Taiwan Crisis: Regaining Historical Memory

by Eric Hagt

May 29, 2000


Despite somewhat conciliatory remarks in Chen Shui-bian's inaugural speech on May 20, China is hardly softening its threats against a Taiwan it feels is slipping away. "The people of Taiwan face the abyss of disaster if its new leadership fails to acknowledge Taiwan as part of 'One-China'." Such rhetoric has the ominous tones of impending doom.

It leaves one wondering how we got to this point. Consider this statement made by Jesse Helms of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "I am deeply concerned by Red China's threat of armed aggression against democratic Taiwan. China's increasingly belligerent stance toward Taiwan…and its triumphalist rhetoric toward Taipei after the absorption of Hong Kong and Macao…demands a response. A clear message must be sent to Beijing that the U.S. will not allow China's dictators to bully our democratic friends on Taiwan." And with this burst of self-righteous hyperbole-not uncharacteristic of Congress and the mainstream media-all of America's past sins and responsibility for this state of affairs are swept into the dustbin of history.

China's principal message concerning Taiwan is a message worth heeding as it makes a valid case for reunification. It is a voice articulated not only by the aging Communist politburo but also by Chinese and concerned internationalists around the globe. Yet, few are listening. History looks set to repeat itself as China is demonized as the communist menace engaged in shameless aggrandizement at the expense of the little guy, Taiwan.

How might a peaceful resolution be reached that would draw together the various strands of history and politics, national interest and present realities that complicate this issue? China is bending over backward to accommodate a democratic Taiwan into a union, now it is time for the US to respect history and live up to its commitment to 'One-China'.

Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open

What is China's contention over Taiwan reunification? Does China have a legitimate claim over Taiwan? The answers to these questions are complex but their root lies in history.

The pages of the last 200 years of history are littered with egregious imperial aggression against a weak China: the numerous wars Britain waged during the mid 19th Century to arm-twist the Chinese into granting import rights, especially for opium; collusion by Germans, French, British and Americans to forcibly exploit China's market and resources; extorting of Taiwan and Manchuria by Japan under the oppressive Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895; Russia's land-grab in Manchuria during its eastward push for empire. No fewer than nine countries had a hand in plundering China up to WWI.

Then, in the aftermath of WWI, during the infamous Treaty of Versailles, past national grievances might have been righted. But the victors, under the newly formed League of Nations, decided otherwise and nefariously handed Germany's China departments over to Japan. This treachery delivered China into the hands of their arch-enemy, further to be pillaged through to the 1930s. It wasn't until the end of the second World War that the Chinese, mainly under the Communist forces, finally expunged the Japanese fascists and all other foreign powers from their soil.

Following the conclusion of WWII, civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists (KMT-American client) erupted once again. Despite massive American support of the KMT in the form of war materiel, military intelligence and diplomatic pressure, the popular Communist movement prevailed because the majority joined the Communists to rid the country of the yoke of a corrupt Nationalist government. Following defeat in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and under American protection, continued his rule under the title of the Republic of China. 2

China considers American intervention in its civil war not only an injustice in itself but also a culmination of 200 years of national humiliation under sundry foreign powers. It is clear the half-life of Chiang and his ROC government would have been very short without American support. Hence, an independent Taiwan would be an open wound to remind China of past insults, and, more specifically, US hegemony inside sovereign China. The point of Taiwan reunification germane to the Chinese is one of undoing past injustices and gaining the position to ensure it doesn't happen again.

The Balkan precedent

Yet, resolution of conflicts throughout the world based on redressing historical wrongs admittedly could lead to opening a Pandora's Box. How far does one need to look back to undo the problems of the present? The Balkan quagmire is a sad but telling illustration of this conundrum. Serbs have been demonized for atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet, consulting Balkan history, the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians have been locked in a vicious circle of ethnic and religious strife for hundreds of years where all have been the victim and the victimizer. It is a region that has had the misfortune of being located at that geopolitical juncture where the Islamic world clashed with the Christian one for hundreds of years. Untangling such historical knots can be an exercise in despair. But although history gives us no black and white answers, it can help us make sense of the here and now. Overlooking such complexities, as our modern media gurus are want to do, does violence against the genuine pursuit of justice.

Let justice be done, even if the world perishes

Therefore, if historical and intellectual integrity are to enter into the equation, it is imperative to examine the role history serves in the Taiwan dispute and what authority it might have over today's dilemma.

