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Taiwan’s Sleeper Crisis

26 December 2007

Taiwan’s Sleeper Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn’t go into much detail in her year-end message, but on one topic she was very clear: “We think that Taiwan’s referendum to apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tension in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage.”

But then, the referendum is not meant to benefit the people of Taiwan so much as the Democratic Progressive Party, which is not precisely the same thing. The DPP, which draw its support mainly from those who would like the island of Taiwan to be an entirely separate country from China, has held the presidency for the last eight years. However, it won the 2004 election by a majority of only 0.22 percent, and things look even grimmer for next March’s election, so it desperately needs a gimmick.

The referendum is the gimmick. The DPP has never dared to declare Taiwan’s independence from China, because the Communist regime in Beijing vows to use “non-peaceful measures” to thwart any attempt to divide the motherland permanently. So the DPP always looks for substitute gestures that will signal to its supporters that it still means business. A referendum on changing the country’s official name from the Republic of China to “Taiwan”, held at the same time as the election, might just work.

Well, not change the official name, exactly, because the Chinese People’s Republic has already said that’s a red line that Taipei must not cross. The referendum just proposes that the government applies for UN membership as “Taiwan”. The UN said no the last twelve times, when the government in Taipei applied under the name of “Republic of China”, but maybe it will say yes if they call the country “Taiwan” this time. They’re not very bright at the UN.

Changing the name is not going to change Taiwan’s reception at the UN, and Chen Shui-Bian, the outgoing DPP president, knows it very well. Taiwan lost its UN seat to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, twenty-two years after the Nationalists lost the civil war to the Communists and fled from the mainland. It lost its seat, basically, because the regime in Beijing ruled more than 98 percent of the Chinese population.

It still does, and few UN members are going to risk losing the trade of such a huge country just to make 22 million Taiwanese happy. True, Taiwan is now a democratic country where even the old Nationalist Party, though still devoted to the concept of One China ruled by non-Communists, has accepted the democratic rules. But having a nicer political system doesn’t win you a lot of points in international politics.

The whole notion of applying for a UN seat under a different name is a pure charade. It is the DPP’s way of justifying a referendum that sort of involves changing the country’s name to Taiwan (though not officially, because that might start a war), so that disheartened DPP voters will show up at the polls one more time. Once there, they might vote for the DPP’s presidential candidate, too, and the party might squeak back into power once more.

It is a gambit that is almost bound to fail domestically. Taiwan’s economic growth has slowed since the DPP took power, and the word in Taipei is that half the corporate headquarters that still remain in the island will decamp to the mainland if the DPP wins the 2008 election. So no problem: the DPP will lose the election, and even if the referendum passes the new government won’t act on it, and the UN would never accept Taiwan’s application anyway. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The Taiwan government calculates that it can get away with this stunt because Beijing is hosting the Olympics next summer, and wouldn’t dream of spoiling the party by confronting Taiwan over a referendum on the (fake) name change on 22 March. The Taiwan government is probably wrong.

Its assumption is that the Beijing regime, being a tyranny, can turn public opinion on and off like a tap. If it wants the Chinese public to be outraged about Taiwan’s “splittism”, the protestors will come out on the streets. If it doesn’t want a crisis, they will obediently stay home. Chinese nationalism, which has always been obsessed with preserving the unity of the motherland, is reduced in this paradigm to a mere propaganda tool of the current regime.

Nonsense. The Communist regime knows that its ideology is dead. It knows that its claim to power depends on producing rapid economic growth and defending the national interest, so it regularly plays the nationalist card, especially over Taiwan. But popular hostility to Taiwan’s independence is real on the mainland, and the regime in Beijing cannot just ignore it.

This is a marginal case, for Taiwan will not be declaring independence in March, or even formally changing its name. But this is an event that falls on the borderline of the tolerable for Beijing, and its response, even in the Olympic year, will depend on whether it thinks it can manage the news of the referendum. If it thinks that it will be blamed by the public for failing to defend Chinese unity, then stand by for the mother of all crises to erupt in the Taiwan Strait in early March.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The whole…simple”)

Taiwan, Identity Politics and China

11 December 2006

Taiwan, Identity Politics and China

By Gwynne Dyer

“My generation has had really painful experiences over the past six years, because you suddenly realise you are nobody,” explained Andrew Yang, head of the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies, in Taipei earlier this year. “My parents come from mainland China, so in their eyes I am a second-generation mainlander. I mean, I was born here; I’m part of the society. I was really astonished to see that people are treating me like a second-generation mainlander….The identity issue is very polarising here.”

