I have always been fascinated by alternate history – fiction that imagines what would have happened and where we would be today if some critical past event had gone differently. What if the Axis had won World War II? What if the Pope had had a more favourable view towards Henry VIII’s petition for annulment? The past is now fixed and unchangeable, yet a small shift in the past could have led to a totally different world today.

Alternative histories aren’t just fun though – they can provide a powerful tool for exploring what difference was made by a particular political decision.

Is history progressive?

Many alternative histories in which the South won the American Civil War have assumed that the end of slavery was inevitable anyways. This is a politically important speculation – if the South would have ended slavery shortly after the 1860s anyways, then one might conclude that the South was not that bad and that so-called “Northern aggression” was not justified.

This speculation also reflects a “progressive” view of history – a view which supposes that the advance of justice and therefore the end of slavery was inevitable, regardless of the particular decisions or calculations made by particular people in the past.

I personally find it a bit implausible to suppose that the South would voluntarily give up an institution that they had just fought to preserve or to presume that slavery was necessarily doomed when it had survived so long. But it is easy to understand how these suppositions had and have political meaning for those wishing to advance a particular view of the South and of history.

The idea of alternative history is not just important when it is invoked explicitly. So many claims about the progress of countries or the impact of certain policies implicitly invoke an alternative history as well.

The history of China and Taiwan

When the Chinese government claims, for example, to have lifted millions of people out of poverty, we are implicitly being asked to evaluate that claim against an alternative history in which China is run by a different government, and then compare the performance of that imagined different government to the performance of the actual government.

This exercise of evaluating the impact of political decisions against the benchmark of “what could have been” is generally highly speculative – but there is a case where it is not.

The Chinese civil war was won by the communists, whose subsequent government has become known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a result of their victory, they got to go on and try to shape China as they saw fit. But relatively uniquely in that case, the losers of that civil war also got to put their ideas into practice by building the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan.

The alternative history of Taiwan

Both sides agreed for a long time that there was only one China, but each had a different conception of what that was. Both societies changed over time, but in ways that reflected that radical point of divergence. Taiwan is, in that sense, a living and breathing alternative history. It is China without communism – what China would have been if the civil war had gone differently.

And so Taiwan and its situation are particularly important – not just because we should be concerned about the safety and welfare of 24 million free people, but because Taiwan’s very existence lifts the veil on what the People’s Republic of China is, on what China could have been, and on what China could still be.

The Communist Party of China’s claim to legitimacy depends on its own analysis of the historic alternatives. Their story is that the Communist Party is China’s agent of economic development, of order, and of the reversal of national shame. Without it, they would like to suppose, China would be economically undeveloped, disorderly, and dominated by foreign powers. They suppose that the only available alternative history without communism is a poor and dark one – and so their rule is necessary, just, and beneficent.

An embarrassment for communist China

It is, then, deeply embarrassing for the PRC that one can go and see a more fulsome manifestation of China’s potential – a living breathing alternative history for Chinese people, marked by prosperity, beauty, and joy, characterized by freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. (Not that it’s the most important marker, but GDP per capita is about 2.5 times higher in Taiwan).

Any even moderately open-minded person from the mainland who spends a few days in the Republic of China (Taiwan) will be able to see that the Communist Party is not propelling the Chinese people forward – rather, it is holding them back. Any Westerner who harbours romantic notions about communism in China should see the alternative to realize how much more would have been possible on the mainland without communism. Most alternative histories are only found in novels and films, but this one is alive to see.

The PRC’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Taiwan demonstrates the insecurity of communist officials. Their rule lacks any credible legitimacy other than demonstrably false alternative history. Taiwan’s existence and success is proof of their failures, and a stark reminder to those on the mainland of what could still be achieved by a free China. That is the biggest reason why they see Taiwan as a threat.

The past is fixed and unchangeable, but the future trajectory is very much dependent on what we do at this critical point in China’s history. Will China learn from Taiwan’s successes, or will its rulers go further to snuff out the clearest evidence of their failures?