By interfering in China's civil struggle, an action not predicated on any of the noble objectives of the UN, it is reasonable to say that the US violated Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, which states that,

"Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." 3

and other Articles (2(4) 5), detailing acts of aggression and interference of another sovereign nation's territory.

And this is to say nothing of CIA illegal covert action during this period and beyond 4 or alleged crimes such as the Chinese claim that the US dropped quantities of bacteria and bacteria-laden insects over Korea and northeast China in 1952. 5

Let us dispel the notion that the US conducted such actions "in the cause of a higher good" by supporting its client, the Nationalists. Human rights were hardly on the KMT agenda. Well documented is the popular hostility to Chiang Kai-shek's dynasty as his officers, whom, through wanton cruelty and corruption, enriched themselves under unfair land reforms. Furthermore, the casual handling of inflation by the KMT left the masses destitute. In short, the people were suffering greatly under grinding poverty and the nation was decaying under Chiang's leadership. 6

Neither was the Wilsonian conceit of "making the world safe for democracy" apart of the intervention calculus. Chiang was a despot, which he proved repeatedly by running roughshod over China's fledgling constitution during his short reign. Even after his defeat, upon landing in Taiwan, Generalissimo Chiang imposed martial law and led various reprisals against a Taiwanese populace unwilling to bow to his iron rule.

Yet, Chiang's cardinal sin was his unwillingness to co-opt-even temporarily-the communists to rid the country of rapine Japanese occupation. That they did not will always be to their discredit and the reason most Chinese loathe the Nationalists. To Chiang, "the Japanese [were] a disease of the skin, while the communists [were] a disease of the heart".

By contrast, the Communists were the only hope for lifting the yoke of oppression that foreign exploitation and previous corrupt governments had placed on China. They understood this as the nation's saving mission. In the end, the brunt of purging China of these ills was borne by the Communists. This explains why Mao Zedong, the ultimate embodiment of the Communist regime, and despite gross errors made under his rule, is still venerated by the Chinese for giving them back their unity and pride and place in the world.

Whether communism was right or wrong for China at that critical juncture in its history is debatable at best. The fact is it happened. Through the inexorable forces of history, China chose communism. "China", as one scholar noted, "was ripe for revolution". In 1949 Dean Acheson lamented in a letter to Harry Truman, "The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the US. It was the product of internal Chinese forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not." The US interfered in the conscious and personal decision of a sovereign nation. Its attempt to foil that decision was based not on any altruistic motives, but Cold War realpolitik.

"Beijing needs to realize that it is not just dealing with a historical legacy of its own civil war or even of Japanese and Western imperialism. It is also dealing with an entity [Taiwan] that is culturally Chinese but has long had a very separate history and has never been given much reason to trust the government in China." This excerpt from a recent article in The International Herald Tribune typifies the memory loss of New World Order apologists. Taiwan's system, its very existence and the continuing animosity with the mainland is purely of American making. Without this 'western imperialism', there would be no such 'separate history' to speak of. In addition, what reasons have China been given to trust Taiwan and its political masters in Washington? Many may find it convenient to erase these awkward details from historical memory but the Chinese do not.

The undeniable present

Yet, there is some truth in the above statement. Taiwan and China parted half a century ago, and here we are today with a Taiwan that is rapidly maturing into a political and social entity distinct from the mainland. Though the KMT, having ruled it for 51 years, has produced a corrupt, opaque system, the Taiwanese are rapidly forcing change. Notwithstanding Lee Teng-hui's attempts to subvert the recent March elections, a significant transfer of power has taken place. Multiparty elections are now a reality in Taiwan. It has a growing independent Legislative Yuan, there is general freedom of speech, and a strong rule of law.

What's on the menu

The present reality is that Taiwan has changed and cannot and should not be expected to fit into the political straightjacket of the Beijing central government. Populist politicians in both the US and Taiwan inquire no further and make this their grandstand for shouting down Beijing. But for those with even a modicum of intellectual honesty, further questions nag: What exactly are the obstacles to reunification? What are Beijing's terms? Is there a possible compromise?

