Washington, Tuesday, September 29, 1998
If a day arises when an unwilling Taiwan is snatched into the
grasp of China [the People's Republic of China], it would be
wholly accurate to say that Taiwan was "shanghaied."
American Presidential visits to Shanghai have never boded
well for Taiwanese aspirations of self-determination. In his
recent visit to China, President Clinton chose the venue of a
small roundtable of academics in the Chinese metropolis to
state publicly for the first time the "Three Noes"
which enunciate American unwillingness to support (1) Taiwan
independence, (2)'one China, one Taiwan' and 'two Chinas', and
(3) Taiwanese entrance into international organizations.
Despite the gravity of this policy for the Taiwanese and the
ire it has drawn among them, the significance of Clinton's
utterance can not match Nixon's 1972 Shanghai Communique in
scope and effect. This groundbreaking document is singly
responsible for having inextricably changed US-Taiwan-China
relations and for unwittingly drawing the battlelines for how
the political war over Taiwan has been waged ever since.
Within the Communique is an often overlooked and seemingly
innocuous statement. The US declared that "it reaffirms
its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question
by the Chinese themselves." Subtle, but far-reaching, the
opinion that the "Chinese themselves" should resolve
the conflict suggests two critical misconceptions of this
highly charged debate.
First, the statement insinuates that Taiwan is wholly
composed of people of Chinese identity. Although in 1972,
those heading Taiwan's authoritarian government considered
themselves Chinese and the legitimate Chinese government, the
statement implicitly disempowers and ignores all those living
in Taiwan who don't consider themselves Chinese. In fact,
polls currently show that only 16% identify themselves as
Moreover, in the late 1940's, when the Kuomintang began rule
in Taiwan, roughly only one-quarter of the 8 million people
were "Chinese" i.e. those who themselves came from
mainland China, while the rest were natives.
That the China-Taiwan conflict involves more than the
Chinese but also the Taiwanese people is imperative to
remember in the forum for debate of American policy even if it
still adheres to the "One China" policy. Second, the
Communique language of "Chinese themselves" implies
the conflict is [to use the language of the Chinese] an "internal
Peering through these faulty lenses, the visions of American
policy makers have been blurred from realizing that primarily
a universal, not an internal issue is at stake in the
Taiwan-China discord. That elusive issue is human rights which
Taiwan's alliterative and subjected counterparts: Tibet and
Tiananmen, receive much attention for, but which in discussion
of Taiwan is usually excluded.
Often forgotten is the Taiwanese people's entitlement to
choose their own nation free from fear of force. This concept
is succinctly stated in Article 15 [excerpt] of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be arbitrarily
deprived of his nationality."
If the Taiwanese people do not have a say in the possible
unification with China, the Taiwanese would be suffering a
deprivation of their nationality and a violation of their
human right. Though seemingly obvious, the belief that the 21
million Taiwanese people should ultimately decide their own
fate is not entrenched in the current framework for debate.
Instead, the two aforementioned misconceptions continue to
be pervasive. A prime example lies in President Clinton's
reply to a question at Beijing University where he said, "United
States policy is not an obstacle to the peaceful reunification
of China and Taiwan ... we have encouraged the cross-strait
dialogue to achieve that." The prefix "re" in
reunification suggests that Taiwan and its people were in some
way unified with China before.
Although this concept may apply for the two million
Kuomintang supporters who came over from China by 1949, it is
false for the six million who were already living on the
island at that time and the 84% of the people today who do not
consider themselves "Chinese." President Clinton
speaks as if no Taiwanese people live in Taiwan.
Furthermore, President Clinton's naming of "cross-strait
dialogue" as the means to "reunification"
undermines the human right of the Taiwanese to choose their
nationality and their leaders. Ultimately, neither Jiang
Zemin, Lee Teng-Hui, nor their respective circles should
solely decide for or against unification, but the Taiwanese
people themselves should wield that power.
In the current forum surrounding the China-Taiwan conflict,
little is ever said about empowering the Taiwanese people to
make the choice of nationality.
President Clinton has not been the only American official
maintaining these misconceptions. Supporters of the Taiwanese
cause and well-meaning Congressmen and Senators have been
equally as susceptible in believing that the China-Taiwan
conflict is purely a Chinese disagreement and an internal, not
Only last year, a bill introduced in the Senate read: "Taiwan
reached a historic turning point in the development of Chinese
democracy ... when it conducted the first ... popular election
... in over 4,000 years of recorded Chinese history."
Linking the Taiwanese election to Chinese history assumes that
the people in Taiwan are Chinese, a premise that is at least
A survey of every bill introduced in the 105th Congress thus
far shows that not one mentions the Taiwanese people's
entitlement to decide their own nationality as an universal or
human right. Legislation has invariably focused on trade,
security, and international recognition, issues of utmost
importance, but has missed the underlining point: the
Taiwanese people and their human right to choose their
Even legislation that explicitly supports Taiwanese
sovereignty often fails to emphasize the Taiwanese people's,
not its government's, power to decide its own fate. To this
end, the US should back its ubiquitous democracy and human
rights rhetoric and support a resolution by national
referendum. The Taiwanese people themselves, not strictly the
Kuomintang nor the Democratic Progressive Party leaders, ought
to choose their own leaders and country.
The Chinese should be told that the referendum is the only
way the US will support unification and that China must
renounce the use of force. To prevent the referendum from
being an absurd choice between authoritarianism and democracy,
the referendum may not occur until the Chinese demonstrate
significant steps in democratization.
By this method the US simultaneously encourages democracy in
China and sustains human rights in Taiwan. It allows a
scenario for China to unify with Taiwan while also permitting
the latter to completely disassociate itself with the former
Additionally, the US finally removes itself from the zero
sum characteristic of American relations toward China and
Taiwan and grounds American policy in concrete, worthwhile
principles: democracy and human rights. In the meantime, the
US should support Taiwanese bids to join international
Critics will charge that a strong American support for a
Taiwanese referendum may lead to a potentially catastrophic
end game. However, they fail to see that the status quo offers
a greater chance for this scenario. Low level talks are
scheduled to resume between Taiwan and China with no likely or
viable scenario for Taiwan to unify with China in sight. At
current pace, China's drive toward unification will only reach
At least, the referendum offers a peaceful script where
Taiwan may unify with China, but of more importance the power
of decision is rightfully placed within the hands of the
Furthermore, while American policy can stand firm in support
of human rights for the people of Tibet and Tiananmen, it
never does so for their sister "T". Human rights
should be extended to all. Don't forget the Taiwanese people.