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Truth-telling from Taiwan

By Susanna Rodell, July 20, 1999

ROUGEMONT -- What's the most powerful force on Earth? Gravity? Nuclear energy? Light? Entropy?

My contention is that, in human affairs, there is no power that can match that of the story. Stories animate history in a way that mere economics, the forces of climate and natural disaster, even the realities of geography, can never match. Stories send people off to war, propel them into unknown places, compel them to return to inhospitable, decimated landscapes when more comfortable country beckons.

Washington Irving knew this, and set out purposely to make European settlers more at home in their new country by deliberately creating a mythology to fit their new landscape. Thus were born Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. Stories pushed us west and roused us to battle (Remember the Maine!).

Consider the planet's oldest intact political entity, China. Consider the role in its history of the island of Taiwan. Now there's a story.

Home for centuries to traders and pirates, and colonized by the Chinese from Fujian, the island was the site of Dutch East India Company outposts in the 17th century. The Dutch were expelled by the warlord they called Koxinga (Guo Xing-ye in Chinese), who himself had a Chinese father and a Japanese mother. On his death, his son inherited control of Taiwan.

The Ching Dynasty actually tried to bring Taiwan under their sway by isolating it, forcing Chinese who lived along the coast to move 10 miles inland. It took the Ching more more than 20 years to gain control.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the Sino-Japanese War, which Japan won in 1895, much to the world's surprise, with its smaller but much more agile navy. One of its prizes: Taiwan, which it set out to make a full-blown Japanese colony, suppressing the Chinese population and promoting Japanese as the official language. It remained under Japanese control until World War II, after which China's retreating Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek set up headquarters there.

Now the mythology machine began in earnest. The Nationalist government on Taiwan, routed by the Communists, claimed to be the true government of China and to speak for all 3,705,392 square miles of the now-Maoist mainland. The West went along with it.

The Chinese government in Beijing, meanwhile, adopted the stance that Taiwan was a renegade province whose reunification with the Motherland was a patriotic necessity. Like the Ching Dynasty, the People's Republic of China gave the incorporation of Taiwan a place in its consciousness difficult to fathom by outsiders.

By the 1970s the folly of insisting that the government on Taiwan represented all the nearly 1 billion Chinese was too obvious. Clearly we had to recognize (as most of the rest of the world already had) that the Communists were in control. But then there was a complication. Beijing also insisted that there was only one China, of which Taiwan was an integral part. To recognize the People's Republic, we had to accept their description of their national boundaries.

Ever since 1979, then, we have lived with what The New York Times has described recently as a "useful ambiguity," otherwise recognizable as a somewhat screwy fiction. Clearly, there are two Chinas, have been for 50 years, and will be for some time to come.

So last week Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui performed an act akin to broadcasting a taboo-for-discussion but well-known family factoid, somewhere in the realm of "of course Uncle Ned is off his rocker" or "We all know Sadie was pregnant when she got hitched."

Lee said that Taiwan and China were functionally independent states. To which the reply could have been one big international Duuuuhh. But, as so many families function on myth and denial, so it is with the international community, in which much outrage was expressed that Lee had needlessly provoked Beijing, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin let President Clinton know he would not rule out the use of force to stop Lee from asserting Taiwanese independence.

It's tough. It defies reason. We're committed to protecting Taiwan from aggression; we have no desire to get into a military confrontation with the Chinese; therefore we all wish Lee would shut up. Most of the editorialists in the country have made this point, expressing displeasure with Lee for his intemperance.

I differ. I think Lee's statement, like all statements of truth in the midst of denial, was courageous. I believe further that it wasn't as stupid as most observers believe. It's a tiny wedge in the game of international denial that's been going on around Taiwan for the past 50 years. I predict that, having made his point, Lee will not be eager to further infuriate Beijing and that Beijing will maybe conduct a few military exercises but will not invade Taiwan any time soon.

Lee has been willing to let go of the Nationalist myth. Under his governance the island has become prosperous and democratic. Its economy is closely tied with China's; many Taiwanese now live there and do a lot of business there.

China is big and clings hard to its mythology. Ambiguity may be useful here, but I'm rooting for Lee.

Susanna Rodell's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. She can be reached by e-mail at surodell@aol.com