Below is an excerpt taken from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

"Taiwan will maintain a high degree of autonomy. After reunification, Taiwan will become a special administrative region. Different from the other provinces or regions of China, it will have its own administrative and legislative powers, an independent judiciary and the right of adjudication on the island. It may conclude commercial and cultural agreements with foreign countries and enjoy certain rights in foreign affairs. It will run its own party, political, military, economic, financial and cultural affairs. It may keep its military forces and the central government will not dispatch troops or administrative personnel to the island." 7

A thorough review of the implications of the statement above is beyond the scope of these pages. However, three salient points are worth considering.

First, "Taiwan will be…different from other provinces or regions in China…" This clause sets it apart from every other political and administrative unit in China, Hong Kong and Macao included; and, by so doing, effectively gives Taiwan carte blanche to negotiate a 'better deal' for legislative, executive and judiciary powers. As Jiang Zemin has repeated over and over, "Anything can be discussed under the principle of One-China, anything." These words were never uttered to Chris Patten.

Second, "It may…enjoy certain rights in foreign affairs." This is significant in that Hong Kong was granted no such rights under Chapter VII of HK's Basic Law. 8

Third, "It may keep its own military forces…". Hong Kong doesn't have its own military. In fact, there are PLA troops stationed in Kowloon, downtown Hong Kong. What sovereign nation allows its state or province a formal military?

And, China's offer is thus far a unilateral one. It is difficult to conceive of the breadth of a 'deal' Taiwan could win through hard-nose bargaining. Indeed, such possibilities have hardly been explored for lack of political will on the Taiwanese side. Taiwan would have to concede nothing without negotiation save the one-China principle. In essence, what is subtly implied, if not overtly indicated in this offer is de facto independence, though China would never admit this in so many words.

China-bashers will be quick to point out Beijing cannot be trusted and could stiff Taiwan on areas it has promised to concede once Taiwan commits to negotiation. As one Taiwan scholar put it, "saying 'anything can be discussed', doesn't mean you will get it." There is no precedent, nor does China have any motive to compromise Taiwan. Despite warnings from the ogres of gloom and doom, Hong Kong has been left unmolested. Lest one forget, Hong Kong was a colony extorted at gunpoint by the British under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. When taken from a greater perspective of history, would China not have every right to do with Hong Kong as it willed? Indeed it would, but it did not. Rather, China, with exceptional patience respected Britain's 100 year illegal lease. It accepted the fact that Hong Kong had become something far more than when it was taken from her and with a few minor exceptions has lived up to its commitments. Even if China had not changed, what evidence is there to suggest China would act more unreasonable, more irrational toward Taiwan than Hong Kong or Macao?

Two countries, one system

And yet, China itself has also changed…dramatically! Beijing would not foist communism on Taiwan because it is abundantly clear China doesn't even want communism for China. The Beijing regime is 'de-communizing' the mainland as fast as is humanly possible. Zhu Rongji, with the support of more and more reformers in government, is dismantling their money-losing state-owned enterprises at a dangerously swift pace.

In addition, China looks set to put their money where their mouth is and join the WTO. This would thrust China into the most radical economic and structural reforms it has ever experienced.

Such an undertaking would represent an unprecedented commitment by China for change and reform. The stress to the system will be massive and the dangers of chaos real: unemployment estimates stand conservatively at 250 million; migrant workers at 130 million; total government liabilities at 100% of GDP-the risks are phenomenal. To be sure, these attendant strains are real threats to stability and political upheaval that may also affect Taiwan but, as with so many countries before it, Taiwan not excluded, economic development is the harbinger of reform, and China has shown its commitment to this end with fevered passion. 9

So, begs the question, why would China embark on so perilous an adventure only to end in a ruinous heap by compromising Taiwan-a place, by the by, that under reunification would be China's most successful economic model? It strains credulity to believe that Beijing would kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

It does more than that. It defies logic. To date, not only has Beijing not interfered in Taiwanese affairs, it has bent over backward to accommodate Taiwanese investors on the mainland. Taiwan maintains a 16 billion-trade surplus with China since Taiwan does not reciprocate the lucrative trade bonanzas offered by China to Taiwanese compatriots. 10 A Taiwan reunified with China would not only be an impetus for China's own reform, their synergies would make the union a confident and great force in the region.

The truth that dare not speak its name

Ay, and there, perhaps, is the rub. A Taiwan married to the mainland would be a formidable economic and military presence in the region and a potential challenge to American influence in Asia. China is hard enough to check without adding to it a Taiwan economic caboose-not to mention all the war materiel and intellectual capital provided to Taiwan in the past 50 years, compliments of the American military industry. The rhetoric over safeguarding a vibrant democracy and protecting human rights is but part of the story, if any of it. It is containment by another name.

