Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Taiwan Question. As I look back over my first year in China, there are many things that come to mind. But perhaps the single most important question I have been asked, over and over again, is "What do you think about Taiwan?" I have been asked this question by students, by visitors to the English Corner, and by friends. I think it sticks out in my mind more than any other single question. More than "Do you like Chinese food?" More than, "Where are you from?" More than "Do you like China?" "How long did it take you to grow your beard?" and "Why does Bush hate Iraq?"

There is a lot of history to the Taiwan question, and that history is not always well understood. When I am asked about it, I try to point out that the present conflict is different from that which existed during the Cold War. At that time, the issue was "Communism" vs. "Anti-Communism." The Guomindang vs. the Communist Party on the mainland. Both parties in that dispute believed very strongly that there was only one China. But they disagreed about who should be in power. In the West, the conflict was always viewed as an issue between those two parties, and the West naturally took the side of Chiang Kai-shek. But there is a third party. A third group of people. A third element that was never considered in those days, because it was politically powerless. I am referring to the Taiwanese natives. When I mentioned the Taiwanese natives, and the conflict between them and the Chinese refugees who came over with Chiang Kai-shek in the late forties, someone at the English corner said, "Everyone on Taiwan came from China." I said, "Yes, but that was four hundred years ago."

Four hundred years is a long time. The Taiwanese natives are descendents of Chinese laborers who were brought over from the mainland by the Dutch in the 1600's. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the current Taiwanese natives are the result of intermarriage between those laborers from the mainland, and the aborigines who lived on the island before the Dutch came.

When the Nationalist forces began to lose out to the Communists during the civil war which followed World War II and the defeat of the Japanese, they fled to Taiwan as a sort of "last stand." That's what it would have been, too. Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, took the position that both South Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) were beyond the "defense perimeter" of the United States. But after the attack on Korea, Truman decided to order the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan strait to prevent a similar attack on Taiwan. Thus began the standoff that has continued to the present time. But the dynamics have changed. During the Cold War, both sides claimed to be the legitimate government of China, and the Americans supported the Nationalists in this dispute. This dynamic is critical to a correct understanding of the current situation. The reason I say this, is because the Nationalists never, never advocated "independence" from China. In those days, we always talked about "Free China" and "Red China." Both parties claimed to be the legitimate government of China. Not just Taiwan, but all of China.

In 1972, Nixon decided to pursue a relationship with Beijing. The condition, of course, was a recognition of Taiwan as a part of China. Nixon and Kissinger took a gradual approach to this problem, maintaining a relationship with Taiwan, while seeming to give tacit approval to Beijing's position. But when Jimmy Carter became president, he took a much more drastic step. He dissolved the thirty-year-old treaty that had existed between Taiwan and the US for the defense of the island. He also ended all official relations with Taiwan, and declared that the Beijing government was the only legitimate government of all the Chinese people.

Yet, the Americans continued to maintain friendly relations with Taiwan, and promised to protect them. So by publicly advocating a peaceful solution to the problem, and yet acquiescing to Beijing's position, America was trying to have it both ways. In one sense, this was rational. It was becoming a bit ridiculous for a small nation like Taiwan to retain a seat on the security council. Taiwan had been given that position because and only because Taiwan had been recognized as the Republic of China, the legitimate government of all the Chinese people. By the mid seventies, that position had become just a little too much of a stretch. But the problem was that this ambivalent approach tended to encourage threatening statements by the Mainland, followed by resistance and talks of independence by Taiwan.

In 1987, martial law was lifted. This was the beginning of the end for the Guomindang. It is important to remember that martial law was implemented in the first place not to protect society from the Communists or from Communist insurgents. Rather, it was put in place to preserve the power of the Guomindang, given that the folks who came from the mainland constituted only about 10-20% of the population, depending on who you talk to. With the lifting of martial law, and the move toward democracy, it was inevitable that the native population would start to become more prominent politically. Ironically, the change really started with Lee, who was Guomindang, but a Taiwanese native. But the real political upheaval was the election of Chen Shui-bian in 2000, which ended the 50 year reign of the Guomindang.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a lay preacher from Taipei who had been an acquaintance of Chen Shui-bian. He suggested that Chen Shui-bian's real priority was money. As presumptuous as it is for me to disagree with him, I do disagree with him. Although I have some problems with the approach that Chen Shui-bian is using, I believe that his approach is formed by the fact that he is a Taiwanese native, and thus has no reason to support reunification with the mainland. This, then is the change in the dynamic: While previously, the conflict had been between the Guomindang and the Communists, it is now a conflict between the Taiwanese natives and the Mainland. And that includes those who came from the mainland 50 years ago. So, oddly, the Guomindang, which used to be seen as China's great nemesis, has now become the ally of China in working for reunification. In fact, the recent non-stop flights between Taiwan and the mainland were negotiated by a committee sent to Beijing as emissaries from the Guomindang, and this without the permission of the ruling party.

