Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Taking Sides Over Taiwan
China Still Singing the Same Old Song

Adapted from CBC Newsworld story
following election of Chen Shui-bian and the DPP
April, 2000
By Stephen A. Nelson

TAIPEI - China (read "The People's Republic of China") is obsessed with Taiwan. It wants Taiwan so badly, it can taste it. Hong Kong and Macao were merely appetizers. Taiwan is the main course.

China even has its version of the "fee-fo-fi-fum" song favoured by that unfriendly giant who had a taste for Englishmen.

China's chant goes like this:
"Taiwan always has been and always will be a part of China. Nothing can change that. Not even democratic elections in Taiwan.
"It is the desire of Chinese people everywhere for Taiwan to be reunited with China."

This is called the "One China Principle."

Lately, it seems I can't open a newspaper, or turn on the TV without hearing some Chinese official singing that same old song.

It's the same song the Chinese people have been hearing for the last 50 years from the Nationalist government in Taiwan (read "The Republic of China.) Of course, they always thought that China and Taiwan would be re-united under Taiwan's Nationalist regime, not Beijing's Communist regime.

Here in Greater China, both sides have their own interpretation of the One China tune. As long as both sides were playing the same tune, they could at least dance together, even if they needed the United States to chaperone.

But last year, Taiwan's President Lee Tung-hui started singing a slightly different tune. While the mainland was still singing Some Day We'll Be Together, Lee was singing "It's going to take some time, next time." But to the Chinese, this sounded like The Twelfth of Never.

This made the Chinese and Americans a bit nervous.

And now the people of Taiwan have chosen a new leader: Chen Shui-bian, who doesn't particularly like this dance or this kind of music.

This has made China's leaders, and people on both sides, angry and confused. The U.S. is very nervous. They all liked the old song. So the Chinese bandleaders keep telling their musicians "Play louder! Play louder!" and the American chaperones keep telling everyone "Keep dancing! Keep dancing!"

This, no doubt, has a lot of people asking themselves "What are we doing here?"

Before you can even try to answer that question, you have to ask two more questions: "What do you mean by 'We'? " and "Where is 'Here'?"

"Here" is Taiwan, still known to some people as Formosa, or even "Nationalist China."The official name of the country is "The Republic of China"or "ROC" for short. But most countries, including Canada, refuse to recognize Taiwan. So in sporting events such as the Olympics, or in trade organizations such as APEC, Taiwan must appear under the name "Chinese Taipei"; which is kind of like Canada being called "American Ottawa."

Confused? You're not alone.

So let me try to put things in perspective: Geographically, Taiwan is to the Chinese mainland what Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are to the rest of Canada.

About 160km off the south-east coast of China, the main leaf-shaped island is about 394km long and about 144km across at its widest point. Taiwan also controls a number of smaller islands in the region.

There are more than 22 million people living here, most of them on the main island.

The "we" is China and Taiwan.

What you have here in Taiwan is a people who are united to the mainland by culture and language, but divided by history and politics.

In this part of the world, Chinese officials and Chinese journalists (on both sides of the Taiwan Strait) love to tell the One China story, with special emphasis on the part that says Taiwan is a province of China. They say that Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are "brothers and sisters" who long to live together as one happy family.

Well, it is true that most people in Taiwan trace their ancestry to China. And in many ways — culture, religion, even language — the Taiwanese seem even more Chinese than the Chinese.

But most of these families arrived during the reign of the emperors, more than 100 years ago. Many of these people, including Taiwan's new president, think of themselves first and foremost as "Taiwanese."Chinese if necessary, but not necessarily Chinese.

To many Taiwanese, people on the mainland are "distant relatives."At best they can be friends, but they will never be close family.

True, many of the more recent arrivals from China do think of themselves as Chinese. And they do have close family ties on the mainland. But to many young people here, the whole question of "Is Taiwan a part of China?" is so "Yesterday."

But what is the rest of the world to think? Is Taiwan part of China?

It is true that maps of China have long included Taiwan. Then again, many maps of the United States include parts of Canada, too.

And even if Taiwan is considered part of China, it hasn't always been under Chinese rule.

In 1544, when the Portuguese discovered this sceptred isle, they called it "Ilha Formosa" which means "Beautiful Island" in Portuguese. But the Portuguese couldn't hold on to Formosa and concentrated their colonial efforts elsewhere instead.

In the 1600s, Taiwan was colonized by both the Dutch and the Spanish, who fought for control of the island until the Dutch finally kicked out the Spanish.

