“China’s Snag”

By guest writer William R. Stimson. (Richard is still on the road with limited access, back on Sunday.)

Many years ago I found myself in a biochemistry graduate course at Columbia University in which almost all the other seats were filled with Chinese. The professor graded on a curve. I had to work a lot harder for an A in that course than I ever had in any other. That’s when I first discovered Chinese are smart. I wondered what happened to smart China? How come it got left so far behind in the dust?

I’ve lived in Taiwan for over two years now and I think I’ve found the answer — not from Taiwan, but from China, which looms menacingly over this free little country in such a way that anyone who lives here can’t help but take note of the bizarre pronouncements that issue from it. These speak volumes about why China is so backward and has stayed that way so long — and don’t bode too well for its future either.

Today, for example, a Chinese official rejected reconciliation with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, saying it must first stop opposing Beijing’s policies. The official’s actual words were, “The premise for communication is not opposing the central government’s policies…”

In other words, “We’ll let you talk with us if first you start saying what we want.” How familiar such nonsense is to anyone living over here in Taiwan. The Chinese put it this way to us, “We’ll negotiate with you over your sovereignty if first you accept our position that you are not a sovereign state.”

Such wording says everything about China’s backwardness because it’s a veritable picture of the contract those governing the country have with their own people. It’s certainly not a deal anybody else in the world — Hong Kong or Taiwan included — would be motivated to buy into, if they had a choice in the matter.

The way the leaders of China operate, though, is by not giving anybody a choice. This is the subtle logic to statements such as, “We’ll negotiate only after you accept our position.” They mean, bluntly, “You do as we say.” These are the terms of tyranny.

China has a problem with this. Other countries around the world have moved forward and left primitive dictatorship behind. China can’t seem to shake it off. Taiwan got a nasty taste of the Chinese affliction when the Nationalists came fleeing the Communists and imposed their brute tyranny here. They massacred Taiwan’s intellectuals, confiscated land, and essentially grabbed everything in sight. “They’re crooks,” said the U.S. President when many millions of U.S. dollars given them to fight the Communists were discovered invested secretly in family business deals.

The miracle is that out of that mess Taiwan became the democracy that it now is and the economic success story. Everybody in the mix contributed somehow or other. There may be wildly differing opinions on almost everything, but anybody here can say anything they want. Taiwan is a happening place.

In contrast, China still operates under the old system. Its leaders are as corrupt, unscrupulous and thieving as so many of their predecessors stretching back thousands of years. For generation upon generation, a great, a superior, an unparalleled civilization has been trying to happen, only it’s been parasitized by the smartest of its smart, who know only too well how to grab everything for themselves.

Small wonder China has such a crazy mania for censoring information. That’s the way a tyranny works, pure and simple. It keeps everybody a little off balance, so they’re less likely to make trouble, or notice their rulers are robbing the country blind. Also, it provides a convenient excuse to get rid of whistleblowers. You can go to jail for exposing corruption.

Whatever money, mansions or fine cars China’s rulers may be grabbing for themselves or their families is the least of their crime and of scant importance compared to the far greater evil they’re guilty of. For too many thousands of years now, corrupt officials like them have taken away the Chinese people’s future, the nation’s pride, the culture’s bounty and — worse by far — the ordinary Chinese peasant or worker’s right to speak the truth and to reach out with the whole of their life and talent and engage the world in a way that is real and true. That is the ultimate disgrace that can be done by someone with a smart mind who has scratched their way to the top — to deprive someone on the bottom who has so little to begin with and so much to offer. In doing this, China’s rulers, like their predecessors, have not just robbed China, but they’ve robbed the world of China. How sorely the world needs China’s vast intelligence, resourcefulness and imagination – the genius of its ordinary people. When you look at all that little tiny Taiwan has done, you get a hint of what vast China is capable of.

Back in my graduate student days at Columbia University, I was so impressed with the smarts of the Chinese. But living now in Taiwan, just across the water from China, and listening to the jargon that comes out of that country, it strikes me — What’s the use being smarter than everybody if you don’t have the sense to use it towards a higher purpose? I’d rather be ordinary any day but live in a way that serves to set in place a system that has the foresight and breadth of vision to care less about low bullying stratagems than about a government by the people, for the people, and of the people — and about mechanisms of accountability that can at least periodically sweep the crooks out of office, and out of business. The amazing power of freedom, decency and democracy, as the case of Taiwan amply demonstrates, is that it releases the potential of ordinary people to accomplish the remarkable and extraordinary.

