Far Eastern Economic Review


'Rectifying' Taiwan's Name

By Lee Teng-hui
Issue cover-dated October 16, 2003

The writer was president of Taiwan from 1988 to 2000

In early September, over 150,000 people gathered in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei to support a proposal for what is called the "rectification" of Taiwan's name--in other words, to discard the "Republic of China" moniker. Why has such a demand surfaced?

As I worked to advance the cause of freedom and democracy in Taiwan during my 12 years as president, I met with many difficulties and obstacles that brought me to the conclusion that Taiwan is not a "normal country." A normal country's path towards development is influenced by its history and by its geography. People seek the most advantageous course by reflecting upon their past and considering where they are situated in the physical world. But over the past two centuries, Taiwan has been ruled by external powers. Its goals and political system, in particular, have been imposed by outside regimes, without any influence by the people of Taiwan, without any heed of their views and needs. For a very long time, outside powers dictated the way life was lived by Taiwan's people.

Even now--three years after the democratic transfer of political power--we suffer from the debilitating effect of this historical burden. The people of Taiwan still are unable to muster the determination to be their own masters, to shoulder the responsibilities they alone ought to bear, to deliberate on the nation's future goals, to bravely face challenges and pursue ideals. This is a cause for regret, and it must be remedied.

While, admittedly, the establishment and progress of a nation cannot be shackled by history, it cannot completely dissociate itself from the past. History cannot be changed, but the future is for us to define. How we define our identity is an exercise made against the backdrop of our antecedents. One reason Taiwan is not a normal country is because it has not been able to come to terms with its own history and to establish a Taiwan-centric frame of thinking. Creating a Taiwan-centred environment and realizing the ideals of a normal country are the goals towards which Taiwan should strive.

During my administration, we carried out six amendments to the constitution. I also advocated the idea of a "Republic of China on Taiwan" and promoted the "New Taiwanese" doctrine in the hope that everyone, without distinctions of ethnicity and length of residency, would identify with Taiwan, cherish Taiwan and work together to create a good life in Taiwan. The results have been less than hoped for.

Whether in the area of domestic governance or foreign diplomacy, I came to realize that all the difficulties Taiwan encountered are linked to its impractical official name, "Republic of China." To resolve its problems, Taiwan must begin by correcting its name, making the nation and its official name consistent with reality.

Recently, I said: "The Republic of China no longer exists." I based this on three points. First, when the Republic of China was established in 1912, it by no means encompassed Taiwan. Next, after World War II, the Republic of China was a military occupier of Taiwan, and Taiwan's actual status ought to be deemed a land belonging to no country, whose international status has yet to be defined--not as a part of the Republic of China's already-existing territory.

Lastly, after 1949--when Chinese communists took the mainland territory of the Republic of China--the Republic of China in fact no longer possessed any territory, with only its name continuing to exist. Although the name "Republic of China" was hung on Taiwan, ever since the People's Republic of China supplanted the Republic of China in the United Nations in 1971, the Republic of China vanished from the international community. People should realize that the "Republic of China" is just an official name, not a nation.

Through democratization, Taiwan has finally established a native, Taiwan-rooted democratic regime. Such a native government ought to plan for the well-being of all Taiwan's inhabitants, serve the people and work hard to act on the public's demand for rectification of Taiwan's name. Meanwhile, the people must gain a clearer understanding of their history, work together to set national goals, cooperate with government-reform initiatives and strive for the establishment of a normal country founded on a Taiwan-centric consciousness.

What's in a name? A name is an affirmation of one's identity. Only through the rectification of Taiwan's name can Taiwan truly set goals for its development. Only with goals can there be a direction to focus Taiwan's efforts. And only with direction can Taiwan have the strength to persevere.