Feb 21, 2008

Why the UN and Taiwan Ought to Be Friends (Part 1)


Due to parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2008 as well as two referenda over an application to enter the United Nations under the name “Taiwan” (which are harshly opposed to by the government of the People’s Republic of China), even the German media have their focus on the beautiful island south-east of the Chinese mainland. On March 21 a new President will be elected and the Taiwanese will decide about the two referenda (one by each of the major parties).

(I have posted this article before in German language entitled "Warum Taiwan und die Vereinten Nationen Freunde werden sollten")

UN for Taiwan!

On January 23rd, internationally reputed scholar Dr. Bruce Jacobs in an open letter called up on presidential candidates Ma Ying-jeou and Frank Hsieh to bundle forces and unitedly strive for UN-membership, that is, supporting one another’s referendum and call upon the populace to vote for both of them.

I recommend reading the letter (in Chinese) very much, as well as the comments made on Michael Turton’s post.

Jacobs is Director of the Taiwan Research Unit and professor for Asian studies at Monash University, Australia, and one of the world’s leading scholars on China-Taiwan relations. Personally, I admire his commitment in repeatedly speaking up for Taiwanese independence, and supplying theoretical and empirical facts to cement its importance. Regarding China scholars, this is nothing usual, since most academics try to maintain neutrality in political issues. However, being granted the benefits of insight and knowledge through thoroughly studying a given subject, in my eyes goes along with a certain responsibility to enlighten the public/ interested individuals about this very matter, to ones best knowing, ability, and fairness. I don’t agree with opportunistic relativisms, nor do I think that there is something coming close to absolute neutrality. We all carry a duty as public actors and agents of our own very conscience.

Of course, we need to get our facts straight in the first place.

It is matter of fact that Taiwan is a functioning, self-governing democracy which to date upholds official diplomatic relations with c. 30 nations around the world, being the sole representative of China there under the name “Republic of China” as according to the internationally accepted “One-China-Policy”.

Taiwan history in a short frame

In historical regard, Chinese control of the island is but a joke – a mere second in time. Jacobs goes as far as claiming that China ruled Taiwan under only 4 years: from 1945 to 1949, when it became part of the then Kuomintang-controlled Republic on the mainland. – Even if we were to add the years of Qing-rule, this would make some 200 years of Chinese rule. Jacobs, however, does rule out the Qing as being a Manchu, i.e. foreign, non-Chinese, dynasty. While this is a provocative way of putting it, one fact clearly stands out:

The People’s Republic has never ruled Taiwan, not for one single day, but is still making claims as the only possible representative of one unified China.

The first Chinese settlers, mostly Hoklo from Fujian and secondly Hakka from Guangdong, do not account for being ethnically being Han-Chinese, either. Until today, the differences between “Taiwanese” Hoklo and “Chinese” Han on the island of Taiwan are subject to conflicts and represent different stands regarding a distinct Taiwanese identity (as distinct from the Chinese mainland). These differences are visible also in China, although the government attempts to blur cultural distinctinveness in trying to form a homogenised country and strengthen their control and legitimize their rule.

While the first settlers arrived in Taiwan during the 16th century, one can speak of a Chinese “influence” of the island only beginning in the 17th century (in the early years of the Dutch occupation [1624-1662] there were merely 1000 – 1500 Chinese settlers on the whole island!). Ming-loyalist and Taiwanese national hero Zheng Cheng-gong (better known as Koxinga) retreated to Formosa in 1661, opening up the island to a mentionable degree for the first time.

In 1683, the Qing finally defeated Zheng and annexed it into Fujian province.

Not at all is it my intention to leave the Taiwanese aborigines out of Taiwanese history. They have been neglected and persecuted by all colonists, no matter if European or Chinese, until only recently (since 1994 they are mentioned in the constitution of the Republic of China, after the constitutional reform in 2000 they are referred to as “原住民“ and granted the rights of nationalities), most of these reforms made during the terms of the DPP-presidency. The aborigines now are granted autonomous regions (“their” lands if that “their” were not for the whole of Taiwan). Altogether, they consist of 13 officially recognised tribes, ten more still awaiting recognition. (This section followes the ethnographer Ingo Nentwig who also edited the German wikipedia entrance.)

It was only in the last 20 years of Qing rule that the government tried to incorporate Taiwan into the nation body systematically, climaxing in 1885 when it became declared a province, which indeed was primarily due to political and military concerns (Western and Japanese colonising interests).

In 1895, the Sino-Japanese war ended with the contract of Shimonoseki, making Taiwan and the Pescadores Japanese colony and putting an end to national and political integration of the complex Taiwanese society into the Chinese empire.

Despite being repressive and abusive, the Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan (1895-1945) is often viewed as having positive effects on Taiwan itself. The Japanese developed Taiwan industrially and invested in infrastructure and education (thus providing the basis for the Taiwanese post-World War economic development). Equally important, contact with Japanese nationalism left its impression on the locals; during the 1920s a variety of organisations, newspapers, and intellectuals engaged in deepening Taiwanese cultural consciousness. This point in history may well be regarded as the starting point of Taiwanese identity seriously becoming distinct intellectually.

