Taiwan and China – Ne’er the twain shall meet?

Those of you following this volatile topic must read an opinion piece in today’s LA Times by Sam Crane, who teaches Chinese politics and philosophy at Williams College. It’s very straightforward and reasonable, and I don’t think the tortured arguments I’ve been reading from commenters on the topic can take away from the piece’s essential truths.

I usually shy away from snipping entire articles, but this one is relatively brief and I’d like to have it here as a reference.

Democracy has transformed Taiwan, and the change demonstrates how political participation can shape national identity and international politics.

Fifteen years ago, it was easy to accept the idea that Taiwan was a part of China. Most people on the island defined themselves as Chinese, and their government was named and was acknowledged — though not diplomatically recognized by many countries — as the Republic of China. The official policy of the People’s Republic of China demanded that Taiwan be viewed as a province of the mainland, and the United States vaguely accepted a “one China” principle.

Some things are not so straightforward anymore.

Mandarin discourse is still useful on the streets of Taipei, and the Chinese cuisine is the best anywhere. The National Palace Museum remains an extraordinary trove of Sinological art treasures.

National identity, however, is more than cultural practices and traditions. Linguistic and other affinities are not enough to classify Taiwan as “Chinese,” just as the United States could hardly be considered part of a “British” empire anymore.

What matters for any national identity is politics. And Taiwan’s domestic politics have long been detached from China’s. Since 1895, a mainland government has ruled the island for only about four years, 1945-49. When the Nationalist Party lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, it maintained for many years that it was the government of all China, though it never was.

Since democratization began in Taiwan in 1986, the “return to the mainland” myth has further receded. Free and fair elections have turned people’s attention inward.

The democratic political life shared by millions of Taiwanese is forging a common civic identity distinct from China’s. This Taiwanese national identity is not merely an invention of those who want to publicly declare independence, something that Beijing’s leaders say they will go to war to prevent. It is the natural evolution of democratic participation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the notion of the “status quo.” For mainland China and the U.S., it refers to the “one China” principle, a reflection of the politics of the 1970s — before democracy took root in Taiwan. For many Taiwanese, perhaps most, it has come to mean the situation that has actually prevailed since 1986, an empirical independence that allows them to rule themselves without Chinese control.

But the people of Taiwan are not unanimous in seeing themselves as wholly separate from China. Debates about national identity are a central feature of the island’s boisterous democracy.

The momentum of nationhood, however, seems to have reached a point of no return. Taiwan is a democratic nation; China is not. It is difficult to foresee circumstances that would allow for real unification.

The dilemma for Taiwan is the contradiction between its democratic development and its geopolitical context. China’s nationalist passions are real. For any mainland Chinese politician, President Hu Jintao included, to be seen as soft on Taiwan independence is to open oneself to charges of treason. Even if political liberalization were to emerge tomorrow, Chinese demagogues could argue that a separate Taiwan is a wound to the nation’s pride. So Chinese leaders continue to threaten and isolate Taiwan.

If the Bush administration thinks the Taiwan question has faded, it is sorely mistaken. Taiwan is not really a part of China any longer. It has grown into a thriving and mature democracy where people join together in constructive self-government and see themselves as a nation like any other. The status quo has changed.

“Taiwan is not really part of China anymore.” Those are strong words, but anyone with a rational mind and common sense can see that it’s simply the truth, painful though it may be for many in China to accept. Trying to fuse the two back together again would go against nature, as Taiwan has evolved into an altogether different species.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 60 Comments

A couple of things, directed at several comments. First of all, I’d just like to say that I’m really enjoying this chance to exchange ideas with you all. I think being forced to defend my own ideas sharpens my vision of the situation.

Second, to answer sp’s post. It’s interesting that you bring up India and Kashimir…how does your argument apply when you look at the history of the Partition between India and Pakistan? This was a secession based literally in ideological differences. There wasn’t even a history of separateness, like there is across the Taiwan Strait; the country split, simply because there were two separate nationalisms. Now, whether that is good or not is another question; there is obviously still tension in the region. But my point is this: Secession is not impossible, nor is it always a bad idea. And the nation-state is not an essential absolute. Just because all those governments don’t allow their regions to vote on secession, doesn’t mean that they are RIGHT.

It’s true that the Chen presidency characterizes the Mainland as a threat, and a communist threat. But I think the greater part of their rhetoric is about sovereignty.

One of the main DPP slogans during the past presidential campaign was “Yes! Taiwan,” which is an assertion of Taiwan, not a direct put-down of China. Their platform is about being Taiwan-centric, and thinking from the point of view of Taiwan. And from the point of view of Taiwan, they are saying, China is an imminent menace. And it is. Do you think China truly has the best interests of Taiwanese citizens at heart? If they do, they sure don’t show it.

