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Since the election of Chen and Lu, the grumblings from China have grown louder and louder. Related Gully Stories:

Showdown
in the Sour Pacific

The implication of Taiwan's March 18 presidential election.

map
Indigestible Taiwan

by Kelly Cogswell

APRIL 10, 2000. Since the Taiwanese dared in March to elect as their new president Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the grumblings from China have grown louder and louder. This, despite the fact that Chen has bent over backwards to be conciliatory by soft-pedaling on independence during his campaign, and choosing a Nationalist as prime minister: Tang Fei, the outgoing KMT Defense Minister.

chen and luLately, the Vice-President elect, Annette Lu has been feeling the brunt of the rhetoric, getting criticized both by the Chinese, and by Chen, her own running mate.

Beijing is calling her "extremist" and "scum." The official Chinese news agency stated that Lu had "dropped all the disguises she had put on... and exposed her true hideous face, that of a pro-Taiwan independence element" when she reportedly told Hong Kong media that "Taiwan and the mainland were geographically close, but that history had made them only distant relatives." That simple, but politically charged statement, radically undercuts the official communist and nationalist myth that Taiwan has always been a part of China.

Chen, annoyed by the negative attention Lu is drawing, as well as her insistence that he fulfill promises to his female electorate by including a significant amount of women in his cabinet, may try to dump her altogether by constitutionally eliminating the role of Vice President from the government. Feminists across party lines are outraged.

Lu, a Harvard trained lawyer with five long years in jail as a political prisoner, will not let history be so easily undone.


In history, as in retail, location is everything. Taiwan's first settlers were Malayo-Polynesian sailors exploring northward 15,000 years ago. Their descendants had the island to themselves until the early seventeenth century when the Dutch outmaneuvered the Portuguese and Spanish for control of the island conveniently near their trading object, Japan.

historical imageAs in the Caribbean, the Dutch used the island as both port and agricultural center, bringing in migrant workers from the Chinese provinces of Hokkien and Canton to work the sugar plantations and rice fields.

Even though the Dutch were dislodged in 1662 by a Chinese pirate, Cheng Cheng-kung, further immigrants arrived from Hokkien and Canton eager to escape the high taxes and oppression of their home provinces. The outnumbered indigenous peoples gradually took refuge, or were squeezed into the mountains.

China, its emperors preoccupied with internal wars, did not put much effort into governing an island characterized as having, "every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion." When, in the nineteenth century, American, Japanese, and French traders complained of Taiwanese pirates, the Manchu emperor simply issued the disclaimer, "Taiwan is beyond our territory."

Enter China. In 1887, worried about Japanese expansion, the Manchu imperial authorities of China finally declared Taiwan an official province. But only eight years later, in 1895, China ceded it to Japan in perpetuity after losing the Sino-Japanese War.

On May 25, 1895, Taiwanese sick of their status as South Pacific football, declared themselves the Taiwan Republic, the first independent republic in Asia. Four days later a Japanese military force crushed the movement.

World War II renewed China's foothold on the island. At the 1943 Cairo Conference, held to map out war strategy against Japan, the Allies agreed with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek's request that Taiwan be returned to Nationalist China. When the war actually ended, the Allied powers allowed Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops to "temporarily occupy Taiwan, on behalf of the Allied forces."

On February 28, 1947, after the arrest in Taipei of a woman for selling cigarettes without a license set off large scale demonstrations, the Nationalist occupying forces responded by bringing over troops from the mainland, and torturing and executing up to 28,000 people--an entire generation of Taiwan's leading students, lawyers, and doctors.

warhol's-maoMartial Law. When 2 million Nationalist mainlanders, mostly members or sympathizers of the Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan from Mao Tse-tung's Communists in 1949, they used martial law to consolidate their power over the 18 million Taiwanese. They controlled the political system, police, military, educational system, and media.

Like colonizers the world over, the KMT obliterated Taiwan's separate history, and imposed on them China's official language, Mandarin. Many Taiwanese now speak Mandarin, or English, better than their mother tongues. Indigenous peoples had no way to protest their discrimination, or the ecological destruction of their lands by the KMT's rapid, and rabid industrialization geared to support their military dreams. Lesbians and gay men were harshly treated, as well as women who spoke up for their rights. Opposition leaders were jailed or slaughtered.

Reality Check. For two decades following the Communist revolution, the Nationalist government occupying Taiwan was recognized as China's official government. They occupied China's seat in the U.N. and maintained diplomatic relations with other countries.

But their fantasy of reuniting China under Nationalist rule was abruptly ended in 1971 with a double-barreled blow: the United Nation's recognition of the Communist mainland government as the only legitimate representative of China, and Nixon's informal "opening" of China.

When the United States officially recognized China in 1979, Taiwan received the Cold War consolation prize of the Taiwan Relations Act, which asserted that the U.S. would oppose "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means," including boycotts and embargoes by Communist China.

Forced to reassess their positions both in Taiwan and abroad, the Nationalist party, under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui, began to facilitate Taiwan's transition from dictatorship to a democracy, though it wasn't until 1991 that the KMT dropped its claim to China. In 1987, martial law was replaced by the slightly less harsh National Security Act. The country's first democratic legislative elections were held in 1992. In 1996, Lee Tengu-hui was elected president.

Indigestible Taiwan. In Taiwan today there are a variety of opposition groups, with the Democratic Progressive Party almost on par with the still entrenched Nationalists. The feminist movement has grown, and lesbian and gay groups have sprung up. There are environmentalist groups, and Taiwan's indigenous peoples are beginning to make their voices heard. These gains have been bolstered by the Taiwanese economy which has emerged as one of the most stable of Asia's economic tigers.

This is the country China threatens to swallow.

After a parade of Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese colonialism, fifty years of cruel Nationalist rule, and a decade's taste of increasing democracy, Taiwan, with a land mass only equal to West Virginia, has a real resolve to be indigestible.

taiwanese troopsIt will come down to the DPP, diplomacy, and the United States. Can Chen get over his chauvinist pig annoyance and work with his democratically elected running mate Lu? Can Taiwan appease China without compromising its democratic gains? Will the U.S., actively courting the Chinese market, honor its promises? Current U.S. strategy seems to be an equal mix of mealy-mouthed diplomacy and finger-crossing.

The stakes may be too high for this problem to go away.

The gauntlet. As Eliot Cohen wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "a free and stable Taiwan poses two challenges to China. First, it makes highly unlikely a reunification agreement cut by governments over the heads of their people (as occurred in Hong Kong and Macau...)

Second, it makes clear to the Chinese people that there are alternatives to the corrupt pseudocommunist system on the mainland whose legitimacy rests on continuous economic growth, and increasingly, on nationalist fervor."

Then there is location. As Cohen further stated, "...should Beijing ever gain control of Taiwan, it will establish a geostrategic position in the South China Sea that would extend its influence far beyond its immediate surroundings."

The gaping maw of China might prove insatiable.

Related links:

For New Taiwan, Ilha Formosa , The Homepage for Taiwan's History, Present, and Future.

For The CIA Factbook. Good for basic facts and statistics.

For Cohen's Wall Street Journal article 'One China' Policy is Obsolete.

For Complete Coverage Asia

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