Americans dangerously underestimate the complexity and ambiguous
nature of Taiwan’s feelings about the mainland, and the emotional
force this issue arouses on both sides…

In his farewell address, George Washington warned the country to avoid entangling foreign alliances. In the Cold War era following the end of World War Two, Washington’s wise advice seems to have been forgotten, and we got tangled up in treaties and official ribbon in our good-intentioned national effort to prevent the next war, while standing up to communist tyranny and expansion. Treaties and other obligations made in the past and under different circumstances still bind us, and like abandoned land mines, some of them are still touchy enough to blow up in our faces.

More than a month before his inauguration, our president elect has—perhaps inadvertently—unbalanced America’s delicate relations with Taiwan (officially named the Republic of China) and mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) by accepting a phone call from Taiwan’s president who took office last March, Miss Tsai Yingwen. The disruptive nature of that phone call puzzles most Americans, who, on the rare occasions they think about Taiwan at all, naturally take the side of the virtuous little island standing up to the menacing red dragon across the Straits of Taiwan. That’s an admirable natural response, but it may not be a wise or realistic one.

I’m what might be called an “old Taiwan hand.” I first visited the island on an R&R leave from Vietnam, and I was taken with the friendly hard-working people, the food, the scenery, the world’s greatest collection of Chinese art at the National Palace Museum, and the cheerful but vigilant energy of the Republic of China military, our allies in the war against communism in East Asia. Those were the days when the two gigantic figures of Chinese political history were still alive and in power—Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan and Mao Zedong on the mainland. After my military service, I returned to America and started college, but I soon got fed up with the anti-war movement and decided to go back to Asia to learn more about that fascinating part of the world. I went to Taiwan, where over a period of years I learned the language, became familiar with the culture, went to college, married one of my classmates, worked, and where our children were born. Although I live in California now, I live in the largest Chinese ethnic enclave outside Asia, and work as a Mandarin/English interpreter. From 1970 to now, I have never gone a day without contact with people from Taiwan and mainland China. My wife and I occasionally lead tour groups to China.

If we want to understand why President Tsai’s telephone conversation with President-Elect Trump is significant, it’s necessary to know a little history. Taiwan’s place in Chinese history began tentatively in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), when Chinese immigrants began moving into Taiwan and the chains of smaller islands along the mainland coast. But it wasn’t until the last years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when forces of the Manchuria-based Ching Dynasty had conquered northern China and were sweeping down into southern China that large-scale immigration from the mainland began.

This was also the first time that Taiwan became a refuge and national recovery bastion, and there are plenty of colorful stories and historical figures from that era that we’ll skip over here because this piece is already getting too long and is bound to get longer. Eventually, the Ming loyalists were defeated and Taiwan joined the rest of China under the Manchu Ching Dynasty. The Manchu rulers did a fine job of assimilating to Han Chinese culture, but by the second half of the 19th century, the dynasty was corrupt, weak, and unpopular.

In 1894, China and Japan went to war over the control of Korea. Because Manchu emperor Dowager held power over China, but squandered the money that should have gone to modernizing the Chinese military while Japan had been building a very modern navy modeled after the British Royal Navy, China suffered a disastrous defeat. This is when the United States first got involved. Japan initially demanded that Ching Dynasty China cede its own Manchurian homeland to Japan, but this was unacceptable. An American international lawyer by the name of John W. Foster was called in to negotiate. (John W. Foster had served briefly as President Harrison’s secretary of state, and was the grandfather of later Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles.)

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Since the Japanese could see that Manchuria was off the table for now (they’d take it by force in the 1930s), they demanded all the Chinese islands between the Dachen archipelago and Hainan, off the coast of northern Vietnam. This included the contested Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands that now present another potential problem for America, but most importantly–and most coveted—Taiwan. Aware that Taiwan had a history of anti-Ching resistance, the Manchus were not heartbroken at the thought of ceding it to Japan. But the majority Han Chinese were outraged at the very thought of giving a Chinese province to the Japanese. That the Ching Dynasty—with the encouragement of its paid legal counsel, John W. Dulles—went ahead and ceded Taiwan to Japan was one of the last straws that 16 years later led to the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.

For 50 years—1895-1945—Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule, and thereby avoided the wars and catastrophes that the mainland suffered. Japanese became the language of administration and education, but the Chinese people of Taiwan continued to speak Chinese languages, followed Chinese customs in their daily life, and continued to maintain contact with their cousins on the mainland, despite Japanese disapproval. The Japanese did, however, encourage Taiwanese organized crime activities in Shanghai and Fujian Province, as long as that activity was under Japanese control.