"The nature of the threat posed by China is in key respects of a greater magnitude and vastly greater complexity than that mounted by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War" This bluster was recently spoken by John Casey of the Institute of the Center for Security Policy. Yet, China has not a single non-UN military personnel in one foreign country, whether in Asia or elsewhere. Conversely, the US has 37,000 troops permanently camped in South Korea, another 45,000 and change in Japan and a further 18,000 spread throughout the Asian region. 11 In addition, Taiwan is one of America's biggest customers of sophisticated weaponry. The planned TMD system would potentially shield many of its allies there. All these are serious strategic threats to China. Who is a threat to whom?

A promise is a promise

In 1950, Truman recognized China's claim over Taiwan as legal and historical fact. Since then, three presidents, the UN, and 161 nations have conceded Taiwan's status as an inalienable part of China. Still the US behaves as if no such promise exists. Is it any wonder China refuses to renounce the use of force?

Is China a threat to Taiwan? Will she renege on her promise of non-interference? The possibility cannot be discounted in light of the dramatic political, social and economic changes taking place. However, not only does such a scenario contradict the evidence, it masks the heart of the issue. Historical grievances are the source of China's intransigence on the issue of reunification not any desire to impose doctrinaire communism. China, still rankling from past humiliation at the hands of foreigners, will never accept a Taiwan split from it, especially with the help of outsiders.

Constructive engagement for real

If hostilities are to be averted, it is high time the US lived up to its commitment. Taiwan, with American sponsorship, should pursue reunification. Such would be a genuine accounting of history and respect for China's deserved place in the world. This does not mean selling out Taiwan in any way. Under the duress of international attention, China would be pressured to (if not happy to) give Taiwan virtual de facto independence. By providing an open and ambiguous offer, Beijing has shown its respect for Taiwan's unique political and economic identity. A negotiation with sufficient political will could surely concentrate minds and imaginations to draw up a settlement that would guarantee Taiwan's way of life.

What are the alternatives? China, more than any country, realizes the dire consequences of war. After all, most reports indicate China is not prepared or strong enough to win a decisive victory over Taiwan if they came to blows. But those who doubt China's resolve may contemplate this statement made by a Chinese official published in People's Daily. "If a grave turn of events occurs leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name...outsiders should not be deceived that the Chinese Government and people absolutely have the determination and ability to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity." A strong current of nationalism festers beneath the façade of its new-fashioned capitalist religion. American predictions about "it's the economy, stupid", and China will never go to war because it can't afford to risk misreading China at its own peril.

What are American goals in Asia? Are they to protect democracy? human rights? a market economy? and promote stability as the US purports? And if China's grievances of history are real and its claim over Taiwan valid as the US has admitted they are, then what is the fairest and best policy? Will war augment democracy and human rights? Will an exchange of missiles improve the economy? Would the region's stability benefit from two of its greatest powers duking it out in the Straits of Taiwan? Or is the real goal one of geopolitical strategy, credibility, national interest or even containment? If so, "then Taiwan has only to wait for war" as the leader of Taiwan's New Party emphatically declared. 12

America has a window of opportunity to influence an equitable solution. But time may be running out as tensions mount in the Straits. A China denied of justice will surely teach it that might is the only way to get things done. If America does not live up to its commitment and take steps to facilitate a resolution, history will surely look unfavorably upon her.


Eric Hagt has been living in Taiwan for 1.5 years and Beijing for 7 years. He runs his own consulting company and does independent research and writing on Chinese politics and history. He has also been employed at CNN as an interpreter and has done some freelance writing for various magazines in Beijing and Canada. Hagt can be reached at this address.


1. Foreign Senate Relations Committee Website
2. Jonathan Spence: In Search for Modern China pp.482-497
3. United Nations Web Page: UN Charter
4. Atlantic Council of the United States: The US and Cross-Strait Rivalry, p.2
5. William Blum: Killing Hope, p.26
6. Jonathan Spence: In Search for Modern China
7. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website
8. ICL Website: Hong Kong Constitution
9. The Economist, Survey of China, pp 14-15
10. International Business and Trade News (Chinese Language): January 14, 2000
11. Xinhua News Agency: January 28, 2000
12. Taiwan New Party Website


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