Taiwan is an island nation that after a long struggle with a variety of colonial masters has achieved and enjoys democracy. Unfortunately, across the Taiwan Strait is a different nation, China, which covets Taiwan’s territory and sovereignty. Since the average Westerner may not always be aware of Taiwan’s complex history and struggle for democracy, some background is in order. This is especially true if a Westerner might hear, accept or believe erroneous ideas like “Taiwan has always been a part of China” or “Taiwan has been a part of China since time immemorial.”
So where does one start to deconstruct such falsehoods? Begin, ironically, with Taiwan’s bigger neighbor across the Strait. How does China’s ruling Politburo seek to legitimize its current rule and all-encompassing identity while at the same time seeking to extend China’s borders?
First, China traditionally suffers from mixed metaphors; its rulers have always attempted to legitimize their rule by claiming that they alone deserve the mantle to rule a mythic Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. There is nothing extraordinary about this; it is a common and symbolic tactic that rulers of various nations and promoters of cultures have pursued to celebrate and justify such beliefs and identity.
They are claiming what Mircea Eiade calls the “cosmogonic value of the Center.”
Troubles arise for China’s current rulers with such claims in that while they pursue this end they also suffer from a different metaphor. They fear that other nations are perceived enemies that are always trying to encircle them. How this conflict of mixed metaphors developed will be explained later in more detail. For now, suffice to say that China’s problem is that it wants to claim a world where it is the center and other nations are simply satellites on its borders. However, the claiming of this central position and reputation brings the inevitable fear and complaint that other nations refuse to be satellites; instead they persist in trying to encircle China.
Another and separate expression that one hears mouthed by China’s leaders is one that aims to excuse and explain away misdeeds and ill-treatment of citizens by claiming that their rule is different, unique.
They are different and therefore will never be understood by outsiders because they exercise socialism “with Chinese characteristics” or capitalism “with Chinese characteristics.”
You will never understand them because they are, well, different and unique. Nonetheless, one way to cut through such uniquely opaque claims is to examine how easily other nations could make similar claims. Japan is a democracy with Japanese characteristics whereas South Korea is a democracy with Korean characteristics and Taiwan, of course, is a democracy with Taiwanese characteristics. Outsiders will never understand them.
In China’s case, this claim becomes clearer if one phrases it by borrowing from George Orwell: China is “Animal Farm, but with Chinese characteristics.” For though Animal Farm was written with former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Russia in mind, this allegorical tale has a similar easy application to China. In “Animal Farm with Chinese characteristics,” substitute Mao Tse-tung (毛澤東) for Napoleon, Squealer for the state news agency etc; for the expression “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” substitute all Chinese are considered equal, but some (the Han) are more equal than others (Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and other minorities).