Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mainland Chinese Mother Lets Her Child Defecate At Taiwan Airport - Are Mainlanders Really Uncivilized?

A few days ago the Taiwanese news agency NowNews reported that a mainland Chinese mother in visit on Taiwan let her child defecate in a public area of Gaoxiong International Airport (高雄國際機場), with the toilets only a few meters away. (see original article in ChineseI think all of us agree that this is absolutely disgusting. So, should we blame mainlanders and think that they are uncivilized? 

Anti-Chinese sentiment is quite widespread in the world today. I am planning to write a few posts on this subject, most especially about anti-Chinese bias in the media. In most places where I've been, be it Germany, Italy, England, Hong Kong or Taiwan, the image of China is pretty bad. 

Well, I am not interested in being either pro-Chinese or anti-Chinese. I think that this country, like any other country in the world, deserves to be respected. It is no question that China has huge problems, and it's perfectly legitimate to talk about it. But at the same time I try to maintain a basic respect for the country itself. Just like it happens when you talk about - let's say - Zimbabwe or Italy or any other country where there are major problems, but that doesn't mean you must hate it or disparage it. 

So, let's go back to the topic. I've heard a lot of bad things about mainland Chinese: "they are loud," "they spit on the floor", "they are rude", and so forth. I will tell you a few of my personal experiences with mainland Chinese; some of them are good, others are bad. Let's start with the bad ones. 

Several months ago I visited with a friend of mine Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Suddenly, while we were standing near the souvenir shop on the first floor, I heard people shouting at each other as though they were in the middle of a fierce quarrel. I was afraid they might start punching each other at any moment. I turned to my friend and asked her what they were talking about. She put on a slightly ironic smile and said: "They are from China." Then I realized that they were not quarreling. They were just so loud that it sounded as if they were screaming at each other.

The irony in her smile was due to the fact that we had recently discussed the topic of mainland China. She is a Taiwanese who considers herself Chinese, and if I remember correctly (but I'm not sure after so long) she had told me that many of the things Taiwanese people say about mainlanders are wrong. And now there were loud mainlanders confirming the common bias.

The second negative experience with mainlanders I want to talk about happened around one week ago. I was sitting on a plane going from Rome to Beijing. Most passengers were Chinese. Some of them simply seemed totally unable to follow even the most basic rules. For example, during the landing a woman took her luggage out of the overhead locker and put it right in the middle of the corridor. A flight attendant of course went up to her and urged her in an earnest voice to put the luggage back into the locker, but the woman refused. She wouldn't let go of her suitcases, and there was no way to persuade her, so we had to land like that.    

On the other hand, I have a lot of positive experiences with mainland Chinese. My Chinese friends are friendly, nice and "civilized" (I use this word although its meaning is not always that clear). They also care a lot about hygiene and cleanliness. When I compare them with the Western people I know, they are by no means less civilized or less clean. I cannot of course mention the Chinese I know one by one here, but when I think of them, I just cannot see what they may have in common with all the negative stereotypes I hear and read about China. So, where is the truth?

The way I explain to myself this apparent contradiction is the following. Only four decades ago China was a rural, poor country. Since Deng Xiaoping's era it has been undergoing a process of fast and radical transformation. We in the West don't really remember how poor rural societies look like. But my grandfather's generation does. During the 1950's and 1960's, millions of poor peasants from Southern Italy migrated to the industrial, rich North of the country to look for job opportunities. These "peasants" were often looked down upon by Northern Italians. Not only did they call their Southern fellow countrymen "peasants", but they also suspected all of them to be criminals (I guess all of you have heard of the mafia). It is obvious that those poor peasants who could barely speak any Italian gave a really bad impression. They were dressed like peasants, talked like peasants and behaved like peasants. If you see old pictures of those women clad in long black dresses with a veil on the top of their heads, with big, sinewy hands, emaciated faces and a simple, earnest expression in their eyes you might at least imagine why those masses of migrants were viewed like the symbols of a backwardness young generations were eager to shake off as soon as possible. Many children of these migrants eventually began to feel ashamed of their origin and repudiate their hometowns, because they wanted to belong to the "civilized" and "sophisticated" North. 

The fact that people in the cities considered rural folks uncivilized is an old phenomenon. Peasants lack the education and the sophistication of rich urban areas. Nowadays, China's society is still in a process of modernization, of a shift from a poor to a rich society. Many of today's rich were yesterday's poor, who had to endure the hard life in the countryside. And given the huge income inequality in China, it is obvious that the struggle for survival toughens people and doesn't make them much more lovable from the perspective of foreign people. 

I am not trying to defend China, but we have to see the current situation in its broad context. Because if I look at the Chinese elite, they don't seem to be less civilized or less sophisticated than people in high per capita income countries. 

I would interpret the behaviour of some mainland Chinese as a consequence of factors like education and low income (in the past or present). China is by far not the only country where such things happen. In many low-income, rural or recently industrializing countries these phenomena exist. Just to give an example, the BBC reported that in India "spitting, urinating and defecating in public are a common sight [...], and in rural areas many people continue to go out in the open even when they have toilets at home because they prefer the outdoors." Against these unhygienic habits, Indian authorities have employed volunteers who will "shout, beat drums or blow a whistle" when they see someone urinating or defecating in the open. 

The real problem is that the already existing anti-Chinese sentiment makes this misbehaviour appear much more dangerous and appalling than if it happens in India or Africa. As a matter of fact, if so many Indians urinate and defecate outdoors, why is it never reported in the news? Why does no one want to read about it? Well, I guess that it's because the reaction of the public would be different. No newspaper would sell with the picture of an Indian or a Nigerian child defecating. If it's a Chinese, it simply sounds much more irritating and outraging. 

One day I was walking near Gongguan station in Taipei, crossing the road between Eslite Bookstore and a bakery. Suddenly, I saw an old, poorly dressed woman squatting and urinating in the middle of the street. Now, I don't know what her nationality was, but she could have been a Taiwanese. I don't know if anyone took a picture of that woman, but I'm not sure if Taiwanese media would have reported on the news of an old Taiwanese lady urinating outdoors in the same way they reported on the mainland child. 

China has, for sure, huge problems. And it is right not only to criticize the bad things in Chinese society, but also to condemn a behaviour that is disrespectful of others. But let's not generalize and ascribe these phenomena to an inherent lack of civilized manners in China. I think that many Chinese feel towards that woman at Gaoxiong Airport the same revulsion Taiwanese and many of us feel. 

It will take time for China to shake off the inheritance of its previous social and economic situation. And above all, it will take a good deal of public campaigns, a higher per capita income and more income equality to eradicate such kind of misconduct.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Love, Romance, Duty: Marriage in Chinese Culture

Yesterday I stumbled upon an interesting blog. A girl asked for advice on whether she should stay together with the man she loved, or break up with him because he wasn't  well off. It was the same dilemma I talked about in one of my earlier posts: Is bread more important than love? 

Someone replied to her question, saying: "結婚是兩個家庭的事,不是兩個人的事", which translates as follows: "Marriage is a matter between two families, not between two people."

