Thu, Jan 06, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Newswires don't tell the full story

By Gerrit van der Wees

The international newswires generally present the facts as they happen. They pick out the essential news items, describe them in a brief and easy-to-read text, and send them out into the world.

However, every once in a while there is a text that is repeated so often by the newswires that the general public starts to accept it as a "fact," whether it is fiction or not.

There is a sentence that reappears in virtually every single article by AP, AFP or Reuters about Taiwan and China, which seems to be accepted as a "fact" these days. The sentence generally goes as follows: "Taiwan split away from China in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War. Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory, to be reunited by force, if necessary."

This sentence conjures up the image that, in the mid-1940s, Taiwan was somehow part of China, and that it left the fold. In this picture, it makes it sound right and reasonable for China to "want it back."

The reality is a bit more complex: In 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan in perpetuity, and through 1945 it was a Japanese colony. The history before 1895 was even more complex, but suffice it to say that the Chinese emperors never gave Taiwan a thought, and hardly ever had any administrative control over it until 1887, when the Manchus briefly made it a Chinese province, which it was for a mere eight years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were battling each other in China, and neither cared much about Taiwan, which was under Japanese control. Records show that the CCP, the predecessors of the present authorities in Beijing, supported Taiwan's independence from Japan. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) even said so himself, to American author Edgar Snow.

The picture started to change in 1942-1943, during the run-up to the Cairo Conference, when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) claimed that Taiwan should be "returned" to his Nationalist regime headquartered in Nanking. Not to be outdone, the CCP began claiming that it should be returned to them.

After the end of the war and the capitulation of Japan, the commander of the Allied forces, General Douglas MacArthur, authorized a temporary occupation of Taiwan by the KMT.

In the meantime, the civil war in China erupted again, in 1949. Chiang and his government and remaining troops had to flee to Taiwan, and the occupation was not so temporary anymore. The facts show that Taiwan did not "split off" from China, but was occupied by the losing side of the Chinese Civil War -- an essential difference.

It is also essential to point out that Taiwan was never -- even for one day -- in its history a part of the People's Republic of China. It is thus fallacious to say that it somehow should be "reunified" with China.

It is of course common knowledge that the KMT authorities during their 40 odd years of martial law pursued the "unification" of China under their rule, but as the decades passed, this became less feasible or realistic. Unfortunately, from an international perspective, their pursuit became synonymous with "Taiwan," but the difference is essential.

After the Taiwanese people brought about their momentous transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rest of the world should have adjusted its policy towards the nation. The old and anachronistic "one China" policy was devised in response to a situation in which two governments, the KMT and the CCP, each claimed to represent China.

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