The visit of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) has come and gone and it drew its share of attention.
It was the first visit of someone at his level in cross-strait affairs and a step above the previous visits of former Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林).
Visits of the aforementioned lower-ranked, slick-haired and dark-suited Chen, replete with large fawning entourage, had come off more as pompous wine-and-dine affairs.
As such, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) played the role of ingratiating hosts aiming to continue the impression that future cross-strait discussions belonged more realistically on a party-to-party basis. No, Zhang’s visit was different.
For one thing, Zhang, in contrast, played things low-key. Dressed in smart, casual style with open shirt and no tie, Zhang relayed that his purpose was to meet the average Taiwanese and not just, shall we say, “toadying the KMT.”
Though not too successful in this goal, he did, to his credit, leave Taiwan’s “blue north” to venture far down south to greener pastures where he met with Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) of the Democratic Progressive Party. Protests of course followed.
One cannot expect to be treated as a guest if one arrives in Taiwan, as Zhang did, after his organization had declared that China’s 1.3 billion people own the home and could foreclose on the rental agreement whenever they choose.
Still, all in all, things went relatively well. Zhang did, perhaps, get to experience a little more of the common people than he expected. There were some scuffles; a car got splattered with paint; a few appearances had to be canceled, but the trip could not be considered a disaster. Zhang was not dictatorial; he even graciously, if not condescendingly, stated that he recognized that Taiwan was a pluralistic society with diverse views.
However, near the end of his visit he unfortunately made an unexpected and revealing faux pas. He admitted that when at Fo Guang Shan Monastery, he made the wish that Taiwan and China would join together to revive the spirit of Zhonghua minzu (中華民族).
That revelatory statement regrettably exposed his true colors and promises to create additional future problems as what he said soaks in. For not only do many in Taiwan feel that they celebrate their own Taiwanese minzu in contrast to any revived sense of Zhonghua minzu, but Zhang’s message is the same message and goal that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), or “9 percent Ma,” had been trying to force down Taiwan’s throat all during his presidency.
There is more. In timely fashion, Zhang’s statement highlighted that this is a problem that not only Taiwanese face, but one which even Hong Kongers are beginning to fully realize.
The unifying sense of minzu speaks to more than a vague ethnicity; it cannot escape being tied to history. Here therefore is the rub, for Hong Kong’s history, just like that of Taiwan, is different from that of China.
That Zhang and Ma have wanted to gloss over and blanket with this phrase is a crucial part of China’s past. In 20th-century China, it was the wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) who first intended to revitalize this “sense of national minzu” that belonged to and had been developed under the Manchu Qing.
For the Manchu, Zhonghua minzu was their means of justifying the multiple and diverse ethnic groups they controlled. There was nothing in their viewpoint that sanctioned that the more numerous Han would be the ruling and dominant group. The Han had to fit in under Manchu rule just like the Tibetans, Mongols, etc.
The revolution of 1911 realistically ended in an abortive standoff, and the only way to get Yuan and his powerful Beiyang army to join the others in ousting the Manchus was with conditions. The main condition was that he and not Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) would be president of this supposedly new republic. That was in 1912 and Yuan realized he had to use the claim of Zhonghua minzu if he wanted to control all.
Ironically, and again what is often unsaid is that the ever vagrant KMT tried a “second revolution” against Yuan and they were soundly trounced, forcing Sun to flee to Japan.
At that time (1912), Taiwan was already 17 years into its history with Japan. In its ongoing minzu development of overcoming colonials, it would add 50 years of Japanese colonization and then suffer 40-plus years of Martial Law and White Terror as the KMT again fled China.
In Taiwan’s history and development of its minzu, Taiwan would struggle for and achieve its democracy, which it now enjoys. Therefore, for Taiwanese, Zhonghua minzu has no meaning. Even back when half of the nation had been under Manchu rule, that canard never soaked in. Now of course it all the more means nothing to democratic Taiwanese, just as it means nothing to democratic Mongolians.
Hong Kong has had its own and different, but related experience. It left the Manchu empire circa 1842 when it fell under British rule. Hong Kongers could then watch the abortive 1911 revolution as well as China’s warlord and civil-war developments. It even had a brief moment under Japanese rule before it returned to Britain.
After that, again from the sidelines, Hong Kong watched and accepted all sorts of refugees from China’s civil war.
While it witnessed China’s horrid Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong prospered. Its most recent changing moment came in 1997, when it returned not to the Manchus, but to a mythical gracious motherland with the promise of democracy in 20 years. So Hong Kong’s history is different as well; and having lived for about 150 years with a sense of British justice, law and courts, it does know when a promise is kept and when it is broken.
This is ironically the ultimate revealing upshot of Zhang’s visit to Taiwan. For Taiwanese it more fully exposed how Ma has not lived and does not understand the democratic history and meaning of Taiwanese minzu. Having been brought up in a separate history, Ma, like Zhang, still fantasizes over and wishes for the restoration of a lost Zhonghua minzu.
With ramifications outside Taiwan, Zhang’s visit even did Hong Kong a favor. For as the people there see how Taiwanese understand and apply their history, Hong Kongers can also understand how they too have a different history that they both can and need to defend as well.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.