But what else does the DPP advocate? They advocate reaching out diplomatically in the Pacific Rim, because of Taiwan’s geographic location, and rewriting history books to focus on specific Taiwan history. I will be the first to say that there is a difference between what they say, and what they actually do–they’re not the most efficient party. But look at the effect this rhetoric has had on Taiwanese politics. The KMT/DPP candidates, Lien Chan and James Soong, kissed the ground during the final days of the campaign to show how much they loved Taiwan. Obviously, they feel threatened enough by the DPP’s claims that they feel they have to perform such theatrics for their constiuency. The politics have become, at least on the surface, about who has Taiwan’s best interests at heart.

So, why, to answer Mainlander’s question, do we think that Taiwan is being suppressed by the Mainland, other than diplomatic suppression. Well, first of all, if you think from the point of view of Taiwan, international suppression is the same as direct political suppression. If you don’t believe Taiwan is currently a part of China, then petty actions like not allowing Taiwan to show its national flag at the Olympics, and forcing it to go under the name of “Chinese Taipei” when the government is in effect completely sovereign is just petty bullying. SP, Mainstream Taiwanese are highly sensitive to these encroachments upon sovereignty–precisely because Taiwanese feel embattled over the issue of sovereignty.

I hate to bring up old arguing points, but I also want say that the treatment of Hong Kong is a pretty clear warning about what would happen to Taiwan in the event of reunification. There is not current suppression in a direct way, but the threat of becoming the second Hong Kong is, believe it or not, a compelling reason to be afraid of reunification. Whether or not it is true, Taiwanese perceive the handling of Hong Kong as a manifestation of political suppression and tyrrany. There is real fear. And there is a real question of whether Beijing can be trusted to do anything according to agreement; to most Taiwanese, they have pretty bad credit right now.

To add on to Albert’s point, I’m also unconvinced that people all over China believe Taiwan should be a part of China so strongly that they feel it is a matter of national pride. Maybe you can help me out here with examples. But, for instance, do people in Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Tibet feel that Taiwan needs to be a part of China? Do people in remote mining towns believe in reunification? In other words, how do you know that the full 1.3 billion feel this way?

February 3, 2005 @ 6:07 pm | Comment


As to your argument that in order to validate Taiwan’s belonging to China, they have to share a common democratic history. But China never had the chance to enjoy a real constitutional republican democracy. So where can there be a common democratic history? But you simply cannot deny both sides of the straits share the same culture, the same Sinic way of life. The historical link and evidences of ownership cannot be denied. Holland stole Taiwan from Ming China in the 1600s then Japan stole Taiwan from China under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The subsequent Cairo and Potsdam Declarations affirmed China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. They are internationally legal binding. Taiwan and China had shared a common Constitution before, that is the ROC Constitution of 1947. They had a common President, Generalisso Chiang Kai Shek. It was the civil war that split the two sides but up till the advent of Taiwanese separatism, both sides agreed to the “One China” principle as outlined by the Wang-Koo negotiations in Hong Kong in 1992. Koo Chen Fu, representing Taiwan, acknowledged it in his memoirs which was published recently. Can you deny all these cold hard facts?

Back to the American Civil War, you say that the North and South shared a common constitution, had a common president etc etc. But when the South wanted to go, it meant that they don’t wanna share all these with the North anymore, they felt that they were marginalised. They DID NOT want to be part of the Federation anymore. The very fact that the civil war dragged for a few years showed how determined the South wanted to go its way. Going by your argument, they are just exercising their democratic right of self-determination. Separatism is Separatism. I do not see how different Lincoln’s action is very different from those leaders in Beijing. Lincoln, being a democratically elected president, did not see secession as a form of democratic right, to him, it is destroying the Federation. The South had declared independence almost immediately after the election of Lincoln, perceived as a pro-North Republican unsympathetic to the interests of the South. So much for a common president and a common constitution that they decided to separate. See how fallacious your argument was?

February 3, 2005 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

former East Germany and West Germany, which were under the rule of TWO DIFFERENT constitutions, later reunified again into ONE country.

so, Sam’s argument that two political entities of one nation can not be reunified seems not convincing.

February 3, 2005 @ 10:25 pm | Comment


I think you got a bit clumsy with your facts. I am not talking about India and Pakistan, I am Talking about India and the state of Kashimir and Jammu, effectively still part of the Republic of India. Kashimir has been part of British India, with its Hindu prince but a majority being Muslims. When the partition occured in 1947, the Hindu ruler chose to be part of India while his people, being Muslims, wanted to go with Pakistan. Kashimir became part of India up till today, the insurgents were fighting against rule from New Delhi. Islambad had time and again demaded a referendum in Kashimir but despite being the largest democracy in the world, India never allowed such a vote to take place. First, you seem to mix up Pakistan with Kashimir. Secondly, i am not judging separatism as being right or wrong, i am trying to prove a point that the Taiwan crisis is not a dramatic fight between democracy and totalitarianism, its about national sovereignty. India, Spain and Philippines ie democratic states, are no less ruthless in guiding their sovereignty and territorial integrity than undemocratic regimes like the PRC. Its advisable to revise facts before any debate to avoid embarrassment.