(For most of the information above I am referring to Gunter Schubert)

The Cultural Significance

Any remodelling of the formation of a Taiwanese identity cannot leave out the “28 February 1947 incident” (二二八事件) (China was then still united under Republican rule). Corruption in the provincial government, unemployment, and supply shortcomings led to tensions between mainland-Chinese and the oppressed Taiwanese, and culminated on February 28, 1947 when protests spread from Taipei over the rest of the island. Taiwanese elites formed local comitees, but were defeated by Republican troops from the mainland in March. Following were persecution, looting, and torture which cost approximately 10 to 20000 people’s lives, leaving a severe gap between Taiwanese and 外生人, mainland Chinese.

The incident today is seen as a symbol for the origin of the Taiwanese independence movement.

The Japanese influence has been enormous, as you can still see today. Some of the oldest Taiwanese still alive rather know how to communicate in Japanese than in Mandarin.

Mother tongue with more than 60% of the population is 台語, a form of 閩南 (Minnan) which is also spoken in Fujian on the mainland. One in five speaks Mandarin as their mother tongue, and around 8% account for as Hakka. Fluency in Taiwanese is decreasing, though, in part due to KMT (國民黨) policies during the time of martial law which ended as recently as in 1987. Until then were native Taiwanese excluded from political participation at the national level since parliamentary elections were postponed until China would be united under the Republic (and MP mandates upheld until just then).

At the same time, the government pursued a strict policy of “sinisation”. Political power remained in the hands of the old elite that had retreated to Taiwan in 1949 under Chiang Kai-shek (bearing similarities with the retreat of Ming-loyalist Koxinga), the great majority of them born in China. The use of Taiwanese in schools and even at home was strictly prohibited and persecuted – the 50s and 60s are thus still labelled as the period of “white terror”.

As the propagated recovering of the mainland proved ever unlikelier with time progressing and the regime in Beijing gaining in power and legitimacy, acculturation of the island of Taiwan to KMT- and Sino-standards became a more immediate focus.

Political Development

However, political participation was possible at the local and provincial levels (according to Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People) since the 1950s, offering opportunities also for regime-critical politicians. What is further, politicians were obliged to cooperate with the local factions to keep the political system functioning.

A particularly precarious situation Taiwan faced in the 1970s; 1971 the Republic had to hand its UN seat over to the People’s Republic of China, meanwhile the United States normalised their bilateral relations with China and cut official diplomatic ties with the Republic.

The KMT-leadership responded with domestic reforms initiated by Chiang Kai-shek’s son Jiang Jingguo, fighting corruption among the elites and enhancing the “Taiwaneseness” of the party. Lee Teng-hui finally became the first Taiwan-born president of the Republic in 1988.

These reforms also encouraged the organisation of regime critics as “outside of the party” 黨外 who demonstrated for further political reforms and Taiwanese independence. International pressure urged KMT hardliners to give in and engage in negotiations with the opposition that in turn formed a political party (Democratic Progressive Party民進黨 ) in 1986.

Together with the end of martial law in July 1987, this marks the democratisation of Taiwanese politics. The KMT now spear-headed the reform movement, thus staying in power.

The first direct presidential elections were held in March 1996, and won by Lee Teng-hui with 54% of the popular vote. Under Lee, the KMT fractioned in a moderate pro-Taiwan independence stand and one subscribing to the reunification dogma. This dispute was never fully settled and exercises its impact still today, making the KMT’s opinion towards the Taiwan issue a rather blurry one.

The DPP stand, on the other hand, is pretty clear (although the party itself is not less fractioned than the KMT): it strives for full independence and application at the UN under the name of Taiwan. President Chen Shui-bien has therefore repeatedly promised public referenda at the end of each of his legislatures, the first of which did not pass, the second being held in March this year.

Today, the independence issue is highly controversial and ideologically burdened. It is being politically instrumentalised and discredited by other political affairs like the corruption affair centered at Chen Shui-bien’s family.

It is my fear that none of the referenda in March will pass, because the front lines between KMT and DPP and their supporters, respectively, have hardened so much. Many of the Taiwanese won’t support the DPP referendum because of President Chen’s corruption scandal and his populist methods. Still a lot are afraid China might start a military attack over a successful vote, despite this being more than unlikely.

However, the Taiwanese speaking up for themselves is crucial to the continued existence of their democracy because no one else will, I am afraid.

More about this in the next post.


Michael Turton said...


I didn't get a chance to collect it today, but hopefully I can tomorrow.


Jacob Tischer said...

Thank you, Michael!

I only try to implement as much "heart blood" as possible, as we say in Germany. Other than that, I don't think there is anything special in my posting. If I can influence the way my readers think to some extent, that would already be my reward.