Taiwan's Quest for Respect

An Appeal to the International Community

On 19 February 1996, professor Lucian Pye of M.I.T. published an excellent treatise in the New York Times, titled "China's Quest for Respect." It inspired us to put the following thoughts on paper, in order to help Americans, and others, understand why we Taiwanese are longing to be fully recognized as a free, democratic, and independent country. Thus the title "Taiwan's Quest for Respect."

Many of the older generation of Taiwanese were born during the pre-1945 Japanese period, and experienced the post World War II influx of the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. To them, China was a faraway land, engulfed in a Civil War with which Taiwan had nothing to do. However, Taiwan suddenly became entwined in this Civil War after 1945, when China disgorged its defeated Chinese Nationalist armies onto the island.

The Taiwanese were initially glad to get rid of the Japanese, but soon their joy turned into sorrow and anger: the newcomers from China turned out to be corrupt, repressive, and uncivilized. The tension burst out into the open in the February 28th Incident of 1947, when a small incident in Taipei led to large-scale demonstrations. The Kuomintang was initially taken aback, but secretly sent troops from the mainland, which started to round up and execute a whole generation of leading figures, students, lawyers, doctors. In all between 18.000 and 28.000 people were killed, and during the "white terror" of the following years, thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the KMT's highly efficient KGB-machine, the Taiwan Garrison Command.

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek lost the war on the mainland, and fled to Taiwan, where he established the remainder of his regime. For the next four decades, the people of Taiwan lived under Martial Law, while the KMT attempted to maintain the fantasy that they ruled all of China, and would some day "recover" the mainland. The Chinese mainlanders who came over with Chiang Kai-shek constituted only 15 percent of the population of the island, but were able to maintain themselves in a position of power over the 85 percent native Taiwanese through tight control of the political system, police, military, educational system and media.

Against this background, the transition which took place over the past ten years from a repressive authoritarian regime to an open and democratic society is truly remarkable, and a credit to the democratic opposition which worked hard to achieve it, and whose members often paid for it with imprisonment, and in some cases with their lives.

The question must be asked, what prompted this transition, what inspired it ?

Deep down, the inspiration for all of us came from our Taiwanese identity, from a history of being oppressed for centuries, from a common culture and language. Or, in the words of Lucian Pye: "...a trove of ideals and principles, myths and symbols, and stories of heroes that could be woven together to produce an uplifting, positive nationalism."

We were also inspired by the values we learned from the West. Terms like "freedom" and "democracy" came to have meaning for us. In Mandarin, the Chinese dialect brought over by Chiang Kai-shek, these expressions don't even exist. The United Nations as an institution which stands for principles such as self-determination came to have meaning for us. Many of us studied in the United States and Europe and observed the freedom and openness of the society. We became convinced that this is what we wanted in Taiwan.

So, for the past four decades Taiwanese on the island and overseas worked stubbornly towards the goal of a free, democratic, and independent Taiwan. A nation that would be accepted by the international family of nations as a full and equal partner. We had, and still have, "...a shared and inspiring vision of what the nation should stand for in the world of nation states" (Lucian Pye).

This vision is now nearing completion: in the coming weeks Taiwan will elect the first democratically-elected president in its history. We have a democratic, if somewhat rambunctious, legislature. The economy is vibrant. We are ready to join the world community.

...... but we hear no words of welcome ...... Why ?

China is threatening that if Taiwan -- and we quote newspaper reports -- "drops a pledge to reunify and tries to declare independence" it will launch an attack and invade our island.

We must emphasize here that we Taiwanese never gave any "pledge" to unify. We were never asked about our future. The problems stem from an old Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. We believe that our future should not be held hostage to that Civil War.

China has two choices: continue the hostilities, have tension and military confrontation for years to come -- and wreck its chances to economic development and respect in the international community, or come to an accommodation with Taiwan and strive for peaceful coexistence as two good neighbors. We hope it will chose the latter.

What can the international community do to help bring this about ?

For one, by abandoning the reticence towards Taiwan, and accepting a free, democratic, and independent nation as a full and equal partner in your midst. Furthermore, by making it clear to China that if it wants international respect, it needs to respect the rights of other nations, and not threaten and bully.

The United Nations has a particularly important role to play: is was founded on the principles of "equal rights" and "self-determination". In addition, the 1951-52 UN-sponsored San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended World War II, concluded that "...the future status of Taiwan will be decided in accord with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations." It is time for the UN to live up to these principles and embrace Taiwan as a new member.

The United States is in a particularly sensitive position: it wants to enhance its relations with China through its "constructive engagement" policy, and at the same time continue its unofficial relations with Taiwan. This present "One China" policy was set out in the 1970s by Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger and continued since then by Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and now Clinton. However, it was founded on a situation, in which Taiwan was ruled by a repressive regime which still wanted to "recover" the Chinese mainland, and is therefore now outdated.

The United States has been tinkering to adjust its Taiwan policy. But there is now a wholly new Taiwan, which is founded on the principles of freedom, human rights, and -- in the worlds of American visionaries -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." There is thus a need for new visionary thinking from the United States, a vision that takes account of the principles on which the US itself was founded.

Taiwan has transformed itself into -- and again we are echoing the words of Lucian Pye -- "unique and worthy nation." This new Taiwan wants liberty, respect and recognition -- from all of you.

Back to: Taiwan News and Current Events page

Last updated on 3 March 1996