So where do we go from here? In my discussions with people about this issue, I have tried to point out the importance of understanding and communication. Consider the following interchange, which I have had, in some form or another many times when someone has asked me,

"Do you think it is appropriate for the United States to interfere in the internal matters of another country?"

"Are you talking about Taiwan?"


"Have you ever been to Taiwan?"


"Have you ever met someone from Taiwan?"


"Have you ever talked with someone who has visited Taiwan?"


"Have you ever met anyone who knows someone who has been to Taiwan?"


"Then perhaps it is reasonable for me to conclude that your feelings about the issue might be influenced by the fact that you have only heard one side of the story."

From these interchanges and others like them, I have become convinced that the shortest route to reunification is the establishment of understanding. And understanding is built by communication. The current cross-straits flights are a start. But they need to be increased to the point that they are routine. Only then will there exist the level of communication that can be the foundation for greater understanding.

In the United States, I have talked with people from each of these three groups. I have heard Taiwanese natives tell me how they were slapped as children when they spoke their native dialect with their classmates. The teacher spoke Mandarin, and Mandarin was the official language everyone was supposed to speak. But rules like this were imposed on the majority by a powerful minority from the Mainland. Hence the sense of bitterness and resentment which drives the current move for independence. Again, the independence forces are not nearly so much anti-Communist as they are anti-Mainland.

But here's the final irony. Chen Shui-bian can argue that he is representing a sentiment felt by most of the people, since there are more Taiwanese natives on Taiwan then there are "Mainlanders." But what chance is there that Chen Shui-bian would now be the president of Taiwan if the Guomindang had never come there? Nobody, even the most radical proponents of independence, could rationally argue that this movement for independence would even be possible without the defacto independence Taiwan currently enjoys. And this must be credited to the Guomindang. Their presence on the island is the reason this is possible.

Well, I said all that to say that I really believe that we should support any group or party which publicly advocates peaceful reunification. In defense of this, let me juxtapose two individuals who figure prominently in the history of this problem. They are Zhou En-lai, and Jiang Jie-shi (Chiang Kai-shek). As different as those two men were, I focus on them, because I believe that they had one thing in common. They were both patriots. They were definitely on opposite sides in the civil war, but I still believe that both of them loved China, even though they had very different pictures of what China should become.

During the Sino-Japanese war, Chiang Kai-shek incurred the wrath of not only the Americans (especially Joseph Stillwell), but forces within his own movement, because he was dragging his feet about fighting the Japanese. Chiang always said that the Japanese were a disease of the skin, but the Communists were a disease of the heart. This issue came to a head in 1936 when Chiang was kidnapped by his own men in what is now known as the "Xi'an Incident." His release was negotiated by none other than Zhou En-lai, who, although no lover of the Guomindang, believed that Chiang needed to be kept alive because China needed him.

Whatever else can be said about Chiang Kai-shek, I don't think there is any doubt that he was a patriot who loved his country. And the country he loved was China, not Taiwan. You see, with both the Guomindang and the Communists it was always about China. This is not to say that he Taiwanese natives do not have a position to argue. I feel that their position should and must be considered. That I why I believe that the Americans have a role to play in ensuring that any move toward reunification be peaceful. But complete independence for Taiwan--I mean the establishment of Taiwan as a sovereign nation, is a position which is unrealistic and unhistorical.

In May of 1895, just after Taiwan had been ceded to Japan by the treaty of Shimonoseki, a few brave souls on Taiwan declared independence, set up the Taiwan Republic, and even flew a flag. But the Japanese troops arrived a few days later, and the dream was over. So Taiwan has been an independent country for no more than a few days in all of its history. Ironically, it has functioned as a defacto independent nation since 1949, but this is not true independence--Taiwan has always operated as part of the American sphere. Not a colony, to be sure, but kept "independent" by the US military. Because of this history, the Americans feel an obligation (and rightly so) to ensure that Taiwan is protected, but also have a very real obligation to back off from any direct interference other than to ensure that Taiwan is not bullied into an arrangement with the mainland that is repugnant to most of its people. It's a tough issue. There is only one China. But the status quo may have to exist for not a few years before a resolution is arrived at which meets the needs of all concerned.

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