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