Although this person's opinion cannot be considered as universally accepted by all Chinese, it nevertheless shows one of the most distinctive traits of Chinese culture. To Westerners who are not familiar with China or Taiwan, it is very hard to understand this point, because our own concept of love and marriage is exactly the opposite. We see marriage as a union of two individuals who decide that they want to spend their lives together. 

I decided to write this blog post to share with you my experience on this issue and to give Westerners who  live in East Asia and/or who have a relationship with an Asian man or woman some basic tools to understand situations which may appear to them confusing.  

Traditional Marriage In Chinese Civilization Until 1949

In Chinese culture, marriage was not based on love or romance, but it was a transaction between two families in which a woman was transferred to her husband's family. For women, the maximum marriage age was 30, while that of the man varied depending on his financial status. Buying and selling women into marriage and forcing widows into marriage were common practices, as well as match-making. Arranged marriages where bride and bridegroom did not meet until the wedding ceremony were also widespread. (Zang 2012, Chapter 4) Before 1949, around half of all marriages were arranged by parents. 

Adult men and women were initiated into adulthood at the age of respectively 20 and 15, with ceremonies called guanli (冠禮) for males and jili (笄禮) for females, after which they were considered eligible for marriage. (ibid., Chapter 3/ and source). 

The marriage ceremonies, the dowry and the exchange of gifts as well as gatherings for family and friends, often held in public places, were of great importance. These rituals show the desire of Chinese people to exhibit their social status, giving them more "face" and esteem in the community.

One important criterion in the choice of the partners was the principle of ‘one door matches another door’, i.e. that the future husband and wife needed to have similar social status. If the social status of the partners was too different, a marriage was thought to be bound to failure.

Marriage In Contemporary Chinese Society

Traditional social structures have in the past decades eroded due to economic transformation and the contact with Western ideas. Nevertheless, a great deal of the notions I described above, albeit in a new and often mitigated form, can be still found today.

The most important one is the phenomenon which I would call "shared decision-making". Although parents don't arrange marriages for their children any longer, nevertheless parental influence has remained very strong, and the approval of the family is a major factor in the choice of a partner. However, shared decision-making is a broader phenomenon that goes beyond parental authority. For instance, a survey has showed that Chinese people are likely to ask both their parents and their friends for advice and that their opinion has a great impact in the decision-making process of individuals. I would like to point out that the concept of shared decision-making has nothing to do - as it is often erroneously assumed - with ideas such as "group altruism" or "thinking about others". I will explain in a future post why shared decision-making is not a consequence of altruism or of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, but rather the product of social pressure, status expectations and external reference standards. As a matter of fact, the misconception that group thinking is morally motivated has been a great source of misunderstandings among East and West.

Shared decision-making might be rather puzzling for Westerners. As far as I am concerned, it took me quite a long time - and a lot of exhausting quarrels - to realize why my girlfriend seemed unwilling to spend much time alone with me and instead kept on introducing me to her friends. While to me the beginning of a relationship was basically a period in which we should have known each other better, in which we should have talked, shared thoughts and done things together, for her it was a period in which her social environment had to accept me and evaluate if I was as a good partner for her. Being together was not only a matter between me and her, in which our mutual understanding was the necessary precondition. What other people thought meant to her at least as much, and probably even more, than what she herself thought and felt. 

To me, on the contrary, the opinion of parents and friends is definitely less important than my own. I would never let my parents decide on whether I should be with the woman I love. But this idea is far away from Chinese understanding of marriage.

In fact, in Chinese culture love and romance are still minor factors in the choice of a partner. Truth be told, I have never been to a place where love and marriage are so disconnected from each other, and where love is looked down upon with a certain degree of contempt, as something acceptable in adolescence, but dangerous as the age of marriage approaches. Parents inculcate in their children the need to take into account a range of material concerns, such as social status, job, flat etc. For instance, it is believed fundamental for the man to have a flat and to earn more than the woman. Parents warn their daughters not to marry a man who earns less than them. Appearance, family background, education, and even origin (for example, foreign men are seen by some as a good match), are all important criteria. 

External conditions are therefore more important than the feelings between the partners. An interesting phenomenon which derives from these premises is that partners don't focus so much on knowing the individual they have in front of them, but on whether he or she matches these criteria. There is often no transition from acquaintance to friendship and then to partnership. Getting together can be a very quick and straightforward process. For instance, if a girl has no boyfriend, she might start looking for one. Given that East Asians have long working hours and a tight social environment, meeting new people of the opposite sex is not as easy as for their Western counterparts. They will therefore decide rather quickly, after considering their and their environment's expectations, if someone is suitable or not. 

If the criteria don't match, the partnership may be dissolved. I often heard of girls who broke up with their boyfriends because they didn't have a flat, or because they didn't want to get married soon. I also heard from men who did the same, either because the girl didn't want to get married soon, or because she wanted to go travelling etc. 

It is thus not surprising that match-making is a widespread way of finding marriage candidates. To Western people, it might seem strange to find a marriage partner through match-making, because this presupposed that getting married is a purpose per se and the partner is rather subordinated to the main target. We usually tend to think that one should first find a partner and afterwards begin to think about marriage. Again, in Chinese culture it's the objective and the criteria which are more important than mutual understanding, dialogue, or love.

"One study (Jackson, Chen, Guo, and Gao 2006) found that fairytale ideals were a major theme for young American adults but not for young Chinese adults. Another study (Buss et al. 1990) examined thirty-seven countries and found that the Chinese sample differed from other international samples in paying more attention to health, chastity, and domestic skills but giving less value to traits such as mutual attraction, dependability, and sociability." (Ibid., Chapter 4)

Love and romance are confined to the pre-marital age in which they are viewed as acceptable. It is also common for people to go abroad and experience love and romance in a foreign context. On the other hand, it is rare that this love and romance will turn into a marriage if the preconditions set by parents and society are not at least partly met. 

Questioning Duty

In Chinese civilization, marriage is one of the duties associated with the notion of filial piety. A good son has to get married and preferably give the family a male heir that can continue the family lineage. 

Since I was born is a rather poor part of Europe where traditional values are still quite strong, I had the chance to live in a society where family bonds are still very important. The relationship between my father and my grandfather, for example, reminds me of that between parents and children in China. My grand-father had great authority in the family. He wanted a male heir to continue the family surname, and he wanted me - his grandson- to have the same given name as him. My father could have said no, of course, but not only didn't he dare, but he didn't even think of questioning social rules. The authority of my grandfather and the widespread - almost totalitarian - customs of the society made it unthinkable for a young male to remain single and childless. It would have been considered a great disgrace to him and his family. 

When my father was young, however, the erosion of old religious and social values that had begun long ago in other parts of the Western world was already under way. I happen to belong to a generation that has already experienced this erosion to the full.  

