Aside from the business and geopolitical imperatives that stem from the international community’s desire to interact with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), another reason why Taiwan remains in political isolation is that its history and domestic conditions are misunderstood, not only globally, but also in China and by many of the foreign correspondents who cover Taiwan.
Routine references to Taiwan and China “splitting” after the Chinese civil war, for example, or the mention that Taiwan and China have been ruled separately for “more than six decades,” are not only misleading — they are wrong. Beyond failing to get the facts right (disunited entities cannot split, and Taiwan was ruled separately for at least 11 decades, counting Japanese rule), these facile insertions tend to reinforce the view that Taiwan and China are one and the same — or rather, that one ought to be subsumed into the other.
These generalizations also fail to take into account the political fabric of Taiwanese society, which rather than being the monolith it is often portrayed as (a mistake that has equal implications when it comes to coverage of China), is far more complex and diversified.
Ironically, the external view of Taiwanese politics tends to attribute to the 23 million people in Taiwan the position of a tiny minority on the island. This has been the true since Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces fled to Taiwan after their defeat by the communists in 1949. Soon afterwards, this government-in-exile imposed itself on Taiwanese and arrogated upon itself the right to rule the 7.39 million people who lived in Taiwan at the time, 1.37 million, or 18.55 percent, of whom were refugees from China.
When Chiang and the KMT, from 1949 until that dream collapsed as a result of its own stupidity, threatened to retake the “mainland,” the rest of the world assumed they were speaking for Taiwan as a whole, failing to realize that those aspirations were only felt by, at most, one-fifth of the population (and probably less, as mainlanders intermarried, built new lives for themselves and no longer wanted anything to do with the Chinese Civil War).
During the final years of president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and the 12 years president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was in power, the KMT also underwent a transformation that saw it become more localized, progress that culminated in Lee’s formulation of the Two-State Theory. Not only did this move Taiwan toward consolidation as an independent state, but of equal importance, it also departed from the prevailing KMT view that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the PRC were illegitimate and that the KMT’s Republic of China (ROC) was the one and only China. By doing so, the KMT came closer to reflecting the views of ordinary Taiwanese, who, though they disliked the authoritarianism they saw in China and felt threatened by the CCP’s ambitions to “liberate” Taiwan, did not deny the existence of their neighbor as a sovereign state in its own right.
This process was taken even further under the eight years of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) presidency, during which time Taiwanese identity was not only celebrated, but also reinforced. Chen’s policies on Taiwanese identity and his “one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait” were also based on recognition of the PRC and the CCP as legitimate political entities, which again dovetailed with the majority consensus among Taiwanese.
One by-product of China’s closed political system and state control of the media is that the sense of Taiwanese nationhood that always existed remained largely unknown to ordinary Chinese, who were fed propaganda that defined Taiwan as a lethal enemy seeking to undermine all that was good in the PRC.
By failing to look at the nuances of history and politics, foreign media coverage of Taiwan commits the same sin — a worse one, given their access is better than that of even the most well-intentioned Chinese. That is why some outlets find it easy to portray the Democratic Progressive Party as “anti-China,” which it isn’t. It is pro-Taiwan, as are the great majority of Taiwanese.
“Anti-China” would imply the negation of China as a political entity, which, but for a few “extremists,” is an altogether discredited idea in Taiwan. It is no small irony that Westerners who have lived in China for a while also believe that Taiwan and Taiwanese do not recognize the PRC and the CCP.
Sadly, under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) the KMT has resurrected the idea that there is only one China — the ROC — and that its sole legitimate ruler is the KMT. Such comments, which receive far more airtime in China and abroad than do those who disagree with them, are an attempt to turn back the clock and could reinforce the view in China that Taiwan is, indeed, “anti-China.”
However, this could not be further from the truth. Not only does Ma’s contention highlight that the faction within the KMT that had localized and adapted to modern realities under CCK and Lee has been sidelined, but it further contrasts the views of ordinary Taiwanese with the increasingly small minority of people in Taiwan who identify as Chinese rather than Taiwanese.
Unless the KMT manages to socially re-engineer Taiwanese society — and there are signs it is trying to do so via reforms in education — those increasingly diverging views can only spell trouble for the KMT in future elections. It could save itself if the faction that is more grounded in Taiwanese reality gets the upper hand within the party.
Despite the political rhetoric of the Ma administration, Taiwanese have absolutely no claim over China, nor do they seek to threaten it, militarily or politically. Simultaneously, ordinary Chinese and the CCP should acknowledge that people in Taiwan increasingly identify as Taiwanese and that support for immediate unification continues to drop (now as low as 5 percent, from 9 percent in 2000, by some accounts) while that for the “status quo” and/or immediate Taiwanese independence (now at 16 percent, from 12 percent a decade ago) is steadily rising.
With their political blinders still on, it is no wonder that Chinese and international media are failing to see the trouble that lies ahead in the Taiwan Strait, when Ma’s “peace” and Beijing’s ambitions of unification collide with the very different (and conveniently ignored) realities of domestic politics in Taiwan.
The so-called “warming ties” are party-to-party, not state-to-state or between two peoples, and should be characterized as such. These are realities that every responsible international media outlet should seek to reflect in its reporting, both for sake of accuracy and out of respect for the 23 million people who, to this day, remain misunderstood.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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