Asia’s Silicon Valley
A different China, Taiwan is today the capital of semiconductors
What is Taiwan if not a curious example of an alternate history? Or rather, what might have happened if Chiang Kai-shek had prevailed in China instead of Mao? How would things look had history taken a different turn? The answer might be found in this island in the South China Sea, inhabited for the most part by the Han population that speaks Mandarin Chinese but is not communist.
The Marxist-Leninist doctrine never arrived here and after half a century of Japanese domination (1895-1945), the island that the Portuguese had named “Formosa” became a refuge for nationalists fleeing Mao’s army. It was intended as a temporary withdrawal prior to taking back the continent but they remained until today, transforming Taiwan into a hardworking democracy (protected by the United States).
In 1980, following a trip to California, a group of Taiwanese visionaries set out to create a science park on a hill in Hsinchu.
The idea was ambitious and had the backing of the Taipei government: to create Asia’s own Silicon Valley. Forty years later, not only does that park still exist, but it is the heart of a planetary success: Taiwan has become the world’s main centre for the production of semiconductors, essential elements for creating microchips.
This strategic success story has become a particularly enticing proposition, especially for China. The island is responsible, in fact, for two thirds of the total global production of microprocessors, the genuine technological heart of the modern world. Today, everything – smartphones, computers, cars, video games, the medical sector and, above all, the arms industry – depends on semiconductors, a product that is experiencing a ten per cent increase in demand every year.
Taiwan has always had a particular calling: scenting the future and investing in that direction, creating neither logos or brands and keeping a low profile by working “on behalf of third parties”. By doing so the island has carved out a key role for itself in today’s society, becoming an essential node that no one can ignore. Not even the superpowers. US president Joe Biden highlighted the importance of semiconductors in “the race to win the 21st century.” In fact, the competition between the United States and China – taking in protectionist legislation, industrial espionage and coast-to-coast headhunting of talent – already features here in Taiwan.
A city that is futuristic and overpopulated, Taipei (Taiwan’s capital) with its karaoke bars, gay clubs, tearooms and art galleries where East and West intertwine, recalls the cyberpunk Los Angeles portrayed in Blade Runner. On the other hand, Hsinchu is a city devoted to work: here the Science Park is a city within a city where – in an area of 14 square kilometres – 565 companies employ 165 thousand people, generating thirty per cent of the country’s total exports.