Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) recently launched a charm offensive to woo Taiwan, talking about his “Taiwanese brothers,” while a complacent President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has taken to discussing the “greater” and “lesser” sides of the Taiwan Strait. Both of these approaches show a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the modern state.
Wen is not the first to talk about brothers. In 1982, Liao Chengzhi (廖承志), a former head of the Xinhua news agency, called then-Taiwanese president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) “brother” when referring to past cooperation between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Kenjohn Wang (王桂榮), a former president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, once told former Chinese president Yang Shangkun (楊尚昆) that Taiwan and China were like two brothers who had moved away from home and started their own families. Sometimes they would meet and feel close to each other, but if they lived together under the same roof, their wives would quarrel.
When Wen uses the word “brother” in this context, the irony stinks to high heaven. On May 19, 1989, Wen joined then premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) on his famous visit to Tiananmen Square to try to persuade the students to leave. These “children of the revolution” were soon after slaughtered by People’s Liberation Army tanks and Zhao was disgraced, while Wen not only survived but continued to prosper on his way to becoming premier.
Wen’s talk about brotherhood has nothing to do with the brotherhood between countries. When in the past the KMT talked about the Republic of China (ROC) and South Korea as “two brotherly countries,” did South Korean academics start to discuss who was the elder and who the younger brother?
The old KMT also had its own “brother theory.” Since the ROC saw the light of day before the People’s Republic of China, the ROC was of course the elder brother and Beijing the younger. By confusing “state” with “government,” the KMT displayed a singular failure to understand that the younger brother had displaced the big brother.
Ma loves to show off his erudition and often brings up such ancient teachings as Mencius’ talk about “the greater serving the lesser” and “the lesser serving the greater.” In terms of big and small, Taiwan is certainly China’s little brother. However, this also involves leaving out parts of the original quote and throwing such phrases around without actually understanding what they mean or how they should be applied. When the old philosophers discussed the philosophical implications of the greater and the lesser thousands of years ago, there were no modern states, no international law and no UN Charter. “Greater” and “lesser” referred to the relationship between more or less powerful kings and their individual benevolence and methods of governance.
A discussion about “greater” and “lesser” in this context refers to greater and lesser countries, but the principle of sovereignty on which much international law is based states that the world is not divided into greater and lesser countries. Key importance is instead given to equality and sovereignty, and one country is not allowed to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. Talking about how “the greater” and “the lesser” should get along instead of talking about countries and the modern state is more akin to a discussion about rules in the underworld.
If you don’t call things by their proper name, nothing you say will make any sense. If one talks about elder and younger brothers instead of countries or discusses “the greater” and “the lesser” instead of states, one inevitably comes to the wrong conclusions.
James Wang is a journalist based in Washington.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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