Former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) recent remarks in favor of peaceful exchanges with China have led to media speculation about a political shift and how this would affect the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The fact is Lee’s statement — “you are you and I am me, but you and I are friends, and we must also distinguish between ourselves” — is not new, neither for Lee nor for the DPP.
The National Unification Guidelines (國家統一綱領), formulated under Lee’s presidency and adopted in 1991, laid out a framework for exchanges between Taiwan and China while putting unification off to some time in the distant future. They called for “not endangering each other’s security and stability while in the midst of exchanges and not denying the other’s existence as a political entity while in the midst of effecting reciprocity.”
The DPP adopted this approach in its 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future (台灣前途決議文). The resolution asserted that Taiwan is already “a sovereign and independent country … named the Republic of China under its current Constitution.” On relations with China, the resolution stressed the theme of peaceful reconciliation and non-belligerence, asserting that “based on historical and cultural origins, and for the sake of geopolitical and regional stability and economic interests, both sides should work together toward a future of co-existence, co-prosperity, mutual trust and mutual benefits.”
The strategic reasoning behind both Lee’s remark and the DPP resolution was that, while China would not allow Taiwan to declare independence, it could do nothing to prevent Taiwan from maintaining the status quo and resisting unification. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who succeeded Lee as president, admitted that Taiwan could not change its national title to the Republic of Taiwan, saying: “I can’t fool myself and I can’t fool others — what can’t be done can’t be done.”
This might change, however, if Taiwan’s de facto independent status can be maintained long enough because of two reasons. First, the rise of capitalism in China may bring about other changes, and China may give up its insistence on unification. And second, the development of a distinctive, independent Taiwanese identity could reach a point where it becomes an irreversible trend.
Independence advocates worry that trade and economic links with China will blur the dividing line between the two sides. Beijing thinks that strengthening business links can foster the feeling among people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait that they all belong to one big family. In reality, however, increasing exchanges have produced the opposite result. After all, national identity only comes to the fore through interaction with other nations. If China had not interacted with the West in the 19th century, there would be no Chinese nationalism in its modern form. The same principle applies to cross-strait relations: The more interaction there is, the more Taiwanese are made aware that they are not Chinese, and the more they identify with Taiwan.
Several surveys show that Taiwanese businesspeople working in China do not necessarily become more pro-Chinese. Similarly, many Taiwan residents born in China realize only after going back to China to visit that they have become Taiwanese. Even students at schools for children of Taiwanese in China who have grown up there insist that they are Taiwanese and frequently stress the difference between them and the local people.