I can frankly tell you that i do not like the CCP regime. Tell me whether the Chinese people had a choice in the first place? Do you think they wanted to live under an authoritarian regime? The CCP’s wayward behaviour is not defendable, but to link the CCP’s crimes and mistakes with China’s rights over Taiwan is plain unfair to the Chinese people and the nation-state of China. Just because their govt is totalitarian, the Chinese nation is to be deprived of sovereignty over a rightful part of China. Thats why a lot of moderates say, as long as Taiwan does not go independent, they will leave it indefinitely, even the CCP understand that. They all tacitly acknowledged that reunification is quite impossible at this stage. The problem is that you do not see the Chinese people and nation-state separate from CCP and communism. A lot of right wing dictators in Asia like you never bothered to treat Chinese and communism as two separate entities, in fact you lump them together like Siamese twins, thats why the Chinese people suffered though the actions of Red China was no fault of theirs.

February 3, 2005 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

“I’m also unconvinced that people all over China believe Taiwan should be a part of China so strongly that they feel it is a matter of national pride. ”

99% mainland chinese strongly support the reunification, this was the result of a research conducted 1996 by a marketing reserch firm. the sampling is well balanced and large enough to represent the people here. i didn’t see the detailed tabulation analysis, but from common sense, this sentiments among people in rural areas are much more stronger than people in big cities. i myself can tolerant any kind of reunification as long as it brings peace and keeps taiwan and mainland in the same chinese nation, but many others don’t think in the same way.

in short, we should feel fortunate that mainland government was not kidnapped by this strong nationalist sentiment, and on the contrary, taiwan’s chen shuibian and DPP seems did everything they can to please voters and therefore in fact be kidnapped by the “tyranny of the majority”.

February 3, 2005 @ 10:37 pm | Comment

“I cannot understand why the “1.2 billion mainland Chinese souls and fleshes” have such a staked interest in Taiwanese independence. Of course, I understand that if we go to war that is a completely different issue. What I don’t understand is, barring the threat of war, why would the mainland Chinese people feel any sort of affinity to Taiwan?”

simple, because taiwan is a chinese soil.

mainland china almost went to war with former ussr for a tiny and wild island, it’s impossible for chinese to lose such a territory like taiwan without doing anything to keep it.

February 3, 2005 @ 10:48 pm | Comment


You also said that you are not sure whether China had Taiwan’s interests at heart and protray the DDP’s pro-independence agenda as being pure innocent Taiwan centric. I am afraid you are really a green horn to Taiwanese politics.

DDP and Chen time and again would play the Taiwanese identity card prior to elections to discredit his opponents as “not loving Taiwan”, “sell-outs” and question the loyalty of Taiwanese with Mainland parentage, creating dvide and hence garner support. At the same time Lee Tenghui also provoked China into action prior to elections so that the speparatist parties would get sympathy votes. In the end, it is the Taiwanese society that suffers, creating tensions between native Taiwanese and Taiwanese with mainland parentage. The DDP, Chen and Lee are definitely not the altruistic angels and saints that you were duped into believing.

And as to the issue of DPP’s revisionism of history, it is deeply bias and politically motivated. It is not just about being Taiwan centric, it about shameful distorting of history. They started Taiwan’s history in books as a dependency of Holland, never mind the fact that Chinese presence and ownership was way before the arrival of the Dutch. Then they left out Qing China’s sovereignty over Taiwan till 1895. Again they also choose not to mention the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. So is this being just Taiwan centric? They are carrying a Fascist-like campaign of De-Sinicisation and removing every traces of Chineseness on Taiwan. Their tactics is not less shocking than the history texts printed in the time of Stalin.

February 3, 2005 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

taiwan separatists even call Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of Repulic of CHINA, a foreigner to taiwan.

some top-ranked separatist officials asserted that the former taiwanese sex slaves were not forced by japanese army, they did that for money and were not harmed by japanese.

and lee, who claimed he was a japanese when he was young, insisted on introducing the japan’s high-speed train system, when taiwan has decided to introduce the european system.

February 3, 2005 @ 11:52 pm | Comment


Two points.

1) Cultural similarity, even shared cultural roots, is not sufficient to define common nationhood. Austria is not Germany. Argentina is not Chile.

2) In the US, the southern states freely decided, upon ratification of the constitution, to join a union, from which there was no mechanism for succession. Has this ever happened between Taiwan and China; or, to recognize the political realities of the 20th century, between the CCP and the KMT? No, the two parties never agreed to a common union. The more apt analogy, it seems to me, is the US revolution. In the China-Taiwan case, the revolution was never completed; there has never been a prior union, politically. While we may argue about whether there should be a succession mechanism in the US constitution (I personally think there should be – I live in Massachusetts and would be quite happy to let Texas go off on its own), it seems to me the historical circumstances prior to the US civil war are fundamentally different than the China-Taiwan situation.

February 4, 2005 @ 10:09 am | Comment

i don’t really understand why you’re so possessive, bingfeng. and insulting…tch.

February 10, 2005 @ 9:24 am | Comment

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