Japanese colonial policy during the occupation of Taiwan was to plant the idea in the Chinese population of the island that they had been contemptuously disowned by China—which was believed by some and recognized as a lie by others. With the surrender of Japanese forces after World War Two, Taiwan was formally returned to China according to the Cairo Declaration. In Taiwan, there was relief and jubilation. But when Chinese military units arrived there was widespread disappointment. People had expected these troops to be arriving on Chinese vessels, but instead they arrived on U.S. Navy ships and seemed somewhat disinclined to disembark.

The crowds that had gathered to welcome Chinese forces were shocked at their ragged appearance. While the defeated Japanese stood in disciplined ranks and neat uniforms, the Chinese came straggling onto the docks in unkempt motley uniforms, some of them barefoot and others wearing straw sandals, and many carrying cooking woks on their backs. The mainland Chinese soldiers coming to Taiwan were surprised to find the buildings intact and the people gathered to greet them well-fed and well-dressed, sometimes in Japanese-style clothing. Just as the disheveled and bewildered appearance of the arriving mainland soldiers made a less than splendid impression on the welcoming Taiwanese, the shop signs in Japanese visible in the streets and the contrast between Taiwan and the war battered mainland embittered some of the soldiers.

The Japanese colonial powers had conscripted a large number of Taiwanese during the war—mostly to serve in labor battalions, but other than that the war had left little mark on Taiwan—at least compared to the devastation on the mainland. Out of respect for the countrymen of their Republic of China allies on the mainland, American planes had only attacked military targets such as airstrips and Japanese naval facilities. Many of the arriving soldiers’ first impression of their Taiwanese compatriots was that they were a pampered and condescending lot of collaborators. The Taiwanese who had gathered to welcome them saw the Chinese soldiers as an uncouth and shameful rabble. In 1945, the Republic of China was deeply involved in fighting a civil war against the communists on the mainland, and at this point apparently could not afford to send its very best units to Taiwan.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were considerably less chaotic and traumatic in Taiwan than they were on the China mainland, where a terribly bloody and destructive civil war was followed by a mind-bogglingly murderous communist takeover that one later author, rather mildly, called “the tragedy of liberation.” But Taiwan’s return to what the communists on the mainland would call “the warm embrace of the motherland,” was also rather bumpy. Most of the people in Taiwan did not speak Mandarin, but Hokkien and/or Hakka dialects. But they learned Mandarin very quickly, and among the people coming in from the mainland were a good number who spoke those dialects common in Taiwan. Perhaps the fastest learners were the Taiwanese who joined the Republic of China military and were sent to fight the communists on the mainland, and those who quickly married mainlanders.

Relations between mainlanders and Taiwanese varied from warmly familiar to mutually hostile, and in February and March of 1947 the hostility broke loose. In the Circle Restaurant night market district in Taipei, a Taiwanese woman was arrested by a Taiwanese policeman for selling bootlegged cigarettes. Rumors that mainland police were shaking down Taiwanese women quickly spread, and a mob gathered and assaulted the police station. Rumors spread down the island, and with it, mob violence, which naturally brought on heavy-handed responses from the authorities. This “2-2-8 Uprising,” as advocates of total Taiwanese independence call this turmoil, is often portrayed as a genocidal suppression of the Taiwanese people, but that is not exactly the case.

The authorities—which included both mainlanders and Taiwanese—had weapons of war, and in some places used them, but mobs of Taiwanese attacked businesses they knew to be owned by mainlanders, and accosted pedestrians on the street, asking them if they were “yams” (Taiwanese) or “pigs” (mainlanders). Usually the question would be asked in Hokkien, and if the answer was not in Hokkien, the pedestrian would be beaten—or worse. If the pedestrian answered in Hokkien—a dialect with far more speakers on the mainland than in Taiwan—the detained pedestrians would be told to sing the Japanese national anthem, and if they couldn’t or wouldn’t sing the anthem of China’s most hated recent enemy, they would be beaten.

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It was a clash between mob rule and authoritarian suppression, and though it is glamorized by the current ruling party in Taiwan, it was a shameful affair on all sides. It is important to remember that in the aftermath of “2-2-8,” responsible Taiwanese leaders petitioned President Chiang Kaishek in Nanjing for relief, and while bogged down in the heat of the civil war, Chiang did the best he could to send it. It is also important to remember that in one of his last acts on the mainland, Chiang Kaishek had the governor he’d sent to Taiwan, and who was at least partially responsible for the bloody suppression, executed.