Identity politics were very much in evidence last Saturday, when Taiwan’s two big cities voted in mayoral elections that were widely seen as a trial run for the key presidential elections in early 2008. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party should have lost by a landslide, given the under-performing economy, high unemployment and constant crises with mainland China since it won power at the national level six years ago, not to mention the corruption scandal that has engulfed President Chen Shui-bian’s own family. But it didn’t.

The DPP didn’t win by a landslide either, but it did manage to get 41 percent of the vote even in Taipei, the traditional stronghold of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and it won, although by the margin of barely a thousand votes, in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. And it always wins in rural areas, which weren’t voting this time. There will be a recount in Kaohsiung, but the fact is that even when the pro-independence DPP fails to deliver the goods on every front, it still commands the support of about half the population. That is identity politics at work.

The fundamental divide in Taiwan is between the “mainlanders,” descended from those who arrived on the island as refugees in 1949 when the KMT lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists, and the “Taiwanese” whose Chinese-speaking ancestors migrated to the island three or four centuries ago.

The refugees arrived with an army and a ruthless party apparatus that was modelled on the Soviet Communist Party (even though they were ideologically anti-Communist). So the KMT took over the island and ruled it under martial law for the next forty years, even though the mainlanders amounted to no more than 15 percent of the population.

During all that time, the principal goal of the government was to reconquer the mainland and reunite China under KMT rule. Native-born Taiwanese were excluded from senior positions, and protesters were killed or jailed: almost all the DPP’s leaders are former political prisoners. Martial law ended in 1987 and Taiwan is a democracy now, but the attitudes shaped by that long ordeal live on.

The native-born Taiwanese, although ethnically Chinese, were not in favour of uniting with the mainland even before the Communists took over there. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for half a century before 1945, and was handed over to China after Japan’s defeat without consultation. But rule from the mainland lasted for only four years before the island became the Kuomintang’s last stronghold, and KMT rule turned many Taiwanese against mainlanders in general. So the idea of an independent Taiwan, however impractical, has great appeal to the DPP’s supporters.

It was the advent of democracy and the rise of the DPP that inaugurated the past decade of recurrent crises between Taipei and Beijing. Seen through mainland eyes, the KMT was an enemy who nevertheless agreed that there was only one China, and so was within the pale. The DPP, by playing with the idea of legal separation and a Republic of Taiwan, was threatening the sacred unity of China and so was utterly beyond the pale. Yet the DPP cannot stop playing with that idea, because that is its main appeal to those who identify themselves as Taiwanese.

Since Chen Shui-bian won the presidency for the DPP in 2000, the crises and the danger of actual military clashes across the Strait of Taiwan have been getting steadily worse. China has no credible military capability to invade Taiwan, and will not have for many years, but it passed a law last year saying that it would use “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan actually tried to secede. A crisis that would draw in the United States and tumble China and America into a cold war is not hard to imagine.

So most outsiders have been quietly hoping that the KMT, now reformed and genuinely democratic, will win back power and drop the independence talk: the status quo of “one China, two governments” would be perfectly acceptable to Beijing. And it looked as if the DPP was bound to lose in 2008, because the economic downturn, the open hostility of Beijing and its own internal scandals had left it without a leg to stand on.

Last weekend’s elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung prove that that is not so. Outside of Taipei (where most of the mainlanders settled), the DPP can still count on identity politics to deliver enough votes to keep it in the running. And that means that the crises may not end after 2008.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“During…supporters”)

Taiwan: Chen’s Last Stand

19 March 2006

Taiwan: Chen’s Last Stand

By Gwynne Dyer

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s basic problem is that he came to power about forty years too late. If his Democratic Progressive Party had won power in 1960, not 2000, he could probably have got away with his project for an independent Taiwan, at least for a while. But back then Taiwan was ruled with an iron hand by the Kuomintang (KMT), refugees from a lost civil war who dreamed of reconquering the mainland and rejected any thought of a separate Taiwan. Now it’s too late.

