Taiwan is an island about 112 miles(180 km) off the coast of China. It's one of the happier places on Earth—and definitely one of the happiest in Asia. That assessment, by the World Happiness Report, is based on a survey of 156 countries according to certain measurable indicators of well being. In 2016, Taiwan ranked thirty-fifth, gaining three places over its previous standing eighteen months earlier. In fact, Taiwan scored particularly well compared to most of its neighbors in Asia, coming in well ahead of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and, interestingly, China—which ranked eighty-third. All of this is not as frivolous as it might seem. Scored scientifically, the analyses provide a surprisingly accurate portrait of a country's general quality of life, in measures that reflect more than just national prosperity—though that is certainly one factor. Some of the other happiness indicators include life expectancy, generosity, the freedom to make life choices, social support, and perceptions of corruption in society and government.
Taiwan's relative happiness, therefore, is an intriguing finding, considering its unusual situation. For Taiwan is caught in position of indeterminate status—it is both a country called the Republic of China (ROC), and not a country; a sovereign nation and not a nation—depending on who or what makes the determination. Even if, for purposes of international expediency, Taiwan is considered a de facto country, it is still in an awkward position. The small island is a David to a huge and powerful Goliath—the People's Republic of China (PRC), which looms mightily over the island from across the Taiwan Strait. (In this analogy, no one expects this David to bring down Goliath; the best he can hope for is to hold off the giant on massive playground equipment, indefinitely.) The PRC, or mainland China, considers Taiwan to be its own renegade province—a pesky runaway that needs to be reunited with its true family. To that end, China refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that recognizes Taiwan (ROC) as a nation.
Given the enormous importance of China, this has forced most countries to reluctantly choose China over Taiwan. For this reason, Taiwan was booted out of the United Nations in 1971. Even the country's name is a matter of dispute. The PRC opposes the official name of Republic of China or even the name Taiwan because those names imply Taiwan's status as a sovereign state. It also insists there is only one China, not two. This name dispute causes problems even in supposedly nonpolitical realms, such as the Olympics. (Of course, the Olympic Games have long been a showcase for political frictions of all sorts.) For Taiwanese athletes to compete in Olympic events, the two Chinas agreed upon the deliberately ambiguous name Chinese Taipei as a designation for Taiwan.
This peculiar “betwixt and between” status affects the life of the Taiwanese in many ways. Their history as a people was enormously impacted by the cataclysmic revolution that took place in China in the mid-twentieth century. It was then that the government of China fled to the island and set up as a government in exile. That exile status became permanent as it became clear that the mainland communist government was there to stay. Today, Taiwan's political parties are mostly split between those who foresee eventual reunification with China and those who imagine independence. The economies of the two countries have become deeply connected, and even person-to-person ties are tightening as tourism flows in both directions.
In 2016, the Taiwanese elected Tsai Ing-wen as its new president, putting an end, for now, to the previous administration's trend toward deepening ties with China. Tsai, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), took 56 percent of the vote to become Taiwan's first female president. She is opposed to reunification. “The people expect a government that can lead this country into the next generation, a government that is steadfast in protecting this country's sovereignty,” she said after her victory. That doesn't mean she is looking to upset the apple cart by aggressively pushing back at China. “We will work towards maintaining the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in order to bring the greatest benefits to the Taiwanese people,” Tsai told a press conference after her victory. “Both sides of the strait have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction.”
Despite the expected rumblings and warnings from China, the status quo of ambiguity seems to be the best choice forward for now. Neither China nor Taiwan wants to aggravate tensions to a crisis point over the island's identity. However, one might expect that living with constant uncertainty of this sort would cause anxiety among the Taiwanese. That's why the results of the latest World Happiness Report are so interesting. The Taiwanese have obviously learned how to live in the unsettled situation they find themselves in, and apparently are not living in great fear of the future.