As the 1950s moved on, the Kuomintang Party government felt compelled to keep tight control, but that control became increasingly less severe. With American military support Taiwan was able to keep the mainland from invading and imposing the horrors of Mao’s communist “liberation” on the population. In 1958 the People’s Republic of China tried to take control of the Republic of China held off-shore islands Jinmen and Matsu (aka “Quemoy and Matsu” for those who remember the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates). The ROC’s American trained and equipped air force ran the table on the mainland’s air force while losing only one plane, but recovering the pilot. Taiwan was extremely fortunate to be under the Republic of China and the Nationalists instead of the Peoples’ Republic and the Communists.

Instead of brutally forcing the rural population into communes, the Republic of China instituted a land reform program that became a model to the developing world. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was serious and continuous improvement in transportation, public health, and, perhaps most successfully, education. Friction between people of different provincial origins and native dialects declined considerably. Taiwanese society stabilized, the economy grew, political control loosened, and though the Republic of China was still developing, it was the first—and perhaps is still the only—World War Two and Cold War ally to voluntarily pay back the wartime debts it owed the United States.

During the 1970s, with mainland China doing its best to destroy and upend damn near everything in the name of Mao Zedong’s “Great Proletarian Culture Revolution,” in Taiwan, the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, aka KMT) instituted a “cultural renaissance” that emphasized education (especially in traditional Chinese literature) and Confucian social values. At the same time there was an accelerated movement toward democracy, with surprisingly (at least to me) free elections for local offices. I was fortunate to have mutual friends with some of the leaders of the “Outside the Party” movement that was challenging KMT candidates and pushing for further democracy. I interviewed some of these people and was surprised at the stories I heard. Comparatively recent former political leaders told of visits from Chiang Kaishek’s son and heir, Chiang Chingkou, and his almost solicitous concern for them, their families, their health and comfort, their reading matter, and their plans for the future of Taiwan.

One activist who had been elected to the Taipei city council told me that every Thursdaymorning, Chiang Chingkou had breakfast with the “Outside the Party” council members and legislators. The advice Chiang Chingkou gave them was to be patient, for he and his father and other party elders were sincere about fulfilling one of the most sacred promises the Kuomintang and the Republic of China made with the people before the chaos of communist insurgency, Japanese invasion, and communist insurgency yet again had made it impossible to carry through. That was the promise of full and true democracy for the Chinese people.

There were various stumbles along the way, but in 1986 “Outside the Party” activists formally organized the Democratic Progressive Party,, which would eventually be taken over by more radical activists. In 2000 the DPP candidate for president of the Republic of China, Chen Shui-bian, won election with 39 percent of the vote, and the Kuomintang that had run Taiwan since 1945 turned over the presidency in a peaceful transition that proved, once again, that the Kuomintang was serious about democracy. Chen Shui-bian’s presidency was marred by scandal, hostility and threats to mainland China, and clownish behavior on the president’s part, but after a probably staged and faked “assassination attempt” he was re-elected, and served until 2008, when the Kuomintang candidate, Ma Ying-jeou was elected. After leaving office, Chen Shui-bian was tried and convicted of corruption and abuse of authority. In 2016, the DPP candidate, Miss Tsai Yingwen was elected the second non-KMT, and first female, president of the Republic of China—though the use of that title, containing as it does the name “China,” is not much favored because the DPP prefers to deny that Taiwan is Chinese.

And here we come to the current mess. Ever since 1976, when the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China established formal diplomatic relations—a necessity in this modern world—the United States has maintained a delicately balanced policy of “deliberate ambiguity” in its relations with mainland China and Taiwan. Our diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic made it impossible to have official relations with Taiwan. But from the beginning of diplomatic relations with China the USA has insisted upon its right to to maintain quasi-official relations with Taiwan that allow the USA and the ROC to still continue pretty much the same relationship we had when the USA still recognized the ROC as the sole legal government of China.

We have diplomats in Taiwan, and Taiwan has diplomats here—but they are not diplomats in name, only in function. The United States still honors the spirit of its old “mutual” defense pact with the Republic of China. We reserve the right to make “defensive” military sales to Taiwan, and we are still obligated to come to Taiwan’s assistance if the mainland were to militarily attack the island. The mainland Chinese government is not happy about that agreement and grumbles about it, but manages to live with it. Ever since President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, American policy has been to maintain commercial, cultural, and human relations with both Taiwan and the mainland, and to encourage the “two shores” to peacefully improve their mutual relations.