It is quite interesting to read today what French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago. Tocqueville was an aristocrat by birth, but he lived in a time of transition from aristocracy to democracy. He visited the United States of America in 1831 and in 1835 he published "Democracy in America", in which he expounded his observations on the American political system and society. In chapter VIII of Book III Tocqueville explains:

"It has been universally remarked, that in our time the several members of a family stand upon an entirely new footing towards each other; that the distance which formerly separated a father from his sons has been lessened; and that paternal authority, if not destroyed, is at least impaired. Something analogous to this, but even more striking, may be observed in the United States. In America the family, in the Roman and aristocratic signification of the word, does not exist. All that remains of it are a few vestiges in the first years of childhood, when the father exercises, without opposition, that absolute domestic authority, which the feebleness of his children renders necessary, and which their interest, as well as his own incontestable superiority, warrants. But as soon as the young American approaches manhood, the ties of filial obedience are relaxed day by day: master of his thoughts, he is soon master of his conduct. In America there is, strictly speaking, no adolescence: at the close of boyhood the man appears, and begins to trace out his own path. It would be an error to suppose that this is preceded by a domestic struggle, in which the son has obtained by a sort of moral violence the liberty that his father refused him. The same habits, the same principles which impel the one to assert his independence, predispose the other to consider the use of that independence as an incontestable right. The former does not exhibit any of those rancorous or irregular passions which disturb men long after they have shaken off an established authority; the latter feels none of that bitter and angry regret which is apt to survive a bygone power. The father foresees the limits of his authority long beforehand, and when the time arrives he surrenders it without a struggle: the son looks forward to the exact period at which he will be his own master; and he enters upon his freedom without precipitation and without effort, as a possession which is his own and which no one seeks to wrest from him." (Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America - Volume 2, p. 155)

Though I do not completely agree that the crisis of parental authority is only a consequence of the political system, it can be seen that the pattern of development which Tocqueville "photographed" in 1835 has steadily progressed until today. The right to be independent and to make one's own decisions have been part of my own education. I believe that most Western parents accept the principle that they must let their children decide for themselves.

Children would not accept the parental imperative anyway. Whatever principles parents may regard as true, children would question the authority of a duty that cannot be explained in universal terms.

Here lies the major difference between the notion of marriage in East and West. The influence of social standards, upon which the authority of parents is based, are not (generally speaking) questioned by children. Social standards permeate education and expectations so much, that it is truly hard to challenge them without getting the feeling of being alone and risking to be seen as a loser. The power of tradition resides in the fact that its guidance offers an apparently certain way of dealing with important decisions. It is therefore the attempt to avoid the risk of responsibility and failure, and let external influence relieve from this burden. Yet it gives people another burden: that of the constant fight between mind and heart, between the wisdom of common practices and opinions which appeal to the mind, and the voice coming from the heart. 

In my view, the idea that parents' and friends' guidance helps make right decisions is highly illusionary. How are they supposed to know better? I often saw people in Asia misled by wrong advice. Imagine that a woman breaks up with the man she loves and marries a man who her parents and friends think will be a good partner. What if after getting married the two of them are unhappy? What if they don't get along, or even hate each other? Are the ones who gave bad advice going to take responsibility and say sorry? Probably not. 

Neither marriages based on love and romance, nor marriages based on material considerations are free from the risk of failure. In Chinese culture, job, flat and status, and even fortune-telling, which is often used by couples before marriage, aim at excluding any kind of risk, to make sure that marriage will work. But I have my doubts whether in human life there are means to prevent families to fall apart. It is true that high divorce rates in the West suggest that the institution of marriage has become very unstable and the West is thus not a good example. Yet a marriage whose appearance is kept by pretending that everything is all right is hardly any better, especially if the sacrifice of happiness is its price.


Zang Xiaofei: Understanding Chinese Society

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Snow In Europe

Snow looks poetic. White, quiet landscapes, Christmas feeling and children playing on it - that's what we associate with the idea of snow. Some people love snow. Others - like me - love it only when they see it through the closed window of their home.

A few weeks ago, a heavy snowstorm raged in large parts of Europe. One morning, I opened the door of my house and there I saw the whole street covered in white. My feet sank into the snow up to my knees, so deeply that I could not walk.

Except for the cold, which may or may not bother you as much as it bothers me, snow can cause a range of problems. Even after the snow was removed, salt and sand had been strewn on the pavement, iced spots remained, which were extremely slippery. And in the morning electricity went out, so that I couldn't heat my room. At least, I didn't need to get worried about the food in my fridge; I could simply put it on the balcony.

Now that I've come back to Taiwan I have to cope with a completely different kind of nuisance: mosquitoes!

The Moral Duty Of The State - Why Welfare Isn't Just A Gift For Lazy People

It has been a common perception for the last couple of decades that welfare state is an anachronism. It would - so say its critics - make people lazy, incapable of hard work. Neo-liberal main-stream economics and an old tradition of asceticism that merged elements of Christian ethics, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism, made austerity appear like a solution for many of the West's problems. 

"We have got too fat and lazy, now we must go back to a more ascetic way of life," was the slogan. The middle-class, and most especially the lower middle-class, was prodded into believing that they were too greedy and unproductive. Welfare state became synonymous with the notion that Western states spoiled their citizens and bred generations of parasites that knew only how to live from other people's work. It was considered, however, perfectly acceptable that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Because the rich - it was argued - produce wealth, while the poor are a burden. To neo-liberal thinkers, Western poor are not poor enough. They should be as poor as the ones in developing countries like China, who work hard and get paid far less than they deserve. A narrative of the righteous and inevitable exploitation of the workers began, which seems to have no end. 

By preventing poor workers to earn more, you prevent them from consuming. If workers earned according to their productivity, the world would be a much more equal and richer place overall. Every worker can potentially be a consumer who wants to buy things that companies make. Nowadays, however, it seems as though every country wanted to export like crazy and give the workers just enough to live. But if every country wants to export, who will be left there to buy? This model naively assumes that if a country runs large trade surpluses there will always be other countries out there that are rich enough to buy. This is a flawed assumption and we see it in the current crisis. The Chinese have realized - and the Germans might eventually realize it, too - that if every country keeps its standard of living low and tries to get rich by running trade surpluses, the countries that run a trade deficit will sooner or later stop buying. 

Wage "austerity" is probably one of the major causes of the world's current woes.  But there is also another one. The importance of a functioning welfare system is often underestimated. A few days ago, I watched a TV programme that made me think about how essential a good welfare system is in order to maintain social cohesion and legality. 

Journalists of an Italian TV channel reported about the black labour market in Italy. Given the economic crisis and the growing level of unemployment, many young people are ready to accept any kind of job. With a hidden camera, journalists went to bars and pubs in Rome, pretending to be looking for work. Some owners were willing to give them a job, but refused to sign a regular contract, because in this case they would have to pay taxes. Many young people accept to work without a contract, without benefits and secuity. They have no choice, because job opportunities are increasingly scarce and they have to take whatever they get in order to survive. 

What is the connection between this phenomenon and the welfare state? Well, it is quite simple. These young people need to accept an illegal job, which is underpaid and gives them no guarantees, because they cannot act otherwise. They could sue the owner who offered them a black job, but they don't have the time and the financial resources to do that. 

In a country that has a solid welfare state like Germany, a worker could sue someone who offered him such a job, because a German citizen would not be afraid of starving. He or she would get money from the state. He would be able to defend himself against the owner, who would be forced by a court either to give the job seeker a legal job or to compensate him or her. 

The welfare state is not a system designed for lazy people. It is a way to empower those who are unemployed or looking for a job. Certainly, in a society in which the economic policy is wrong and therefore not enough jobs are created, the large number of unemployed may give the impression that people are lazy. But this should rather prompt us to rethink the economic policy, not the welfare state. If welfare were so bad for the economy, why would countries like Germany, Sweden or Denmark be richer than countries with much less welfare state? 

