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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


Taiwan Outcome

21 March 2004

Taiwan: The Best Possible Outcome

By Gwynne Dyer

“If Chen loses, the chances of war are about 20 percent,”said Arthur Ting of Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, only days before the vote on 20 March in which President Chen Shui-bian was seeking re-election. “If he wins, the risk rises to 40 percent.” He won.

His margin of victory was narrow: 50.12 percent of the votes for President Chen, versus 49.88 percent for Lien Chan of the Kuomintang. Only 27,000 votes separate the two men, less than a tenth of the total number of spoiled ballots, and the KMT has already demanded a recount.

But Chen won, and everybody assumed that would mean trouble with Communist China, whose official statements have got steadily angrier as Chen’s Democratic People’s Party (DPP) edged closer to declaring independence. Last December Colonel Luo Yuan of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences warned that “Chen has reached the mainland’s bottom line on the Taiwan question….If they refuse to come to their senses and continue…they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war.”

Yet Chen said in his acceptance speech that his victory marks “a new era for peace across the Taiwan Strait,” the 100-mile (160-km) body of water that separates Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China. Does he really believe that Beijing, which fired missiles over Taiwan during its first presidential elections in 1996 and broke off talks with Taipei entirely after the DPP won in 2000, will talk to him now that he has won again?

Not right away, but he probably thinks that it will in the end. The thing about Chen is that he is used to dealing with totalitarian regimes. He know that no matter how fearsome they seem, no matter how loudly they swear that they will kill everybody before budging from their current position, in the end they generally do have to talk, because they really do live on the same planet as everybody else.

Chen grew up fighting against Taiwan’s own totalitarians, the Kuomintang, who had retreated to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war with the Communists on the mainland. The KMT were totalitarians of the right who ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for forty years, and they were just as brutal as their rivals on the mainland: Chen’s wife Wu Shu-chen is still in a wheelchair after a 1985 murder attempt in which she was hit by a truck and then run over three times. Every leading member of the DPP has spent years in jail for opposing the KMT.

Now Taiwan is a democracy, and the KMT is the opposition party. It is no longer dedicated to re-conquering mainland China, and doesn’t even give lip service to reunification any more: KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan promised that Taiwan “would never merge, be taken over, or united with the People’s Republic of China.” The lesson is clear: don’t listen to what they say; figure out what they are going to do in the end. Generally, that is much less fearsome.

Chen and his opposite numbers in Beijing are both just making the usual politician’s calculations about what will play well in the domestic political marketplace, and balancing that against what will work in the wider economic and international arena. For Beijing, talking loudly about Taiwan’s indissoluble bonds with the motherland plays well with a local public that no longer responds to Communist rhetoric but is strongly nationalistic. For Chen in Taiwan, it works the other way around: most Taiwanese would like to be independent from China, so he plays that card domestically.

However, China would be hugely reluctant to invade Taiwan even if it were militarily feasible, because the resulting crisis would kill economic growth at home and might eventually bring the Communist regime down. Chen knows that, and he never goes far enough to goad Beijing into attacking anyway. He was running 10 points behind the KMT only two weeks ago, mainly because Taiwan’s economy is stagnant and unemployment is almost five percent, so he needed the independence issue to close the gap — and he counted on Beijing to understand. It almost certainly does.

Was the assassination attempt the day before the election another political stunt? Certainly not. No hired gun on earth could fire a handgun at a man in a moving car and be sure of grazing his stomach — Chen needed fourteen stitches — but be equally sure of not killing him. The attempt was real, and Chen was doubly lucky, for he survived, and then he got the sympathy vote.

Now he’s back in office for another four years (barring a recount that reverses the outcome, which is unlikely). Will he vigorously pursue Taiwan’s independence? Of course not. As he fully expected, he lost a referendum that was supposed to set the precedent for Taiwan holding a real referendum on independence later on: for the outcome to be valid, fifty percent of the voters in the presidential election had to ask for a referendum ballot, and since the KMT told its supporters to boycott the referendum, there was no risk of that happening.

The referendum failed, and Chen is free to carry on as before. Just maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence has produced ample rewards for most people, and they are not thirsting after martyrdom in the name of some political ideal. Neither is Chen: the crisis was never real.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (Chen…domestically”;and “Was…vote”)