Where 20 years ago what scanty trade and travel there was between Taiwan and the mainland had to go through Hong Kong, all that has changed. In almost all realms except for the military and political, the “two shores” are entwined. In the early 2000s, Democratic Progressive Party President Chen Shui-bian was blustering about using cruise missile to blow up the new dams on the Yangtze River and kill many million people with devastating floods. He enjoyed taunting the mainland and reassuring rural voters not to fear a war with China because only mainlanders and Americans would die in such a war. Meanwhile, the two historical Chinese political parties that had been bitter enemies since 1927, the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, and the Chinese Communist Party, harked back to their common roots in the movement that overthrew the Manchu Ching Dynasty and established the Republic of China, and in 2005 acknowledged each other as fraternal parties.

Under the KMT candidate who took office after Chen Shui-bian, President Ma Ying-jeou, relations across the straits brightened. But in Taiwan there was political turmoil. In opposition to a bill that would cut some of the red tape of cross straits commerce. A “Sun Flower Movement” of student activists that the Democratic Progressive Party helped organize and encourage, physically surrounded and occupied the first and only democratically elected legislature in 4,000 years of Chinese history, the Republic of China Legislative Yuan.

Shortly before the end of his presidential term, Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore with Chinese president Xi Jinping, but with the election of the DPP’s President Tsai Yingwen, tourist traffic from the mainland dropped precipitously, and though people still commute between Taipei and Shanghai, there is new tension between Taiwan and the mainland—and in my view that is absolutely unnecessary tension. The mainland still has missiles aimed at Taiwan and Taiwan still has weapons aimed at the mainland, and the presence of those weapons is almost as ominous as when the crooked rabble-rousing clown, Chen Shui-bian, was in Taipei’s presidential palace. No one but a crazy person, or a fool who believes that war between Taiwan and the mainland would kill only mainlanders and Americans would ever want to see those weapons used.

Americans dangerously underestimate the complexity and ambiguous nature of Taiwan’s feelings about the mainland, and the emotional force this issue arouses on both sides.If they think of Taiwan at all, most Americans see it as an innocent democratic country being bullied and menacing by a much larger communist dragon. But in recent years it has been the DPP and the Taiwan Independence and Taiwan Identity movements that have gone out of their way to instigate friction across the straits.

The words “Taiwan independence” sound very sensible to American ears, and Taiwan independence is what the Democratic Progressive Party desires. But as the Republic of China, Taiwan is already independent. Both the Chinese Nationalist Party—the KMT, and the Chinese Communist Party which is now far more Chinese than it is Communist are sincerely hoping for a solution to the current situation. The mainland’s policy toward Taiwan is fairly simple: Taiwan is a part of the greater Chinese nation, and the recovery of all Chinese territory previously under foreign colonial control has been a sacred mission for both those parties for more than a hundred years.

Serious questions remain about the definition of “independence,” and how to define the Chinese “nation.” Almost no one in Taiwan wants to be ruled directly from the mainland, and almost no one on the mainland wants to see Taiwan divorce itself from China. Of the political parties directly involved, two of them, the Nationalists and the Communists, are willing to find a compromise that would please the people on both sides. Taiwan and the mainland are already culturally and economically interdependent and entwined—but there are those in Taiwan who would turn the “two shores” against each other, at great cost to the mainland and Taiwan, and everyone else in the interconnected world we live in. President Tsai seems considerably more mature and reasonable than Chen Shui-bian, and there is still hope that she will talk to the cousins across the strait. But she has already made it more difficult for America to maintain the delicate balance between Taiwan and mainland China.

I confess to a prejudice against advocates of Taiwanese identity and Taiwan independence—not as individual people, but as part of a movement that has a long history of lying to foreigners and its own constituents, encouraging Chinese people to disdain their own culture and history and to believe such ridiculous nonsense as the common claim that Taiwanese people are a mixture of Japanese and Dutch genes, and not Chinese. I dislike them because they seduce former United States senators (allegedly Gephardt, Daschle, and Dole) into serving as their agents of influence, and I dislike them even more for their gall in luring our president elect into playing a degrading part in a petty trick designed to irk the mainland and delude the American people into taking a side in what is a Han Chinese family squabble about which most of us have absolutely no real understanding. A few years ago, a very senior Chinese general was visiting Los Angeles, and when asked a question about the possibility of war between China and the Unites States over Taiwan, he answered with a chilling question of his own: Would the United States be willing to lose Los Angeles in exchange for Taiwan?

It is never wise to trust anyone who aims to pick a fight and expects you to do the fighting. Let’s hope the new administration in Washington will not fall for any more such tricks.

Featured image courtesy of psmag.com