Without a welfare state the powerful become more powerful, and the weak become weaker. People who are in desperate material need have no chance to defend their rights and keep their dignity. They are at the mercy of dishonest employers or of criminal organizations. In Italy, criminal organizations and wicked politicians exploit the poverty of many people by "offering" a little economic help in exchange for votes. This system is a kind of perverted social welfare. 

On the other hand, employers exploit their workers, satisfying their short-sighted interest, but damaging the long-term interest of the whole country, because their workers will have less money to spend and the state will have less taxes. The welfare system is therefore an instrument which guarantees a high degree of social cohesion, legality and tax revenues. 

People's lives are negatively affected by the lack of a social safety net. You can see the extreme consequences of this in East Asia. The liberal labour market that exists in Asia, where workers have few guarantees, at first sight helps the economy. But in reality, it deprives the world economy of consumers. People are afraid of being sacked, and they don't have power to demand wage increases or paid overtime. So, they end up earning less than they produce, and spending less than they could. The simple words "wage increase" have become a taboo, and it seems you are lazy and spoiled if you want to earn more. Moreover, life decisions are made because of the looming fear of poverty. People get married with a certain person for material concerns; the most talented people want to become civil servants, lawyers or doctors, because these are the stablest jobs with a safe income; people work overtime without compensation, sacrificing their social life and their health. And many, many people live far below the standard they deserve for the hours they work and their productivity. 

Is this really the world we want our children to live in?

Friday, 18 January 2013

The “Taiwan Question” - Does Taiwan Belong To China? (Part III)

In the last part of this post I would like to talk about what I consider to be the five possible options to solve the question of the relationship between China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC). The scenarios are:

1 – Taiwan declares independence; 

2 – Taiwan and the PRC maintain the status quo;

3 – Taiwan and the PRC seek unification;

4 – The PRC annexes Taiwan;

5 – The PRC renounces her sovereignty claim to Taiwan.

Introduction: Chinese Nationalism, Taiwanese Nationalism And Cross-Strait Relations

Before we analyze the aforementioned five scenarios in detail, we should first of all understand that the China-Taiwan issue can and should be analyzed from different perspectives. An objective truth doesn't exist. Single individuals, political parties, governments etc. may think that their own standpoint represents the truth. But, as I pointed out in my earlier post, the Taiwan question is first of all a political issue. The fact that the standpoint of all parties may have a rational justification is the reason why the China-Taiwan relationship is so complex. I am not writing this post to explain my personal opinion, but to highlight the five possible political solutions. 

To some observers, a “declaration of independence” from China by Taiwan seems unnecessary. As a matter of fact, the ROC and the PRC have had different governments, currencies and military since 1949. We can easily understand this point if we ask ourselves what sovereignty means:

Sovereignty resides in the state—a body that exercises predominant authority within its geographic borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to a government and maintains diplomatic ties with other states. 
A state differs from a nation. A nation refers to a group of people with a shared sense of identity, often based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, language, history or culture. Consequently, it is possible for two or more states to reside within one nation, or for a nation to exist within two or more states. 
The Republic of China exercises predominant authority within its borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to the ROC government, maintains formal diplomatic ties with roughly thirty of its 'little friends' and strong 'unofficial' links with many others. Despite PRC protestations to the contrary, it is obvious that the ROC does exist and meets all the requirements of statehood.” (source)

A declaration of independence, however, should not be understood as the declaration of de facto independence, but as the departure of the ROC from the one China policy which was endorsed by both the CCP and the KMT dictatorships and which, after the democratization process in the ROC, was challenged by large parts of the Taiwanese population. In some ways, the Taiwanese nationalism that arose with the democratization of the ROC broke the tacit agreement between the two adversaries, the CCP and the KMT, that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a province. 

When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, relocating the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, “Taiwan became part of a bizarre myth; it was the 'island fortress' of a government-in-exile, a model China in miniature and also just a province of the Republic of China.” (Harrison, p. 98-99) As long as Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo were alive, the CCP never feared that the ROC might give up the one China principle. 

In the initial 20 years, cross-strait relations were mainly of a military nature. One side would want to 'counter-attack the mainland, kill Chu-teh and Mao Tse-tung', and the other would want to 'liberate Taiwan by force'. Gradually, these slogans were replaced with slogans such as '70 per cent political, 30 per cent military' on the Taiwan side and 'peacefully liberate Taiwan' on the mainland side.” (Su Chi 2008, p. 2) 

The KMT was committed and is still officially committed to the eventual reunification of China.  In Taiwan's identity debate there are therefore two competing nationalisms: Chinese nationalism (shared by the CCP and the KMT alike), which regards Taiwan as a province of China; and Taiwanese nationalism (also called Formosan nationalism), which supports an exclusive Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese independence from China. 

When the PRC and the ROC were both one party dictatorships, Chinese nationalism was the official state ideology of both states. In the ROC this ideology couldn't be challenged openly, because every dissent was suppressed and state propaganda promoted Chinese nationalism in media and education. In the PRC, this is true until today. The democratization of Taiwan meant that the KMT monopoly of the national narrative was broken and so a new public debate about Taiwanese identity began. We may therefore say that Taiwan embarked in a period of identity quest, in which different concepts began to compete with each other. The case of Lee Teng-hui shows the complexity of the issue.

Lee Teng-hui
Lee Teng-hui was born in Taiwan in 1923, when the island belonged to the Japanese Empire. He studied at Taipei High School and subsequently at Kyoto Imperial University. After the war he graduated from Taiwan University. In 1968 he was awarded a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University. He started an academic career as a professor at Taiwan National University and, as a technician, he was employed as an official at the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, which was responsible for the successful land reform that boosted the Taiwanese economy. 

In 1984 Chiang Ching-kuo chose him as one of the talented Taiwan-born new members of the KMT, in an effort to reorganize the party to give more space to the local population. Lee Teng-hui became Vice President of the ROC and, following Chiang's death, President of the ROC in 1988. Lee Teng-hui is a devout Christian. 

Lee Teng-hui's personal history as well as his political ideas are an interesting example of the contradictions in today's Taiwanese society and politics. Born in Taiwan, educated in Japan and the USA, Christian, ex-member of the KMT, then "spiritual leader" of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU; source), Lee's worldview combines Taiwanese nationalism, Japanophilia, Western influence and, at the same time, “Chineseness”, in the sense that he is a descendant of Han Chinese who came to Taiwan, and, as a citizen and then president of the ROC, he was required to speak Mandarin and had to make compromises with KMT's Chinese nationalism.

During and after his presidency, Lee Teng-hui made numerous statements that stirred major controversies. In 2005 he justified the then current Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the shrine where Japanese soldiers are honoured. Among them are soldiers who died during the Japanese invasions in China, Korea and other Asian countries in World War II. Lee was quoted as saying: “It is natural for a premier of a country to commemorate the souls of people who lost their lives for their country.” (Japan Times, 17/10/2005). It is obvious that a mainland Chinese politician could never have said anything like that. In 2012, Lee stated that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands belong to Japan. It is clear that his views contradict some key principles of both CCP and KMT nationalism. Lee, who was the first democratically elected Guomindang President of the ROC, was expelled from the KMT after he openly backed the TSU.

Lee Teng-hui's Presidency marked the beginning of a new era in cross-strait relations. At first, Lee's policy toward the PRC continued what Chiang Ching-kuo had started: he sought to establish an administrative channel for talks with the PRC to improve cross-strait relations, and most especially to make economic exchanges and flights to mainland China possible. "Democratization", "new cross-strait relations", and "pragmatic diplomacy" were the main points in his political agenda shortly after taking over the presidency.

Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Headquarters
in Taipei
The ROC founded the National Unification Council (NUC) in 1990 and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in 1991. On 19 February 1991, following a decision of the MAC, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) was established. In September 1992 the Statute Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area was enacted. (Su Chi 2008, p. 4) 

In February 1991 the NUC issued the National Unification Guidelines (NUG), which became a blueprint for Lee Teng-hui's mainland policy. The NUG had a gradualist approach toward the question of cross-strait relations. Although it still adhered to the one China dogma of the KMT, it didn't put forward any detailed proposals for reunification, which was rather considered a distant goal. The document outlined three phases: mutually beneficial exchanges (phase I), mutual trust and cooperation (phase II), and negotiations on unification (phase III). Phase III included requirements such as “political democratization and economic liberalization” in mainland China. (ibid., p. 5)

One of the major phenomena of cross-strait relations became the great and vital activity of private business. While the political atmosphere remained tense, economic exchange prospered. With the proclamation of the "Termination of the Period of General Mobilization for the Suppression of the Communist Rebellion" by Lee Teng-hui on 30 April 1991, investment in mainland China by Taiwanese business people wasn't considered any more a “seditious” act in favour of Communist rebels. Consequently, Taiwanese investments in China began to thrive. (ibid., pp. 5-6)

In October 1988 the PRC established the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). In December 1991 it formed the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). (ibid., pp. 6-9)

Having set up offices to deal with cross-strait negotiations, the PRC and the ROC intensified talks in order to find mutual understanding on a range of issues. The most important and thorny point was that of the sovereignty. Using the most diplomatic language possible - i.e. the most ambiguous one - on 1 August 1991 the NUC passed a “Definition of One China” resolution. One passage of this resolution was to become defining for the future of cross-strait talks: 

"The two sides of the Taiwan Strait uphold the One China Principle, but the interpretations of the two sides are different…. Our side believes that One China should mean the Republic of China established in 1912 and existing today, and its sovereignty extends throughout China, but its current governing authority is only over Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matzu. Admittedly, Taiwan is a part of China, but the mainland is also a part of China" (ibid., p. 13)

On 3 November, after a round of secret talks between the SEF and the ARATS in Hong Kong had failed, the SEF brought forward the suggestion that a solely verbal declaration should be used to express each side's interpretation of the one China principle. The ARATS accepted this flexible common ground. 

Taiwanese media soon coined the term “one China, respective interpretation” (一個中國,各自表述). This principle, also known as the “1992 consensus”, became the principle guiding cross-strait discussions. (ibid., pp. 9-13)

In the early years of his presidency, Lee Teng-hui had been seen by Beijing as a partner to start a gradual reunification process with. However, the ROC President turned out to have a viewpoint that was much more controversial than the PRC had thought. Despite being a KMT leader, little by little Lee Teng-hui proved to be a Taiwanese nationalist rather than a Chinese nationalist. The first grave deterioration of relations between Lee and Beijing happened when the ROC President visited his alma mater, Cornell University. 

On May 22 1995, the US Congress endorsed with a majority vote the issue of a visa for Lee Teng-hui. Bill Clinton backed the decision of the Congress. This infuriated Beijing, since - as Secretary of State Warren Christopher put it – this was against the US-Taiwan unofficial relationship. (ibid., pp. 31-32)

Cross-strait relations experienced a much bigger crisis a few years later. In July 1999 Lee gave an interview to a journalist of Deutsche Welle, stating that: 

The 1991 constitutional amendments have designated cross-strait relations as a state-to-state relationship or at least a special state-to-state relationship, rather than an internal relationship between a legitimate government and a renegade group, or between a central government and a local government. Thus, the Beijing authorities' characterization of Taiwan as a "renegade province" is historically and legally untrue… Moreover, in 1991, amendments to the Constitution designated cross-strait relations as a special state-to-state relationship. Consequently, there is no need to declare independence.” (ibid., p. 53) 

Lee Teng-hui's special state-to-state relationship theory (特殊國於國關係, also known as Two-States Theory) severely undermined Beijing's trust in the ROC President and revealed that the KMT's official "one China principle" - which had been sacrosanct to Chiang Kai-shek and the mainland cadres that followed him to Taiwan - reflected neither the will of the Taiwanese people, nor did it enjoy the unanimous approval of Taiwan's political parties. 

"According to annual household interview polls conducted by National Chengchi University," [Academia Sinica research fellow Wu Nai-teh (吳乃德) "said that the results suggested that only 13.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese in 1991. That number had risen to 45.7 percent by late 2004. In contrast, Wu said the "Chinese consciousness" of respondents has steadily decreased. While in 1991 43.9 percent of interviewees identified themselves as Chinese, the number was down to 6.3 percent by 2004." (Taipei Times 12/03/2006)

After Nixon's visit in China the USA made the momentous
decision to shift diplomatic recognition from the ROC to
the PRC. The USA accepted to endorse the one China policy
Broadly speaking, we may distinguish three currents in Taiwan: pro-independence, pro-status-quo and pro-unification. 

Though pro-independence sentiments are nowadays dominant in Taiwan in theory, in practice most Taiwanese are pro-status-quo. The reason is that they are aware of the risk they run by upsetting Beijing. DPP ex-President Chen Shui-bian was, too, pro-independence in words, while in reality he knew that provoking Beijing might cause a military conflict that everybody is willing to avoid. Pro-unification is a minority standpoint; yet, as I have pointed out, a pro-unification stance, albeit in a distant future, can be still found in Taiwan, especially among certain segments of the KMT followers. Current President Ma Yingjiu, for example, endorses this perspective. According to him, “the tie between Taiwan and China is not that between two nations, but rather a 'special relationship' that can be handled invoking the '1992 consensus' between the two sides.” (China Post, 04/09/2008)

The Five Options

1- Taiwanese Independence: A declaration of independence by the ROC would send a clear signal to Beijing. It would put an end to the PRC's attempts to achieve reunification peacefully on the basis of a Chinese nationalism shared by both sides. If Taiwanese nationalism prevails, however, Beijing might use force to “retake” Taiwan. (source

The term “independence” itself is not without ambiguity. In fact, the current situation is considered by some Taiwanese people as independence. As Lee Teng-hui said, since the ROC is a state with its own government, population, currency and diplomatic relations with other countries, the ROC is de facto independent. However, the issue of independence is more about semantics than about factual statehood. Furthermore, the ROC itself with its state ideology keeps the ambivalence that Taiwan is a province of China. For example, the date in Taiwan is still counted from the foundation of the Republic in 1912 in mainland China. The year 2013 is therefore the Republican Year 102 (民國102年). The very name Republic of China, as well as the Constitution and other vestiges of the old Republic on the mainland, suggest a tie with China that is more than simple geographical proximity. In order to avoid this ambiguity, a re-foundation of Taiwan with a new name (Republic of Taiwan) could be an effective option to assert once and for all Taiwanese nationalism. 

This scenario is not very probable, though. First of all, Taiwanese nationalists know that by declaring independence a war between Taiwan and the PRC might break out. A war which Taiwan doesn't have the means to win. Apart from that, the USA, the third big player in cross-strait relations, does not wish a conflict which would put it in a very difficult position. As part of the deal between the USA and the PRC in 1972, Nixon promised not to support Taiwan's independence and the Chinese side promised to solve the issue of reunification with peaceful means. 

In the 1990's President Bill Clinton went even further. He coined a policy known as the “Three Nos”: 1) no to “two Chinas” or “one China and one Taiwan”; 2) no to Taiwan's independence; 3) no to Taiwan joining the United Nations. (Su Chi 2008, p. 36) Taiwanese nationalists can therefore not rely on the USA as an ally in case of a conflict, most especially if the conflict were caused by a unilateral “declaration of independence” by Taiwan.

2- Status-Quo: The maintenance of the current, ambiguous status-quo is the solution that a majority of Taiwanese and Americans seem to regard as the safest and most viable for the time being. However, the status-quo might damage Taiwan in the long run. As the PRC becomes richer and more powerful, the negotiation power of Taiwan will weaken. 

3- Reunification: This is the option that a majority of Taiwanese reject or at least don't what to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, given that the PRC is too powerful for Taiwan to resist, eventual unification might become a reality sooner or later. For instance, the PRC knows how important Taiwan's economic dependence on China will be, and they are trying to boost economic ties to “swallow up” Taiwan. One opportunity for Taiwanese people to secure a favourable transition would be to use the argument of Chinese nationalism to push the PRC to make as many concessions as possible, and even to change the political system of the mainland. Conditions for reunification could be the legalization of Taiwanese parties on the mainland, the establishment of a multi-party parliament with members elected by the people; the achievement of a per capita income as high as that of Taiwan; constitutional and institutional reforms, and so on. In this scenario, Taiwan wouldn't become part of the PRC, but the PRC would have to be transformed and a new China would emerge. 
The CCP has promised that Beijing will not "send troops or administrative staff to be stationed in Taiwan. Dr. Xu Shiquan, President of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at China's Academy of Social Sciences, has suggested that many matters relating to China's unification are negotiable: ''Under the one-China principle, everything is negotiable including the flag, name of the country and national anthem. Our aim is the peaceful reunification and everything can be talked about and discussed. And the unified China will definitely be different than what it is now.'' When asked if China might even consider adopting the flag presently used by the authorities in Taiwan, Xu replied, "well, if that's what the majority wants." (source)

Since Taiwanese nationalism is definitely stronger than Chinese nationalism in Taiwan at the moment, such a political exploitation of Beijing's one China policy seems hard to pursue in the short-term, and probably it will always be. Nevertheless, if China's per capita income rises, her economic might consolidates and her political system evolves, Chinese nationalism might become more popular in Taiwan, too, and "money", which doesn't really pay attention to flags or national feelings, as it is proved by the dynamic activity of Taiwanese businesses in mainland China.

4 - Annexation: The scenario of an invasion of Taiwan by the PRC seems unlikely in the present, but it cannot be ruled out for the future. If the PRC succeeded and no foreign power intervened, Taiwan could be considered by Beijing as a renegade province that lost a war. The Taiwanese would be at the mercy of the PRC victors, and Taiwanese political parties, the administration and the economic system could be wiped out.  

5 - Peaceful Independence: The last scenario is of course the one which many Taiwanese hope for. If the PRC renounces its claims on Taiwan, a new relation between the two sides would be initiated, in which China and Taiwan would recognize each other as two separate nations with two separate sovereign states. This will happen only if, for some reason, the official line of the CCP regarding Taiwan changes, or if a democratization in China breaks the monopoly of the CCP's national narrative. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The "Taiwan Question" - Does Taiwan Belong To China? (Part II)

On 26 July 1945, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the American President Harry S. Truman and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, with which they urged Japan to surrender unconditionally. If it accepted, Japan would lose its empire, be demilitarized and be occupied by the Powers. Furthermore, its elites would face charges of war crimes. (Dillon 2010, p. 248)

Though Chiang Kai-shek was clearly an “underdog” compared to the USA, Great Britain and Soviet Russia, he was still an important ally of the three big powers. An ally who had his own interests and demands. As a Chinese nationalist, his aim was to restore the borders of Qing China, to which Taiwan belonged until the Japanese occupied it in 1895. Taiwan was a matter of national pride.

The USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union backed China's claim. At the Cairo Conference of 22 November 1943 and at the Potsdam Conference of July and August 1945, it was decided that Taiwan would be returned to China. (Dillon 2010, p. 254) At that time, no one imagined that only four years later, Guomindang rule would be swept away by the Communists and that Taiwan would be the last stronghold of Chiang's rule, a small island at the forefront of the Cold War.

China and Taiwan – A Divided Nation Or Two Separate Nations?

After the end of WWII, Taiwan became a province of the Republic of China (ROC), the state founded on January 1st 1912 on mainland China following the Xinhai Revolution. (Dillon 2010, p. 146)

The civil war between the Guomindang (KMT), the party founded by Sun Yat-sen which had governed China since 1928, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) broke out in 1945. Chiang Kai-shek's KMT was defeated and the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan.

Despite all the ideological differences between the two great adversaries, both the CCP and the KMT shared the same nationalistic standpoint: for them, China was one country and Taiwan was a province of China, just like Guangdong, Fujian and any other province. However, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists believed the Republic of China (ROC) with the KMT as the state's ruling party to be the sole legitimate government of China, while Mao Zedong's Communists believed the People's Republic of China (PRC) with the CCP as the ruling party to be the sole legitimate government of China. From this perspective, China and Taiwan were a nation divided by the Cold War, just like South and North Korea or West and East Germany. Today's CCP and KMT still adhere to this “one China policy”.

After WWII, negotiations took place between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, 
with United States ambassador Patrick J. Hurley as mediator. 
Second from left is Chiang Kaishek's son,  Chiang Ching-kuo

Nationalism was not the only element the two parties shared. In fact, they were much more similar than they were willing to admit. Like the PRC, the ROC was “a one-party state, ironically a mirror image of its Communist adversary on the mainland: the Guomindang was the only political party legally permitted to exist until 1986 and martial law, which had been proclaimed in 1947, remained in force until 1987.” (Dillon 2010, p. 392)

The KMT – a Leninist party that in its early days had regarded the Soviet Union as its model, before the Chinese Communists became Moscow's natural allies – had the same autocratic understanding of government as the CCP. Until the late 1980's, Taiwan was similar to today's PRC: a one-party state in which the government tried to create consensus through astounding economic development, and in which freedom of speech and dissent were allowed only within the framework set by the party.

After losing the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek was determined to suppress every opposition on Taiwan, and to prevent the emergence of Communist movements. He gave his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, broad authority on internal security and intelligence, inaugurated what is known as the “white terror”. In 1949 alone, about 10,000 Taiwanese were arrested and more than thousand executed. (Taylor 2009, p. 412) The prevailing anti-Communism in the USA and Western Europe helped giving a relative international legitimation to the crimes committed by the KMT in defending what Western propaganda – with unwanted irony – called “Free China”.  

How Chinese Is Taiwan?

Come to Taiwan and you will see that Taiwan is not China!” - this is a sentence Taiwanese people like to tell foreigners to explain them why their island is an independent country.

However, if you travel to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, you might wonder why Hong Kong is part of China, while Taiwan isn't. In fact, in many respects, Taiwan is way more Chinese than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a British colony for about a century. It is a very international, cosmopolitan city, influenced by the West. Its official languages are Cantonese and English; Mandarin doesn't enjoy the status of an official language, and many Hong Kongers are not fluent in Mandarin. I personally got the impression that Hong Kong is a bridge between East and West, while Taiwan is deeply different from anything I'd known in the West.

As I have explained in my previous post, today's Republic of China is in itself contradictory. It is a combination of different elements, of different cultural, ideological, political layers. I shall argue that Taiwan can be considered both very similar to and very different from mainland China, and that the question of independence is ultimately a political decision. Taiwan's identity as a nation is not self-evident, it is a construction.

Let's now examine some of the key points for and against the “Chineseness” of Taiwan.

Historical Ties And Collective Memory

I shall argue that China and Taiwan are so similar to each other that they could be a nation; but that what makes them really different, and perhaps even incompatible, is their different collective memory that is derived from an extremely different historical experience from 1895 onward. 


Taipei under the Japanese. Neat roads, a motorised vehicle and
people wearing Western clothes (on the right) show that Taiwan's
modernizaton had already begun under colonial rule
Except for the aborigines, the great majority of Taiwan's inhabitants are descendants of migrants from mainland China. They shared the same language (or dialects) and cultural heritage with people of the provinces they came from or the ethnic groups (like the Hakka) they belonged to. A mainland Chinese who goes to Taiwan not only understands the language, but he or she will also be familiar with a set of “Chinese” values (family, morality, religion etc.) that are much more difficult for non-Chinese to comprehend. Before I went to Taiwan, I asked mainland Chinese friends of mine to give me some advice, which proved to be very valuable in dealing with certain situations. It seemed to me that mainland Chinese, though they'd never been to Taiwan, could understand certain aspects of Taiwanese culture better than I could. But I doubt whether they could give me advice about Japan or South Korea if they've never lived there.

The brutality of this picture, taken after
a Japanese air raid on Chongqing in

1941, is only the peak of half a century 

of suffering and wars in mainland China. 

Taiwan didn't share the hard fate of the mainland. 

Taiwanese soldiers were even recruited by 
the Japanese  to fight in the Japanese 
Imperial Army.
On the other hand, Taiwan has a history that makes it quite different from the mainland. Taiwan has always been at the margin of Chinese civilization. It was incorporated into the Empire only in the second half of the 17th century, and from 1895 to 1945 it was a Japanese colony. These fifty years were full of events in mainland China; one can say that this dramatic era radically changed China and that the collective memory regarding those years has a deep impact in China's self-consciousness and public debates. 

Taiwan-born people don't share this collective memory. Not only did Taiwan not experience the last years of the Qing Empire, the Boxer Rebellion, the 1911 Revolution, warlordism, civil war, the hardships of the Japanese invasion and the 1945/49 war between the KMT and the CCP; but, as an early Japanese colony, Taiwan ironically experienced a period of peace, modernization and relative economic prosperity. Taiwan was treated by the Japanese much better than mainland China, and it was left unscathed by the Sino-Japanese conflict. When the KMT arrived in Taiwan, spreading corruption, mismanagement and white terror, many Taiwanese people thought back on the Japanese era as an age of relative modernization and of improvement in their standard of living.

When Taiwan was handed over to the ROC in 1949, the influence of China became prominent again. The island was reorganized by an elite of mainland cadres. In 1949 the government of the ROC was relocated to Taiwan, and millions of mainlanders – party members, soldiers, businessmen, professionals etc. - fled there to escape the Communists. An average of 5,000 refugees per day “would continue to make their way to Taiwan into the early 1950s, when their numbers reached about two million. At that point, the mainlander population represented about 25 percent of the roughly eight million people on Taiwan.” (Davison 2003)

Post-war Taiwan was therefore made up of a majority of Taiwan-born people of Chinese descent who had been exposed to strong Japanese influence for fifty years; to this native stock added a 25% of new mainland-born migrants, among which were the powerful political elite of the ROC. 

There was tension between these “Taiwan-born” and “mainland-born” population, intensified by the fact that mainlanders held for decades the most important political posts. However, through the educational system promoted by the KMT, which propagated Chinese nationalism and suppressed Taiwanese nationalism, and the slow integration of mainland and Taiwanese elements, a new Taiwan emerged, which is, in many respects, more Chinese than it was back in 1945, but which at the same time has a different collective memory than Communist China.

The dichotomy between “Chineseness” and “Taiwaneseness” can be seen when some Taiwanese people argue that Taiwan isn't part of China, but at the same time say that Taiwan has preserved the “true” Chinese culture better than the mainlanders (for example the traditional characters or a more conservative society).


Vestige of KMT ideology in Taiwan. A propaganda
sign on Quemoy facing mainland China proclaiming
"Three Principles of the People Unites China"
China's and Taiwan's paths continued to diverge in the 1980's, when the ROC began a process of democratization which transformed it from a one-party dictatorship into a liberal, democratic country. 

In the 1990's, anti-Chinese and pro-independence sentiments became increasingly strong. They were a result of 1) the de facto administrative independence of the ROC from the PRC; 2) the anti-Communist propaganda of the KMT; 3) the Taiwanese pride at having achieved a democratic system and a prosperous economy, which allowed them to look down at mainland China, which was at the early stage of its economic success story; 4) the nationalism and anti-mainland sentiment of the Taiwan-born population that dated back to the first decades of KMT rule. 

All these factors mixed together in creating an anti-Chines, pro-independence discourse in Taiwan. 

The one China policy was and still is a core element of the political agenda of the KMT. However, the democratization of Taiwan broke the undisputed monopoly of the KMT national narrative. To put it plainly: the KMT had repressed Taiwanese nationalism by force, and so the official line of the ROC was that Taiwan is part of China and that mainland China belongs to the ROC. That is why the ROC Constitution calls Taiwan “the free territory of the Republic of China.”

On 28 September 1986, a new party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was founded. Chiang Ching-kuo decided not to suppress this spontaneous civil movement, and so the DPP became a legal political organization which participated in the first two-party elections for the Legislative Yuan on December 1986. In 1987 martial law was lifted and Taiwan was on its way to a successful political transition.

Chen Shuibian
The DPP gave a voice to those people who felt that the Republic of China was a mere relic of history and that Taiwan will never be part of China again. Chen Shui-bian, the DPP's most prominent leader and Taiwan's first non-KMT president, was an advocate for independence. Two narratives began to compete against each other publicly: the pro-independence against the pro-unification.


The fact that market-driven industrialization began in Taiwan much earlier than in China added to the different “collective memory” shared by Taiwanese and Chinese. While the mainland was still a backward planned economy and its people were caught in disastrous ideological battles and political campaigns, between 1950 and 1990 Taiwan emerged as one of the four thriving economies of the East, the “Little Dragons” or “Asian Tigers” (S. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore). Using a combination of state intervention and market forces, Taiwan rapidly industrialized and raised its standards of living, becoming a developed country in half a century.

As a consequence of the economic miracle, economics became the main categories and concepts for defining Taiwan's identity on the basis of economic growth, “thus establishing a different basis for imagining its identity from that of China's." (Harrison 2006, p. 137-138)

Is Taiwan A Nation?

A few weeks ago I read a comment on a blog in which a Taiwanese complained about the lack of national consciousness of his fellow countrymen. He said that while living abroad he found that many Taiwanese were confused about their identity. He criticized foreigners, too, explaining that they don't understand what the "true" Taiwan is. 

The paradox here is quite interesting. A Taiwanese who has his own understanding of national identity teaches some of his compatriots - whom he considers “confused” - what it means to be Taiwanese. I wonder whether he is aware of the fact that, by trying to promote his own idea of “Taiwaneseness”, he is creating and propagating a sense of national identity that does not exist as a self-evident fact. He is deciding what a “true” Taiwanese is, and rejecting everything that doesn't fit in his beliefs. Such statements show that Taiwanese identity isn't an established concept, but that it is a work in progress. I'll come to that later.

The complexity and contradictions of what it means to be Taiwanese are best illustrated by the following example. I once met a waishengren (外生人), a Taiwanese who was born in Taiwan but whose grandparents came from the mainland in 1949. She considers herself Chinese and does not oppose the idea of eventual reunification of Taiwan and mainland China. Taiwanese people who have a pro-independence standpoint see in her a sort of “traitor”, a “fake” Taiwanese. “If you think you are Chinese,” they say to her, “then go back to China.”

You're a traitor. Go away from us” - this is the typical phrase nationalist ideologues use when certain groups of people within their own country disagree with their understanding of nation. It is a sentence I heard many times in Europe: xenophobes tell the descendants of migrants to go back to their homeland if they don't want to adapt themselves to the host country.

But this national ideology is flawed. It is derived from the idea that a nation should be a homogeneous community in which everybody has the same identity. However, in a democratic system, everyone has the right to have one's own opinion, and to define one's own identity. A Taiwanese who sees Taiwan as part of China has exactly the same right to express this view as have people who think that Taiwan is an independent nation. 

The notion that Taiwan is part of China is shared only by a minority of the island's population. “[P]olls have shown that those with Taiwanese identity began to outnumber those with Chinese identity by mid-1990s and the gap continued to widen in the late 1990s. After 2000 a 'twin peaks' appeared, with 'Taiwan identity' and 'both Chinese and Taiwanese identity' at roughly the same height and 'Chinese identity' distinctly lower in the opinion spread." (Chi 2008, p. 285).  However, the official line of the Guomindang and the opinion of the current president of the ROC, Ma Yingjiu - who was democratically elected - is that Taiwan is a province of China. In 2008, Ma Yingjiu maintained the position that mainland China is part of the ROC. He said that according to the ROC Constitution, the ROC “definitely is an independent sovereign state, and mainland [sic] China is also part of the territory of the ROC.” (Taipei Times 08/10/2008)

In order to answer the question if Taiwan is or could ever be part of China, we need to emphasize that there is no such thing as an “objective national identity”. A nation is difficult to define because it is – as Benedict Anderson calls it - an “imagined community” of people who don't know each other personally, but imagine that there is something in common between all of them, a “sense” of belonging to the same community, with the same culture, language and destiny. 

However, nation-building is a discursive process. It is created by people through language. Taiwanese identity can be thus understood “as a constant production of meanings, and as such it occurs at multiple levels, from secondary scholarly work by non-Taiwanese, to claims to be an 'authentic' Taiwanese, and self-conscious reflections upon Taiwan's identity by Taiwanese themselves.” (Harrison 2006, p. 52)

The concept of nation is not self-evident; what a nation is, is ultimately a political decision that results from a discursive process in which individuals theorize its existence. Let's name a few examples to illustrate this point. 

In 1989, Europe had three major independent “German” states: Austria, The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Today, West and East Germany are a unified nation and the map of Europe contains only two major “German” countries. 

Theoretically speaking, there was no compelling reason why these two states had to become one, or why Austria couldn't be included in this new German state. West and East Germany had drifted apart after 1945. They had a different collective memory and a different social and economic system. In 1989, Bavaria was economically, culturally and linguistically way more similar to Austria than it was to, let's say, Berlin or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. West Europeans shared a similar post-war collective memory: liberation, American occupation, democracy, economic miracle, 1960's student protests, Americanization, pop culture, left-wing terrorism, 1970's oil crisis, “post-modernism” and so on – all of these and many other phenomena are shared by almost all of Western Europe, no matter in which country, but they were not shared by East Germans. 

The reason why East and West sought reunification has a number of political, economic and ideological factors: the desire of East Germans to become as rich as the West, old-style nationalistic considerations and so on. East and West could have remained separate countries; as a matter of fact, not everyone was in favour of reunification, which shows that a total “national consensus” in establishing a nation is only a fiction. 

Besides, in 1989 there were millions of migrants in West Germany. These migrants came especially from Southern Europe and Turkey, but also from Eastern, Asian and African countries. Many of them had children who were born in Germany; so, in 1989 these migrants were part of West Germany, while East Germans weren't. But because of the old-style nationalistic discourse about identity, East Germans were ironically considered entitled of being part of a nation called Germany, while the “German identity” of the migrants is constantly questioned. 

This example shows how complex collective identity is. Collective identity presupposes that a community of millions of people can reach a 100% agreement on who every single individual is. But because individuals have different personal histories and personal opinions, a total agreement is almost impossible. That is why extremist nationalistic regimes like Fascism or the Guomindang one-party-rule had to inculcate national values either by force or through the educational system, while suppressing dissent.

Nations are in a constant process of re-making and re-defining themselves. A nation isn't the static community which nationalist ideologues envision. 

Southern and Northern Italy were unified in 1861, but now there are many people in the North who want independence; Spain has been a nation-state for centuries, but there are strong independence movements in Basque and Catalonia; in the UK, Scotland has always shown a high degree of separatism. On the other hand, countries which are as similar as the USA and Canada or Australia and New Zealand are not a state, while Switzerland is a country in which four different big cultural and linguistic groups live side by side. 

An objective, rational definition of nation that is so self-evident that 100% of the population must agree with it, simply doesn't exist. A nation must remain an ambiguous entity. A nation is always a matter of choice between different variants. 

In the following and last part of this post, I will talk about the different possibilities that Taiwan has in order to solve the question of its relationship with mainland China.


Su Chi: Taiwan's Relations with Mainland China: A Tail Wagging Two Dogs. New York 2009 (Routledge Contemporary Asia Series).

Gary M. Davison: A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence. Westport 2003.

Michael Dillon: China - A Modern History. New York 2010

Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity. Houndsmills, Basingstone, Hampshire, England / New York 2006

Jay Taylor: The Generalissimo - Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.