Great nations try to inculcate their populations with a sense of national unity for a reason: A country divided cannot survive. It’s like having a mental illness, with the mind split between two polarities, but never resting on a solid surface. The back-and-forth seesaw of politics in a country that lacks national unity leaves people disoriented and not knowing what to believe in.
This leaves them vulnerable to all manner of problems. In the worst-case-scenario, a country that lacks national unity could see civil war, as happened in the US in the 1860s. It could also result in a breakup of the country, as happened in Sudan after years of brutal violence. Absorption is another distinct possibility. When the Kingdom of Israel faced annexation by the Assyrian Empire in about 730BC, its leaders were split down party lines as to what was the best move — some favored accommodation and others favored resistance. In the end, they could never agree and the kingdom’s populace were bred out of existence, becoming the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
Taiwan, too, faces such a scenario. The country’s politicians are divided right down the middle, with half buying into the principle of Taiwan first, while the other half still thinks of Taiwan as just another province of a divided China. The division is intractable. Those who hold Taiwan dear naturally harbor hopes for independence, while those who still believe in “one China” hold to the defunct and outdated Republic of China (ROC) Constitution. One side sees Japan as a model, with fond memories of Tokyo’s rule over Taiwan as an example of benevolent colonialism. The other side sees Japan as evil conquerers and sides with China, despite Beijing’s repressive policies.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has stepped on the accelerator of Taiwan’s political roller coaster, returning to the bygone days of ROC fiction after eight years of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Chen steered the country down the path of independence, with pragmatic changes to school textbooks that placed Taiwan firmly in a category of its own, while talking about China as China — a separate country. As soon as Ma took the reins of power, he U-turned the country back into the state of civil war with China that existed for decades. Instead of Taiwan and China, it again became Taiwan and “the mainland.”
The so-called “1992 consensus,” a fictitious agreement that both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree on the principle of “one China,” with each having its own interpretation, is the guiding policy of Ma’s backward-looking government. That is a polar opposite to former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) special state-to-state model of cross-strait relations.
Back and forth Taiwan goes, away from China, or toward China, depending on the political winds of the moment. China is in the ascendancy now and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has control of the ROC, but how long this lasts cannot be certain. The direction could easily be reversed yet again, like a switch back on the Beiyi Road from Taipei to Yilan, if the Democratic Progressive Party were to win the presidency.
One thing is certain, however: As long as this roller coaster keeps twisting and turning, nobody will pay close enough attention to China breathing down Taiwan’s neck. And when Beijing does finally make its definitive move, it will be far too late for Taipei to do anything about it.