China’s leaders are fond of saying that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China; sacred territory that cannot be separated from China.” This idea suffers from two fundamental flaws:
First, what exactly do they mean by inalienable? Territory changes hands. One of the main reasons this might happen is war, and territories have shifted in the periods of considerable chaos and carnage that have accompanied every dynastic change in Chinese history. The borders and territories claimed by the Qin, Han, Tang and Song dynasties were all different. So, when Chinese leaders talk about China’s inalienable territory, which dynasty exactly are they modeling this on? If you can claim a territory to be an inalienable part of your country purely on the basis of previous ownership, does that mean that Britain is justified in saying the US is an inalienable part of British territory, or that Russia could claim the same for Alaska? If that were true, anarchy would reign in the world.
Also, why would China stop with Taiwan? It could, of course, also apply the same principle to claim Vietnam and substantial swathes of Europe as its own. That really would set the cat among the pigeons. China has taken other countries’ territory as spoils of war when it has defeated them, but seems to be saying that it will not cede its own territory to sue for peace when it has been the losing party. To say that any territory is “sacred territory that cannot be separated from China” betrays either a poor knowledge of Chinese history or a willingness to lie through one’s teeth.
Second, Taiwan officially became part of Chinese territory on April 14, 1684, in the 23rd year of the reign of the Qing emperor Kangxi (康熙). Then, 211 years later, almost to the day, it was ceded, together with the Penghu Islands, to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed on April 17, 1895.
When the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Taiwan was still part of Japanese territory, and so the ROC could not make any protestations to the effect that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China’s territory. With the end of World War II in 1945, the Allies set about dividing up the spoils, and on Oct. 25 of that year Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) sent a contingent to Taiwan to take over the administration of the island on the back of the Cairo Declaration, a document that was neither a treaty, nor an executive agreement, and which was not actually signed by anyone.
In 1949, a defeated Chiang fled with his forces to Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had defeated the ROC, took control of China. The PRC has never, not for one day, had control of Taiwan since that point in time. On Feb. 1, 1955, then-British prime minister Winston Churchill told the British parliament in no uncertain terms that he refused to hand Taiwan to Communist China, dashing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hopes of gaining the island.
China boasts a 5,000-year-long history, and yet it only had control of Taiwan for a relatively trifling 211 years of that time. It is hard to substantiate the claim that Taiwan’s being an inalienable part of China, as part of its sacred territory, is a historical fact.
Since Taiwan does not belong to China, and given that a nation needs to have a population, territory, a government and sovereignty to be considered a country, is it possible to call Taiwan a country? This is not an easy question to answer. Although more than half of the 23 million people who live on the island see themselves as Taiwanese, anywhere between 4 and 5 percent define themselves as Chinese, and many consider themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese.
As far as territory is concerned, there are those who say that the ROC owns Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu, those who would add China to this and there are still others who would also include Mongolia. There are, then, several versions of Taiwan, depending on both national identification and sovereign territory. In what way is Taiwan to ask the international community to accept its existence and give it the status of a country?
The main culprits for Taiwan’s predicament, and the confusion over its status today, are Chiang and his son and successor, former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). The despotic rule of the island over which they presided consigned democracy in Taiwan to being hackled for four decades. Taiwanese were forced to remain silent through the Martial Law era and the White Terror, stifling language and history and taking away the population’s ability to form its own sense of right and wrong, its own sense of morality, its own values and its own sense of justice, to the extent that people no longer had the ability to turn the situation around. Even more tragic is that Taiwan has still not been able to establish itself as a country.
Given this, the US itself is also complicit in Taiwan’s plight, because of the support it consistently gave the two Chiangs. As such, it shoulders some of the moral responsibility. Ever since World War II, the US, that great bastion of global democracy, sat back and watched while Chiang and his son wreaked havoc on Taiwan, to the detriment of Taiwanese. The cumulative effect is worse than the damage done by dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. For this alone, the US owes Taiwan fairness and justice, it owes Taiwanese assistance, it owes Taiwanese the right to self-determination.
Taiwan belongs to Taiwanese, not any other country. It certainly does not belong to China. If the 23 million people living on the island want to be Chinese, that does not mean they have to live in a world in which they are forced to forsake Taiwan and commit to China before they can be accepted as such. Taiwanese are an island people, they do not care how small Taiwan is, and they certainly do not harbor any ambition to grab territory from other countries.
Taiwan has been known for many years for its foreign exchange reserves and for having virtually eradicated illiteracy among its population, and yet it has not been able to wrest independence for itself in the post-war period.
Next time the opportunity to do so arises, it will not make the same mistake.
Today, even the South Pacific states of the Kingdom of Tonga and the Republic of Nauru are independent. Nobody is asking what Tonga or Nauru are? Yet 23 million Taiwanese are still asking themselves: What is Taiwan? Is this not the tragedy of being born Taiwanese?
Chang Kuo-tsai is a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors and a retired associate professor of National Hsinchu University of Education.
Translated by Paul Cooper