Although Taiwan continues to enjoy the benefits of its hard-won democracy, that freedom does not exempt it from continued spurious claims, fabrications and sometimes outright lies from both within and without. Certainly, one such fabrication or outright lie depending on one’s perspective, is the recently deceased canard of the so-called “1992 consensus.”
Most would remember how this claim had been constantly promoted for eight years by former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as the true basis of cross strait relations, despite former Mainland Affairs Council minister Su Chi (蘇起) having admitted that he invented it in 2000, and former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) flatly denying any consensus was reached during his term in office.
However, the final nail in the coffin eventually came from American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Raymond Burghardt, who recently confirmed Lee’s claim that the term never existed in the 1990s.
This final denial of course does not mean that Ma or others have altogether given up trying to find a way to resurrect the term “1992 consensus” from the dead; in support of Ma is China, which has now realized that it that it can be used to support some of its own national canards, particularly that of its “one China” principle.
Such conflicting claims and canards are the reality that Taiwanese face on a daily basis. Even though they strongly rejected Ma’s ideas in last January’s presidential and legislative elections, that does not mean that Taiwan will now be canard-free. The opposite is the case and as a result, Taiwanese must be alert and constantly deconstruct the discourse that comes from China.
For example, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently celebrated the party’s 95th birthday, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took advantage of the occasion to trot out many traditional memes. He started with the admirable, but distracting message of his efforts to root out corruption in China.
To root out corruption is a task that has always proved to be near impossible in any one-party state, especially when it does not allow transparency or a free media to examine, question or challenge the natural sense of hierarchical privilege embedded in such states.
Xi’s enticing anti-corruption message was of course quickly followed by more serious and dangerous messages for Taiwan. Those messages included the canard that there is only one China and that the 1.3 billion Chinese would never let Taiwanese “splittists” be free, even though the People’s Republic of China flag has, ironically, never flown over Taiwan.
Fortunately for Taiwanese, they have the benefit of a free media and many know their history, thus they can immediately begin to deconstruct Xi’s words.
When Xi started to lay claim to what China’s 1.3 billion people were thinking, Taiwanese were already conscious of how Hong Kongers not only envy Taiwan’s independence and freedom, but have continued protesting over the CCP’s broken promises encompassed in “one country-two systems,” as well as their own lost freedoms. Some Hong Kongers even put salt in the PRC’s wounded ego by saying they would rather return to Britain.
Taiwanese were further conscious of how, while the Chinese media black out such news, they could read of the dissent in Tibet, the dissent among the Uighurs, the persecution of the Falun Gong and others, all of which added up to a people who are struggling for their own lost rights and not a people who wanted Taiwan to join them in their bondage.
Xi’s and the politburo’s efforts to justify the CCP’s desire to control Taiwan highlighted its similar actions in the South China Sea, where China wishes to dominate its neighbors. Here a different canard of justification has been invoked, one that Taiwanese again could easily see through, although some Westerners might not.
China invoked the canard of the “century of humiliation” that had been inflicted on the Qing Dynasty by the West.
A double deconstruction was needed to both see how the Manchu empire was still called China and how that equated with a historic Han chauvinism that Taiwanese do not share.
The background of the humiliation is complex; it started with the Ming Dynasty breaking free of the control of the larger Mongol empire of which the Yuan Dynasty was a part. The Han naturally held less territory than the previous Mongol empire. Nonetheless, the Han held these borders until the Manchus overran them. The Manchus expanded their kingdom to take in Ming China, as well as Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and even part of Taiwan.
During this time, Han Chinese felt the humiliation of both Manchu rule and having to wear the Manchu queue. Their constant cry was “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming.” Unfortunately, Han were unable to do that for two-and-a-half centuries while they later watched the Western world “humiliate” the Manchu empire by forcing trade concessions for outsiders. Finally Han overthrew Manchu rule and started their warlord period and civil war, from which the CCP emerged victorious over the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Humiliation depends on who wears the boot. For Tibetans, after they were free of Manchus, the KMT demanded their subjugation under “one China.” However, Tibet’s century of humiliation began in earnest in 1950 when Han, under the CCP, overran it and drove the 14th Dalai Llama into exile. Tibet’s humiliation continues, while the CCP, in the name of China, suppresses Tibetan culture and insists on making its religion subordinate to the Chinese state.
Extreme Han Chinese chauvinists long to return to their halcyon days when China was called the Middle Kingdom and demanded tribute from neighboring states. Tributary payment is a euphemism for the humiliations of the neighboring states, something worse than Western powers demanding trade access to the Manchu empire, the land that some call China. Even today, in its dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea, the PRC refuses to recognize the arbitration of an international court, but says it would settle the matter privately with the weaker Philippines.
So where is Taiwan in all this? Taiwan’s path to its democracy has had its own share of humiliation as its people, indigenous or otherwise, have constantly been colonized by one power or another. First there were the Dutch and Spanish, then the fleeing Ming loyalists, and then the pursuing Manchus. Finally, the expanding Japanese followed and became the first to colonize and unite the nation. They were followed by the fleeing KMT from whom Taiwanese finally won their democracy.
As canards continue to fly over Taiwan, the obvious question is why Taiwanese would now want to surrender that freedom and submit to the humiliation of the paternalistic one-party state dominance of the CCP with its impossible-to-remove embedded corruption. Only the die-hard KMT members are willing to switch their freedoms for the “one China” suggested by the Han chauvinism of the CCP.
Taiwanese increasingly see themselves as Taiwanese and say that “one China” is not our history; it is that of our neighbors.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.
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