Most of the people living in Taiwan at the time were not Chinese, but aboriginals. They had more in common with the Polynesians of the South Pacific than they did with the mainland Chinese.

During the late 1600s, China's warring Ming and Manchu families arrived in Taiwan. They kicked out the Dutch and fought each other for control of the island and control of China. The Manchus finally won and established their dynasty in China, making Taiwan a county of Fujian province.

This triggered many successive waves of immigration from China. Most of the immigrants were from Fujian province, directly across the strait from Taiwan. To this day, the "Taiwanese" language is virtually identical to the Fujian dialect.

In 1895, Japan took Taiwan from China and held onto it until the end of the Second World War, when it was “handed back to China.”

By this time, of course, the emperors were gone in China.

That's because, in 1911, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party), led by Sun Yat-sen, overthrew the Ching dynasty. The KMT subsequently established the first Republic of China.

With the help of strongman Chiang Kai-shek, Sun tried to unite a China that was deeply divided by powerful warlords. They never quite succeeded.

After Sun's death, Chiang's efforts to unite China were interrupted by the Japanese invasion and the Second World War.

In recent years, many people have been critical of Chiang Kai-shek. But during the war, the Generalissimo was regarded as a hero for fighting the Japanese and rescuing China's national treasures from the invading hordes.

At the end of the Second World War, “giving Taiwan to China” was seen as the Allies' way of rewarding one of the great leaders of the "free world."

Before long, the KMT was fighting again, this time with its former allies, the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung. The Nationalist forces lost and — along with about two million people — fled to Taiwan to plan their re-conquest of the mainland. Fifty years later, some of them were still planning.

In the meantime, the KMT established the Republic of China on Taiwan, while the Communists established the People's Republic of China on the mainland.

For most of the last 50 years, both have claimed to be the sole voice and legitimate government of all China. For the first two decades, most of the international community sided with the Nationalists. "Free China" (under martial law, of course) survived as a virtual colony of the United States.

In 1971, things started to fall apart for the Kuomintang, who were still clinging to the "One China" fiction.

The People's Republic of China had applied for admission to the United Nations. Many countries were willing to accommodate Taipei and Beijing with a "Two Chinas" policy. But the ROC staked everything on its position: that it was the sole legitimate voice for all of China. The KMT gambled and lost.

First they lost the Chinese seat at the United Nations — including its seat as a permanent member of the Security Council. Then, one by one, Taiwan's major allies, including Canada, severed their diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switched their allegiance to Beijing. Taiwan was ejected from countless international bodies and became persona non grata in the international community.

In 1979, the United States withdrew both its official recognition and its troops from Taiwan. The U.S. didn't completely abandon Taiwan, promising to help Taiwan defend itself from outside threats — namely China.

Since then, China has threatened war many times. But its major attacks have been on the diplomatic battlefield, where it has tried — and succeeded — to isolate Taiwan.

But, while most of the world was looking the other way, Taiwan was changing.

In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek died and was succeeded by his son, Chiang Ching-kou. To those independent-minded Taiwanese, this was starting to look like another dynasty. The Taiwanese didn't like that much, and said so openly — a bold step when the country was under martial law.

Thus, the democracy movement was born in Taiwan. Eventually, the movement was given a name, the Democratic Progressive Party. As it turned out, "Emperor" Chiang Ching-kuo was not unsympathetic and allowed the newborn party to live.

Most people are aware of the economic miracle that has taken place in Taiwan in the last 20 years. The technological revolution has turned a developing country into an economic powerhouse. Certainly the KMT and out-going president Lee Tung-hui can take some credit for that.

But the economic miracle almost pales in comparison to the political miracle. Twenty years ago, Taiwan was a one-party state under martial law. The government was still talking about re-taking the mainland. It was forbidden to even discuss the idea of Taiwan independence.

These days, no-one is talking about re-taking the mainland. Taiwan has just completed its second presidential election. The people of Taiwan have democratically put an end to one-party rule. And they've chosen a leader: Chen Shui-bian, who has spoken openly about Taiwan independence.

This has made the Chinese government very angry. It's made the U.S. very nervous. It's made a lot of Taiwanese people angry and nervous.

But for a lot of people at this dance, it's also very exciting. No more slow waltzes and foxtrots. If they ever play the "One China" tune again, it will be to a rock-and-roll beat. And, whatever the tune, it seems rock and roll is here to stay.

For now, anyway.

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