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The Taiwan Conundrum


August 30, 2002

By Hugo Restall

Who are the people who live on Taiwan? Are they Chinese or a separate nation? That's a question of international interest, since China has promised war if the Taiwanese insist they have a separate national identity which precluded eventual reunification. The answer remains up in the air. Even the Taiwanese don't seem to know their own hearts, and sometimes give conflicting answers to pollsters depending on when and how the question is asked.

Their leaders can be just as fickle. When former President Lee Teng-hui first took over as head of the ruling Kuomintang, he seemed to be a staunch supporter of reunification. Today he's head of a new pro-independence party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, and is pushing for explicit independence by 2008. On the other hand, a decade ago, Hsu Hsin-liang was chairman of the then explicitly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Now he favors reunification.

Identity is more complicated for Taiwanese than it is for, say, North and South Koreans. Most Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese, but they haven't shared citizenship with mainland cousins in generations. Aside from a few years at the end of World War II, Taiwan hasn't been ruled from the mainland since the Qing Dynasty handed it over Japan in 1895.

Taiwanese enjoy aspects of China's culture, but older Taiwanese retain a nostalgia for Japan's culture, as the Japanese rulers were much more benevolent in Taiwan than in other parts of Asia. Things turned worse when Japan surrendered and the mainland Chinese arrived: Chiang Kai-shek's secret police turned out to be more brutal than the Kempeitai. Chiang's obsession with retaking the mainland and the policy of forcing Taiwanese to speak mandarin only increased alienation. Taiwanese were greatly disadvantaged until Chiang's son started a process of localization. The struggle of pro-democracy dissidents was naturally conflated with dislike of mainlanders and reunification.

These intense feelings of resentment of mainland Chinese are only slowly fading away under the influence of democracy and China's economic reforms. But DPP candidates still pull in votes by portraying themselves as representatives of the native-born. China¹s threats against the island play beautifully into this strategy.

Some believe that economic interaction will lessen the alienation. In the long term that¹s probably correct. However, in the last decade it hasn¹t held true. Taiwanese companies have poured $100 billion into the mainland, while Taiwan's separate identity has grown stronger. This may be partly due to China's threat to use force to accomplish reunification. But something else is at work ­ Taiwan's political leadership. The island's first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, and his successor Chen Shui-bian, have both sought to strengthen national identity. Beijing may not fully understand Taiwan's democracy, but it does understand this trend ­ and is worried by it.

Yan Xuentong, director of the Institute of International Study at Beijng's Tsinghua University, is a hardline strategist who watches Taiwan like a hawk. Although Beijing emphasizes the ties of blood between Taiwan and China, national identity depends, in his view, not on blood but on socialization. Education plays an especially strong role, and Taiwan's schools have localized the curriculum to emphasize that the youngest eligible votes overwhelmingly support the DPP.

Prof. Yan believes that time is not on China's side. As Taiwan's population changes, support for President Chen and the DPP grows. Mr. Chen won the presidency in 2000 with 39% of the vote. Late last year the DPP and Mr. Lee's party won 45% of the vote in the legislative elections. The ruling pro-independence forces are gaining about 3% support a year. Prof. Yan predicts that President Chen will call a referendum toward the end of his second term, around 2007, by then support for independence will be around 60%. He can then change the government's name from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan. The two-term limit in the constitution will not apply to the "new country," and he could run again.

Although such a scenario might seem fanciful, the real question is what the U.S. would do. Right now it's still possible to hush Mr. Chen, because the Taiwanese are not agitating for independence. But if in five years he has led them to realize that they do have a national identity separate from China, there will be a much more difficult decision to make.

The U.S. would have to choose whether to support the principle of self-determination and go to war with China, or make it clear to the Taiwanese that they fight alone for independence. Either could be disastrous for the U.S. military presence in Asia. Beijing must be hoping that U.S. will pressure Mr. Chen not to lead Taiwan to a referendum. But the process of creating a national identity, begun by Lee Teng-hui may have already gathered so much momentum that a cross-Strait class is inevitable.

Mr. Restall is the editorial page editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal.