Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why does China care so much about Taiwan?

I hope this post will not offend any of my readers; I simply want to ask some questions--well, the main question: Why does China care so much about Taiwan? I hope that by asking this question, we can at least have a dialogue concerning this issue. I don't claim to have all of the answers on this, but I have thought about it for some time now.

Taiwan could declare independence tomorrow and be admitted into the UN, and besides the Chinese government's reaction, it would have absolutely no effect on the majority of China's citizens.

I have heard on countless occasions that it is a question of face, something very important in Chinese society.

One friend in Sichuan told me all the Chinese government cares about is that Taiwan's leaders accept that Taiwan is a Chinese province, and than Beijing will let Taiwan go on functioning exactly as it has been, just as Hong Kong hasn't changed. This is the traditional image of the various peripheral states paying tribute to the Chinese emperor: Just kowtow and then do what you want.

But, I think there is more to this issue than that. Taiwan as an issue grew out of a civil war, one in which the people who inhabited Taiwan were uninvolved. If anything, the issue stems from agreements and disagreements between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party (KMT). The Taiwanese people were unwaringly pulled into this dispute, as were most people in China, who just wanted to live their lives in peace.

Some things have happened in the past 50 years that some political leaders haven't realized. One is that the civil war ended a long time ago, and yet it continues as a figment in the minds of some. Both sides continue to build up their cross-straits militaries, one side to defend itself and the other to point missiles at the other to instill fear. Does anyone in Taiwan really still dream of retaking the mainland through military means?

To me, the other important event is the Taiwan miracle, and I don't mean the economic one; I mean the political one: Taiwan became a democracy almost overnight, without any unilateral U.S. maneuvers to force democracy militarily. Taiwan's democracy is not perfect, and it is potentially endangered by partisan warfare, but it exists and it is vibrant. I will come back to this.

So, if the civil war has ended and Taiwan has functioned as a de facto independent country for more than 50 years, why does China care so much about Taiwan? Why does it still insist that Taiwan is a Chinese province? Why does it care what people in Taiwan call the island where they live?

Beyond the question of face, I think another factor is nationalism. Some have criticized Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in general for using the independence card to win votes. Well, isn't the KMT within Taiwan and the CCP without using the reunification card and the One China framework in the same way? In China, Taiwan has become a way for the CCP to rally the people, to generate nationalism, and to consolidate power.

It goes further than this. Taiwan is an issue to the Chinese leadership because of the democracy question. For Beijing to recognize Taiwan's DPP and to agree to meet with its leaders would be to legitimate not only the pro-independence camp, but also the democracy that has bubbled up from beneath the surface in Taiwan, and the society that Taiwan has become, good and bad.

Let's penetrate even deeper: China's leader fear an independent Taiwan (and yes, I am speculating) because an independent Taiwan, one recognized by the world community, would give impetus to every other indedendence and democracy movement in China. Think Tibet, Xinjiang, etc. There has always been a fear of China--all-under-Heaven--devolving into the "warring states." Long before there was a Communist Party, there were periods of division, which in traditional Chinese historiography, is the natural state of things during the waning years of a dynasty's influence, and the aftermath of a dynasty's decay.

It's a complicated situation.


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