China seems so arrogant and proud at how fast it’s acquired all the things of the modern world, little suspecting it’s got the glitter but not the gold. Without freedom, it’s still stuck way back there in the dust.

* * *

William R. Stimson is a former New Yorker who now lives in Taiwan.


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.

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The Discussion: 174 Comments

I sense some jealousy in your words, JR.
And so sorry to see that you could not provide a more substantive response to my argument. But I would expect nothing less.

May 29, 2005 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

Dear Kevin,

Hmm, Is there anything out there I should be jealous of?
And thank you for expecting nothing less from me. I take it as a compliment.

=P (For the symbol on the left. This is meant to be a humor, please don’t take it too seriously, Kevin my friend.)

May 29, 2005 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

Damn, a shame I missed this thread. I’ve been too damn busy lately. Sounds like there have been some pretty interesting arguments going on … and I didn’t get a chance to stir the pot. Oh well.

Oh, and I think Richard’s point is not that the Taiwanese shouldn’t fear China, but that they shouldn’t fear China because she is communist. There are plenty other reasons to be nervous!

May 30, 2005 @ 4:30 am | Comment

Shanghai Slim>

I, for one, appreciate you taking the time to respond to bingfeng’s points above in your marathon post. I know it’s very late in the thread (Is this thread a Peking Duck record Richard?) but I enjoyed reading it.


Also, nice summation of China/Hitler=A-Bian.

As you both say, there’s no point in arguing or explaining things to those who aren’t willing, for whatever reason, to listen.

In my view, at least the mainlanders have an excuse as htey were subject to the old ‘patriotic education’ but the number of others who fall for the CCP propaganda, as Richard said in an earlier post ‘hook, line and sinker’ never fails to amaze me.


May 30, 2005 @ 6:43 am | Comment

JR, read FSN9’s comment. He understood what I meant. And Martyn, yes, I think the thread has set a record. It certainly was the fastest thread to ever accumulate more than 100 comments.

May 30, 2005 @ 8:36 am | Comment

Bingfeng wrote:
> “look at slogan in the pic”

(note: the slogan carried by marchers reads “No to Communist China”)

Bingfeng, I think maybe you mis-interpreted the slogan. I don’t think it means “No to Communism”. I believe they are using “Communist” to identify which “China” they are talking about (after all, they call their island “China”, too).

Also, the term “communist” has negative connotations outside China, and this probably suits the marcher’s intentions. I can’t say I read their minds, but I strongly suspect this is why they chose that wording.

If you disagree, then I would ask, when Chinese recently carried and chanted slogans about the “Little Japanese” did that mean Chinese protestors actually hate Japanese because they are short?

May 30, 2005 @ 9:47 am | Comment

Go get ’em, Shanghai. I thought the same thing as I looked at the banner — obviously it’s not “Communism” the Taiwanese are fearful of (they all know China is not Communist in any real sense) but the government of “Communist China” or “Mainland China” or whatever it is you want to call them.

The tired arguments that follow as to why China and Taiwan are one country have been addressed so many times on this and a trillion other blogs and forums that I won’t get into them again. I’m glad that Bingfeng does this, never listening to the other side, because I believe it is completely consistent with the mindset of just about every native mainlander I know and it gives us insight into how they think: it is non-negotiable, incontestable, undebatable and undiscussable. Taiwan IS China, China IS Taiwan, and if we need to go to war and throw away all the progress of the past quarter-century, so be it. As Kevin said above, this mentality has been fostered by the CCP, and now they’ve dug themselves into a very ugly, very dangerous hole. 1.2 billion Bingfengs will see it as treason if the PRC ever decides it needs to modify its stance.

May 30, 2005 @ 10:04 am | Comment


Do you still support democracy in China if 1200 million Bingfengs wanting the same thing?

May 30, 2005 @ 2:15 pm | Comment

JR: Yes. I like Bingfeng.

May 30, 2005 @ 2:25 pm | Comment


I think you are missing a small small population of well educated Chinese who basically believe that Taiwan has, theoreticallly, the right to self-rule, and to split with the mainland, but can never be afforded this right due to politics. See my post




I think it demonstrates a decent flexibility in theory, even if not in end result.


May 30, 2005 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

Good posts, Laowai. I know they are out there. But my three or four best friends who are Chinese — liberal on most topics and not overly in love with Hu Jintao — were all rigid on the topic of Taiwan and, even more so, on Tibet. No sense even arguing; their facial experssions actually changed when I brought these issues up, like thy were bristling a little, like you’re bringing up a sacred topic….

