea and Japan, they have their own independent energy systems. Taiwan is the same.

Look at what happened in Germany. Germany was the country that led the fight against nuclear power after the Fukushima incident. They were supposed to phase out all of the nuclear power plants by the end of this year. But they’ll have some delays now to make sure they get through the winter. The Ukraine war makes it very clear that energy becomes a weapon. Germany learned that lesson. And this is even with a coalition government where the Green Party plays an important role, I think even the economic minister is a Green.

That’s right. Robert Habeck.

They have gone so far as to phase out later instead of sooner. This is something not so easy. Everybody learned something in the process.

I want to ask one more question related to Ukraine. Right now, as you said, Russia is waging war against Ukraine through what the Financial Times recently referred to as a “blackout blitz.” That’s both in terms of just bombing electrical infrastructure and limiting how much natural gas is flowing to Ukraine’s allies. Are you worried that increased reliance on natural gas could be used as a weapon against Taiwan?

Of course!

What do you say to people who say, “If war comes, we don’t want there to be a nuclear power plant that could be bombed”?

People in Taiwan have so far appreciated the lessons Ukraine has taught us, particularly concerning liquefied natural gas. As you know, under the DPP’s energy blueprint, LNG will occupy 50% of the energy mix. We import all the LNG from Middle East countries. We produce nothing.

That could become a very important weakness of our national security. Mainland China doesn’t even have to fire a shot. They could just announce: “Stop exporting LNG to Taiwan” and suddenly we cannot cook! It’s not a question of the military but of our households. It’s very important that we know we have to become a multi-energy country. Coal has to be reduced as much as possible. Natural gas, you cannot really let 50% of your energy supply depend on LNG.

You have had a very blunt attitude about what a military conflict would be like with China. The phrase you have used is: The first fight would be the last.” I think all Taiwanese agree that war must be absolutely avoided. Do you really think defense is pointless? What role does energy play in deterrence?

Generally people in Taiwan now do not appreciate the problem of energy’s place in our national security. Maybe it’ll take a little while for them to understand. But we have to keep in mind that we can’t let energy like natural gas occupy 50% of the picture. We import 100% from abroad. That could kill us. Sooner or later, people will have to understand nuclear power is much more dependable than fossil fuels.

Is nuclear power a better deterrent than F-16s?

Look at what happened in Germany. When Germany said it wanted to phase out all the nuclear power plants by 2022, they seemed so confident it would happen. But it changed. And, I’m sure you know, the price of electricity in Germany is five times that of Taiwan.

If we depend so much on fossil fuel, we certainly will have the same problem. The price of electricity will go up 30%, maybe even 45%. What happened in the world over the past couple of years gradually made people appreciate that the role of nuclear energy is very different than what they thought before.

I’d like to end on a lighter note. What do you think is Taiwan’s greatest cultural export? Is there one thing you love particularly ― one food dish, one piece of music or art or a movie from Taiwan that you think the rest of the world should enjoy?

Ever since we started our relations with the mainland, the popular songs of the two sides have become an important part of life. One of our singers, Deng Lijun, actually occupied the minds of many, many mainland Chinese.

Nowadays, there’s another mainland Chinese singer, Hong Qi, a young man who wrote about a love affair in Xinjiang in a remote area. It’s been sung by several billion people. It’s really incredible. The cultural bonds of the two sides make it a very important element of our relationship.

When Taiwanese songs became very popular on the mainland, the name of the singer was Deng, like [the former Chinese leader responsible for reopening the country to global trade] Deng Xiaoping. They called the lady “small Deng” and him “Big Deng.” That’s the sort of thing that binds us together. We should continue to do that.

What is one phrase in Mandarin that you wish Americans knew?

I was told that on an occasion when mainland philosophers and educators met from different cultures, just like you asked, everyone was asked to pick just one sentence. Eventually the one that got the approval of almost everyone in Chinese was: 己所不欲,勿施於人。

“If you don’t want something, don’t force someone to do it.”

It’s something everyone believes is important. It’s from Confucius, someone who existed more than 2,500 years ago.

And yet relevant today still.

They give us many, many good lessons, even in areas of ecology. Mencius was also a disciple of Confucius and says you should not use fish nets that are so small that you cannot let all other species of fish go, that that will actually kill the fish.

When I studied the law of the sea at Harvard University, I understood that in the year 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that forbade the use of drift nets. You know what a drift net is? It’s a very big net that grabs almost everything, even seabirds. So they said no North Pacific countries should allow the fishing boats to use that. I looked at that and said, God, we had this 2,600 years ago. In the time of the Zhou dynasty, every fisherman, if he caught a small fish, he’d have to give it back to the sea. At the time, people were ecologically so advanced.

It feels like we’re relearning a lot now.

When I was the mayor of Taipei City, we were supposed to have a ceremony for Confucius every year on his birthday. I’d repeat that story and say, “Don’t believe that ancient people are stupid.” They are not. They have ideas that we do not have in our society about nature. This is something that shows how important and how great Chinese culture is.

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