Last Saturday Chen’s supporters marched through Taipei a hundred thousand strong to mark the tenth anniversary of the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis of 1996, when China “test-fired” missiles into the waters off Taiwan to warn voters not to back the pro-independence party in the island’s first free election, and the first anniversary of Beijing’s Anti-Secession Law, which threatens to use “non-peaceful means” to block Taiwan’s independence.

The marchers carried banners declaring “Anti-annexation” and “Terminate the National Unification Council,” the latter referring to Chen’s decision last month to do just that. Some carried red balloons shaped like missiles that read “No aggression.” Chen declared that “Taiwan is a sovereign nation” and led the crowd in a chant of “Protect Taiwan, no to annexation,” as if China planned to annex Taiwan against the democratic will of the Taiwanese people. But not one in ten of the crowd was naive enough to believe that that was really the issue.

The status quo for most of the time since the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 has been no annexation, but no independence for Taiwan either. Both sides agreed that there was only one China; they disagreed about who should be running it, but they weren’t going to have another war about it. This was the deal formalised in 1972, when President Richard Nixon shifted US diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and it was ratified by the two Chinese sides themselves in negotiations in Hong Kong in 1992. What has changed since then is not Beijing’s position; it is Taipei’s.

Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants are related to ethnic groups in the northern Philippines, but by 400 years ago Chinese settlers were already a majority. They were maverick Chinese, however, refugees from the stifling hierarchy and conformity of imperial China — and their heirs have spent less than half of the time between then and now under direct Chinese rule. The arrival of millions of defeated KMT officials, troops and their families in 1949, and the subsequent four decades of brutally authoritarian KMT rule, did not make them fonder of the “mainlanders”.

Once the KMT ended martial law in 1987 and began the transition to democracy, therefore, identity issues began to play a big role in Taiwan’s politics. Many people who saw themselves as historically Taiwanese (though ethnically Chinese) wanted a decisive break with the mainland. There was potential voter support for a policy of outright independence, and since the DPP won the presidency in 2000, Chen Shui-bian has been unremitting in his assertions of Taiwan’s right to choose its own course.

Yet there has always been an element of make-believe about the independence movement. The basic fact is that there are only 23 million people in Taiwan, while there are 1,330 million people in China — and they almost all believe that there must be only one China.

It’s practically in the genes by now. China is an empire that became a nation some two thousand years ago, but even now only 70 percent of the country’s citizens speak Mandarin as their first language. They can all READ the same language, thanks to ideographs — which is probably why Chinese ideographs survived in a world where most other cultures adopted alphabets millennia ago — but they still see China’s unity as fragile and forever at risk.

It’s as if the Roman empire had survived into the present, speaking highly evolved local dialects of Latin — Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian — but still united by a common knowledge of the classical language. In such a case, you would expect modern Romans to be hypersensitive about national unity questions. Modern Chinese certainly are, and they will never let Taiwan secede.

Most Taiwanese actually understand this, so the independence movement is largely a charade. Chen himself came close to admitting that when he pointed out on 14 March that there was no need to panic over his demands for a new name, a new constitution, and ultimately formal independence for Taiwan, since the opposition controls the legislature and will block all his demands. “So everybody can relax,” he concluded, smiling.

Exactly. And in another two years the DPP will almost certainly lose the presidency, too, for the Taiwanese economy has suffered grievously due to the uncertainties of the past six years and the deliberate roadblocks that the DPP has placed in the way of easier relations with China. All travellers and goods from Taiwan destined for China, for example, must first pass through Hong Kong, in most cases a thousand-mile (1,600-km) detour.

Taiwan’s per capita income has flat-lined since 2000, and the flow of jobs and capital to the mainland has become a flood. DPP support is now below 20 percent of the electorate, and the 2008 election is likely to restore the “pan-blue” coalition centred on the KMT to power. Unless there is some cross-Strait crisis first, of course, but nobody would deliberately seek that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s


Cold Shower in Taiwan

14 October 2004

Cold Shower in Taiwan

By Gwynne Dyer

The rhetoric had been getting harsher for months, as Taiwan’s leaders stoked popular fears of Communist China’s intentions in an attempt to push through a controversial $18 billion arms purchase from the United States. It reached a peak on 30 September, when President Chen Sui-bian warned that the People’s Liberation Army now has 610 ballistic missiles aimed at the island, with the number forecast to 800 by next year — enough to wipe out most of Taiwan’s defences in a few hours.

Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun went further, calling for Taiwan to develop its own offensive missiles to deter a Communist attack. “You fire a hundred missiles at me, I fire fifty at you. You hit Taipei and Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s main cities), I at least hit Shanghai. If we have such a counter-strike capability, Taiwan is safe.”

Blood-curdling stuff, even if none of the warheads on those missiles would be nuclear. (Nobody believes that Chinese would use nuclear weapons on other Chinese.) The People’s Republic reacted with fury to the suggestion that Taiwan might make a retaliatory strike against cities on the mainland: “Yu Shyi-kun’s remarks are a serious provocation and clamouring for war,” said Li Weiyi, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing.

President Hu Jintao, newly confirmed as commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army, told it to prepare for war — “You must seize the moment and do a good job of preparing for a military struggle” — and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, speaking at the United Nations, warned that “The separatist activities of the Taiwanese authorities pose a serious threat…to the peace of the Asia-Pacific region.”

The US, preoccupied with Iraq and the elections, made virtually no response to China’s threats, but various countries in the region had been warning Taiwan for months that if it got into a shooting war with China, it was on its own. As early as August Singapore’s leader, Lee Hsien Loong, warned of “a real risk of miscalculation and mishap….Unfortunately, very few Taiwanese leaders understand this.”

They certainly didn’t seem to — Taiwan’s foreign minister, Chen Tan-sun, responded to Singapore’s warning by accusing it of “hugging China’s balls” — but by late September the message was starting to get through. The Taiwan defence ministry back-pedalled rapidly on Prime Minister Yu’s talk of firing missiles at Shanghai, denying any intention of creating a “balance of terror” with the mainland. And then, on 10 October, Taiwan’s National Day, President Chen Shui-bian, went into reverse on all fronts.

He praised China’s reforms, welcomed the new leadership in Beijing, and called for an arms control agreement between the two governments to dispel the “dark forces” that were gathering in the Taiwan Strait. More dramatically, he said that he was ready to resume the political dialogue between Taipei and Beijing, dormant for five years because of the pro-independence stance of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — and that he was willing to do so on the very basis that he had always rejected in the past.

When Taiwan and China first opened direct talks in 1993, the Nationalist Party was still in power in Taipei, and it had no objection to carrying out negotiations on the basis that there might be two rival regimes at the moment, but there was only “one China.” The Nationalists had retreated to Taiwan after losing China’s civil war in 1949, but they were as determined as the Communists that the motherland must eventually be reunited. They just differed on who should be running it.

However, the refugees from the mainland were outnumbered by the local Taiwanese, and Taiwan has been ruled from Beijing less than half the time since Chinese settlers became a majority on the island some five centuries ago. The locally born population, although overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese, felt quite distant from mainland China, and bitterly resented the dictatorship that the incoming Nationalists clamped on the island — so when Taiwan democratised in the mid-1990s, there was ample scope for a party like the DPP that advocated a complete break with China.

The first DPP president, Lee Teng-hui, caused a rupture in the talks with Beijing when he called for a “special state-to-state relationship” between Taiwan and the People’s Republic in 1999, and until now Chen Shui-bian has followed the same line. His declaration on 10 October that he is willing to resume talks on the basis of “one China” was a huge climb-down — even if he qualified it as a “not necessarily perfect but acceptable” basis for renewed dialogue.

Chen had to climb down. As China’s economy grows ever bigger, its importance to its trading partners, including the United States, makes them ever more reluctant to confront Beijing over Taiwan, and the Iraq quagmire makes Washington doubly reluctant to contemplate further military commitments in East Asia. Taiwan is on its own, and the old DPP game of talking about independence in order to get the Communists to threaten to attack Taiwan, thereby driving resentful Taiwanese voters into the DPP’s arms, is over

The more level-headed elements in the DPP never really believed that an independent and internationally recognised Taiwan republic was a possibility; now they will have to stop pretending to the voters that it is possible. The best they can hope for is a prolongation of the status quo until, some day, China democratises and reunification becomes a more palatable prospect.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“President…region”;and “However…China”)