May 30, 2005 @ 4:42 pm | Comment

If China loves Taiwan so much, why did she agree to give it to Japan instead of Guangdong, Shandong, or another province?

Visit the old fort in Tainan and see plaque after plaque of revolts in Taiwan put down…I think Taiwan has always been an outlier.

May 31, 2005 @ 4:02 am | Comment

The only thing that brought mainland Chinese rule to Taiwan was the fact that a Ming Dynasty remaint had fled there … I doubt the Qing would have shown much interest in the island otherwise.

May 31, 2005 @ 7:45 am | Comment

Filthy Stinking No.9,

“I doubt the Qing would have shown much interest in the island otherwise.”

The truth being that the Qing didn’t show much interest in Taiwan,until after the “Peony Tribe Incident” in 1871.
When the Japanese wanted reparations ,the Qing were very quick to point out that their sovereignty over the island did not extend into the aboriginal areas.So much for the Taiwan has always been part of China story.

May 31, 2005 @ 8:15 am | Comment

My 2cents,
I totally support the independency of Taiwan, and I think it is for the own good of Mailand.
An independent Taiwan, especially a western-looking Taiwan, would become a great source of informations and ideas for Mailand. It could also become a political and idealogical equivalent of special econimical zone, and offer experiences for the development of Mailand.
I think the tensions now between mailand and taiwan are uneccesary. But , in the learders’s minds, they might serve a purpose, a bargain chip that could be cashed in later.
BTW, Niubi4, what you said is very true! What a shame that so much of creativity is wasted

May 31, 2005 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

Yang, great comment. Please comment more often!!

May 31, 2005 @ 3:46 pm | Comment

Mark – I take your point, but you’re actually putting forward the Japanese interpretation of what the Chinese said. They Chinese never explicitly denied soverignty in this case … they just said that they weren’t responsible for the actions of the local aboriginals. The Japanese replied that if you were able to control them, and denied responsibility for them, then that was a in effect, an acknowledgement that you didn’t have sovereignty there. While this may (or may not) be a valid argument, the Qing government did not explicit deny sovereignty at this point. On the other hand, Chinese actions did show that they recognised the Japanese right to speak for the Liuqui islanders, and this really was taken as a cession of sovereignty, because even after the Japanese empire was confiscated in 1945, they were allowed to retain Okinawa etc.

May 31, 2005 @ 7:50 pm | Comment

Filthy Stinging No.9,

What exactly the Qing said I can’t say,so I’ll take you at your word.But what is clear is that the Qing tried to avoid international responsibility,which lead to the Japanese recognising two separate authorities on Taiwan before Soejima Taneomi’s trip to Beijing to negotiate.

May 31, 2005 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

Yang, I would like to add my welcome to you.

Please make more comments in the future!

May 31, 2005 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Mark … just a few more details about that case. After international mediation, the Chinese agreed to pay an indemnity and to “purchase” the barracks that Japanese troops had built on Taiwan … and following that the Japanese troops withdrew. While I’m not a supporter of the Chinese position on Taiwan, in the interests of historical accuracy, I think that particular incident slightly favours the PRC case, if anything.

June 1, 2005 @ 4:27 am | Comment

Yang … interesting comment. Personally, I look forward to hearing you voice ideas that I disagree with … it’s always good to hear another perspective, if it’s reasoned well. Of course, I’ll feel at liberty to attack them, but I do hope you’ll contribute more, and not take it personally if I happen to disagree with you. Please comment more.

June 1, 2005 @ 4:29 am | Comment

Filthy Stinking No.9,

Think we’re not connecting here.Wasn’t the reason for the “international”mediation as I stated?”that the Qing tried to avoid international responsibility,which lead to the Japanese recognising two separate authorities on Taiwan(1872)before Soejima Taneomi’s trip(March 1873) to Beijing to negotiate.”What you refer to took place 1873-74.The Japanese only landed their troops on May 22,74.Then Shen arrived,tensions grew,trade threatened,enter the Brits and the Americans,Qing and Japanese negotiate,Qing pay up,end of the Qing’s passive Taiwan Policy,Shen’s “reforms”.

Think we are getting a little off track here,though.

June 1, 2005 @ 8:09 am | Comment

Yeah, no disagreement from me.

June 1, 2005 @ 10:18 am | Comment

The June 4th roundup

The approach of June 4 means it’s that time of year: arrest time. First it was Ching Cheong. Now Reuters is reporting the arrest of members of the Chinese Acadamey of Social Sciences, one of the country’s top think-tanks. As usual, no one is quite sure…

June 2, 2005 @ 2:14 am | Comment

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