The myth of the big happy family

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Tue, Jun 19, 2007 - Page 8

Much in the debate about increasing commercial activity between Taiwan and China has been argued from the standpoint of the business sector in Taiwan, which has the not unreasonable objective of improving the economy.

Little has been said, however, about the impact that Taiwanese companies venturing into China has had on Taiwanese security and identity. Only when one turns to personal histories — the testimonies of Taiwanese businesspeople who operate in China — can a full understanding of the ramifications be reached.

This knowledge, furthermore, can help shed some light on what further economic engagement would entail for the survival of Taiwan as a nation.

The story begins with a Taiwanese businessman who, for his protection and that of his family, shall remain unnamed. This man has been operating a manufacturing operation in China for a number of years, where he spends the majority of his time, away from his family here in Taiwan. This author had a chance recently to hear first-hand of his experiences in China, revelations that cast the China-Taiwan relationship into a whole new light.

One of this businessman's first experiences — that of the Chinese media — offers interesting insights into Beijing's relentless propagandistic attacks on Taiwan. Systematically, retired officers of the Republic of China military who, for one reason or another, have chosen to relocate to China, are upon their arrival requested to make an official "surrender" and oftentimes asked, during interviews, to list the ills of the country they left behind and state how "backward" it is, testimonies that are then broadcast across China. (It is no small irony that Taiwan nevertheless continues to pay pensions to these individuals.) Some Chinese even say, perhaps tongue in cheek, that former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰), who visited China on two occasions in recent years, has "surrendered twice."

Beyond the propaganda, however, lies China's intelligence collection efforts, to which retired military officials as well as businesspeople are subjected. In fact, the unidentified source has, on a number of occasions, been asked by Chinese authorities to confirm his address in Taiwan, as well as the name of his spouse and children, among other pieces of information. It is not inconceivable that under more belligerent circumstances, this information could be used to threaten him and his family or perhaps even to compel him to act against the interests of his country.

Put differently, the above shows that Beijing's aggressive stance on Taiwan goes well beyond the modernization of its military or the deployment of nearly 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan. It extends into the business sector, whereby Taiwanese entrepreneurs are tapped as a means of collecting intelligence on Taiwan.

Aside from the exploitation of Taiwanese for propaganda and intelligence purposes, however, lies the insidious attack on Taiwanese identity, something that in the long run could prove equally damaging to Taiwan. Here again, the source's personal story cannot but make one pause.

As it turns out, Chinese authorities have been discriminating against Taiwanese entrepreneurs and will often resort to blackmail or extortion. On a number of occasions, the source was informed that "problems" had been found with his business documents, zoning, labor and a slew of other issues, only to be told that if he paid them something akin to protection money, the officials would be willing to look the other way.

Interestingly, only Taiwanese entrepreneurs are subject to this treatment by local officials -- so much so, in fact, that our source, who happens to be half-Japanese, has now adopted the strategy of identifying himself as Japanese and speaking Japanese whenever he is in public. This ploy has borne fruit and all his problems with the authorities have disappeared. It is therefore better for this businessman -- and likely many others like him -- to be perceived as someone to be feared, or loathed, given the painful history of Sino-Japanese relations, than to be himself and celebrate his identity as a Taiwanese.

China says it welcomes Taiwanese business and in fact gains from the heavy investments Taiwanese companies have made there. Unfortunately, it also expresses its appreciation by sucking more money out of Taiwanese.

This man's brush with discrimination is reminiscent of that experienced by Hu Taiming, the protagonist in Wu Zhuoliu's novel Orphan of Asia (or Ko Ta-mei, its original title in Japanese) which has often been described as one of the defining works of Taiwanese identity.

From his studies in Japan to his hopes of building a successful life in China, Taiming runs into problems for refusing to mask his identity as a Taiwanese. He is ostracized, discriminated against, spied on and expelled. Set in the period prior to and during World War II, Wu's novel finds its echo today in the treatment reserved for Taiwanese businesspeople operating in China.

More than this, however, it demonstrates that irrespective of the direction the Taiwan Strait conflict goes, Taiwanese will continue to be discriminated against for being who they are. As such, whether the Democratic Progressive Party remains in power or is succeeded by the KMT, this dynamic is unlikely to change.

In light of the above, it would appear that Taiwanese who have pinned their hopes of a brighter future on further business engagement with China are investing in an illusion. For despite Beijing's oft-used reference to Taiwanese as their "cousins," the latter will never be fully accepted as members of the so-called family, no matter how much business they do together.

Taiwanese are who they are, a product of their history and geography. No one has a right to treat them in such a way as to make them feel they need to conceal their identity to be accepted, or to do business.

It is with head held high and in full cognizance of the cold realities lived by the above source and countless others that Taiwanese should venture into the world and make a place for themselves. Never as impersonators or in mockery of their true selves.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.