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One-China Syndrome

Charles Horner

In the past three decades, there have been three big stories in East Asia. 

The first is the Thirty Years’ Peace. The decades prior had seen both cross-border and internal violence on a grand scale but, as seemingly arbitrarily as the violence had begun, it stopped. The second big storythe rise of Chinahas certainly not been underreported; but in its deep origins, China’s 30-year rise is as thinly understood as Asia’s 30 years of peace. And there is a third storythe rise of democratic Asia through the consolidation of multiparty democracies in “Confucian” Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in the Catholic Philippines, and in Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia. A common political trend in places so different ought to be stimulating widespread discussion, but the Great Democratization is as understudied as the Great Peace. 

It is indisputable that, between 1949 and 1979, New China failed in its efforts to create several little people’s republics in its own image, and also had to abandon its attempts to create a socialist paradise at home. For many in the West, this seemed almost as big an embarrassment as the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should thus be grateful that Professor Shelley Rigger of Davidson College has written an excellent introduction to a place that not only is significant in its own right, but also illustrates how the rise of China and Asia’s democratization are now linked. Her book, like the area of Taiwan itself, may seem undersized, but, in both cases, size is not wholly predictive. 

Rigger is rare among China-interested academics in focusing on Taiwan at all. She describes how the 23 million people in Taiwan have come to run an economic powerhouse with an annual gross domestic product of $500 billion and foreign exchange holdings of about $400 billion, the world’s fourth-largest. Taiwan has also invested billions in China, and Taiwanese companies employ millions of Chinese workers who make the world’s smartphones and notebook computers.

Beyond economics, Rigger also stretches our minds regarding what is possible in politics and international relations in a once-exotic Asia. In a reversal of the fortunes of 1945-49, Beijing’s one-party dictatorship, on the verge of collapse in 1979, had little choice but to import Taiwan’s many financial and managerial competencies. Conveniently for Beijing at the time, the island which China had ritualistically promised to “liberate” had already been “liberated“and in proper Leninist fashion: Under the control of the Kuomintang, Taiwan was living under a one-party dictatorship. When it allowed closer relations with Taiwan, China’s Communist leadership did not anticipate that the Kuomintang would combine economic success with a Great Leap Forward in politics that would put Taiwan far in advance of China itself.

In 1987, it became legal for Taiwan’s opposition parties to contest elections. Taiwan’s president is now directly elected and, last January, in the most recent of five consecutive elections, the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, was reelected. (In 2000 and 2004, Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive party had won.) Today’s Kuomintang descends from the Chinese Nationalists who lost the civil war to the Communists and fled to Taiwan with the stated intention of recovering the mainland. (Indeed, Ma Ying-jeou’s father had been a high-ranking official in China before leaving.) The opposition descends from the people who were living on Taiwan when the Kuomintang showed up at the end of World War II to take control of what had been a Japanese colony. This “liberation” of the island by a mainland-based government went badly: There was an uprising against it in 1947, many thousands were killed, and, for the next 45 years, a place hailed as “Free China” was also a very tough dictatorship. 

To be sure, life on Taiwan was paradisiacal compared with what was happening across the strait, and the people on the island knew it. Their sense of the harshness of Kuomintang rule was also mitigated by what became known as Taiwan’s economic miracle. But this modus vivendi between the Kuomintang and Taiwan’s citizenry came under pressure in 1972 with the beginning of the Washington-Beijing rapprochement, and under even more pressure after the United States withdrew formal recognition of the government of Taiwan in 1979. Since then, Taiwan has had to adopt a variety of tactics to retain its de facto independence, but its post-1987 political liberalization turned out to be a masterstroke.

Both Washington and Beijing have been confounded by it. American expectations were scrambled as soon as the people who lived on Taiwan gained a real say in any “settlement” between Taipei and Beijing. “Realists” who had expected that, over time, this “irritant” in U.S.-Chinese relations might be removed now have to cope with Taiwan’s institutionalized right to self-determination. Meanwhile, Beijing’s Communist leadership knows that the workings of Taiwan’s democracy are routinely seen in China on satellite television and widely discussed on blogs. In recent months, especially, the entire Chinese-speaking world has observed the contrast between Taiwan’s open politics and China’s thuggish intra-politburo struggle. We may be nearing the denouement of modern China’s long and bloody struggle over politics and governance. Taiwan now matters very much to this big story, and Shelley Rigger’s book is a fine primer for understanding how that has come to be. 

There is another theme as well. In a speech in Singapore last June, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described what has been interpreted as America’s “strategic shift to Asia [that] aims to use traditional allegiances, as well as budding partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and India, to offset China’s rising military power and assertiveness” (Washington Post). Panetta went on to visit an American naval vessel which just happened to be calling at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, but neither the man nor the ship would go to Taiwan. Yet today, maritime security is another reason why, in Rigger’s apt phrase, Taiwan matters. If the United States continues to act on its now-outdated verbal positionno, we ourselves do not say that Taiwan is a part of China, we just say that we will not argue with those who doit will be China’s navy that will be making the visits to Taiwan, not ours. To be sure, Taiwan does not help either us or itself by clinging to its own antiquated maritime claims; instead, it should be joining with the like-minded democracies nearby that are increasingly resistant to China’s pressure tactics. 

In a brilliant article in March’s China Heritage Quarterly, the Australian sinologue Geremie Barmé traces the history of written and spoken Chinese since the late 19th century and its submergence, since 1949, into the PRC’s officially sanctioned way of speaking and writing:

New China Newspeak was and is used by the Party, its propaganda organs, the media and educators to shape (and circumscribe) the way people express themselves in the public (and eventually private) sphere, and to enable the party-state apparatus to inculcate its ideology by means of relentless verbal/written imposition and repetition. ... [I]t is also commonly employed in creating what I call “translated China,” that is the English-language Party langue that has evolved over many decades to present China to the outside world.


Barmé goes on to describe how, in the best Orwellian fashion, Beijing seeks to control not only what Chinese think and say about China, but what everyone else does, too. 

Accordingly, we need to guard against what the late Fred Iklé called “semantic infiltration,” which starts with using the language of enemies and adversaries to define reality, and ends with accepting their definitions. America’s discussion of Taiwanindeed, almost all the world’s discussion of it, not least that of the government of Taiwan itselfhas been thoroughly infiltrated by New China Newspeak. For example, there is the term “reunification“except that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China, not even for an hour. There is the notion that, historically, Taiwan has been part of “China,” even though there was no political entity with the word “China” in it until 1912. (Before then, what we think of as “China,” and what we now call Taiwan, were both parts of the Qing Empire.) In fact, Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire from 1895 until the end of World War II.

Beyond this, even though Taiwan is de facto an independent country, neither the adjective nor the noun it modifies is mentionable in routine diplomatic discourse. The United States recognizes and supports the independence and United Nations memberships of Kosovo (population, 1.8 million; GDP, about $6 billion), East Timor (population, 1.2 million; GDP, less than $1 billion), and even Tuvalu (population, 10,000; GDP, $32 million). We do this to prove a point. But what point are we proving when the United States government bars the democratically elected president of a country of 23 million (with a GDP of more than $500 billion) from entering our country?

Even Shelley Rigger tends to get caught up in Newspeak and its cant of “peaceful reunification over the long term.” This piety evades the source of the problem: China’s one-party dictatorship. The dictatorship speaks ritualistically of “peace” and “stability,” but China itself is the real threatthe sole threatto both. The better formulation is “no peaceful association without prior cross-strait democratization,” not least because it also allows us to write Asia’s three great stories as one.

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