In the minds of China's rulers, past and present, there has only ever been one possible view about the future of Taiwan. For a multitude of reasons – strategic, economic, ethnic, linguistic, historical and sentimental – they have believed that it should be properly incorporated as part of the Chinese state, and that the expression of any views to the contrary amount to treason. As a resident of China for five years, I cannot recall encountering any Chinese citizen who did not declare this "proper" status of Taiwan to be self-evident when asked. On this topic the Chinese education system has successfully promoted a consensus.
Anyone with a curious mind who has spent time in Taiwan, or amongst Taiwanese, will quickly conclude that the "self-evident" and "proper" status of Taiwan as a province of China is by no means accepted amongst the largest number of people there. The focus of disagreement within Taiwan is not on whether to surrender sovereignty, but on how to retain it.
With 1500 mainland missiles pointed at their heads, one Taiwanese political group, the KMT, think that the best stratagem is to maintain legal ambiguity, promote PRC-Taiwanese cooperation wherever possible, and above all avoid any kind of military confrontation. The Kuomintang (KMT) directly descends from Chiang Kai-shek's defeated nationalists (in China, Jiang Jièshí) who fled the mainland after civil war in 1949 and forcibly took over Taiwan as a last redoubt, backed by US military support. Scars from that hijack can still be found in popular sentiment, but there is no doubt that most KMT supporters nowadays see themselves as Taiwanese first and foremost. The KMT party is also home to major business families, many of whom have successfully leveraged traditional commercial interests on the mainland. Current known cross-strait investments are estimated to be about US$150 billion.
The other half of Taiwan's political population is more openly eager for an assertion of Taiwan's sovereignty. As a political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), they are strongest in the south, the area least populated by the 1949 invasion. However, the Taiwanese independence sentiments the DPP represent are island-wide. This party under Tsai Ing-wen just lost a national election, a great relief to Beijing and Washington who at this point don't want Taiwan to be the Sarajevo for another world war. However, it is safe to say that Taiwan voted this time, not from sentiment but from a gloomy assessment of realpolitik. Taiwan lives or dies economically on trade, and the world's cascading economic crisis has left it highly vulnerable.
Thus at present the PRC-Taiwan conundrum seems to be one of those insoluble diplomatic standoffs, waiting for some moment of historical turmoil to make it fall one way or the other. Perhaps, instead of remaining paralysed in fearful anticipation, it is time for some thought experiments.
There have been many times and places in history where a nation of people embedded in one world-view are forced to think the unthinkable. Having thought the unthinkable, they have sometimes done the undoable. Most often these radical realignments have come about as a result of military or natural catastrophe. Sometimes a nation's leaders and thinkers have seen "the writing on the wall" for their particular cultural design, and scrambled to adapt. China itself attempted this, at a cost of horrendous self-mutilation for over a century. In East Asia, the Meiji Restoration in Japan might be one partially successful example, but was truncated by Japanese delusions of military empire.
Europe has some thought-provoking examples of political re-birthing. Austrian identity strikes more than a passing echo with the Taiwanese dilemma. Austria was leader of the German speaking Holy Roman Empire for almost a millennium, collapsed, then experienced a shaky independence (rather like Taiwan's) after World War I through the treaty of Versailles. It was forcibly incorporated into Hitler's Third Reich (anschluss), and after 1945 a found new identity as a relatively small but prosperous nation. Modern Austria and Germany have close relationships at every level, yet any thought of "anschluss" is thoroughly buried. With independent national spirits, these two nations prosper as friends rather than simmer with the resentments and demoralization of conquest.
The Age of European Colonialism left many new nations it its wake. Whatever abuses this colonial period inflicted on the world (and they were a multitude), the whole experiment did upend countless existing cultures world-wide, Chinese cultures amongst them. This wasn't a wholly bad thing. Over time, without competition or threat, cultures often stagnate. Notions of authority and class divisions become fixed, competence and innovation surrender to tradition, once great civilizations become shells with descendants living like paupers in the shadow of the ancestors' past glories. Suddenly in the colonial era there arose opportunities for enterprising individuals and new ideas, both amongst the colonials themselves and amongst those colonised. An ocean away from China, the British colonials seized the land masses we now know as Australia and New Zealand. The small settlements of English colonists in these places had to be innovative, enterprising and hard working to survive. Gradually they grew into the multicultural nations we know today. Throughout their short existence as emerging nations (about two centuries) the people of New Zealand and Australia have had so much in common that they have toyed with the idea of political union from the beginning, and rejected it every time. As an Australian, I received a free tertiary education in New Zealand, and very large numbers of New Zealanders have built satisfying lives in Australia. We rarely feel like strangers in each other's houses. We prosper as brothers and sisters. Yet if Australia were ever to train its guns on New Zealand there would be a fight to the last dog left standing. It would be a crippling tragedy for both peoples .
Let us take our thought experiments another step. It is probably a rare politician who pauses to wonder about what a nation state really is. Although this little analysis has traded names like China and Taiwan, Germany and Austria, Australia and New Zealand, the true meaning of those terms has shifted over time, and continues to evolve. There is a good argument that the ancient concept that a country is defined by having an army has reached its use-by date. The huge modern worldwide armaments industry, generating war after war to sell bombs and build careers in client armies, whether for Chinese or American or any other "patriot flag", is a cruel and pointless trade. What matters in the end for human population centers, and for you and me, is something quite different from the blood and iron of old empires. The contest for scarce competence is what modern states are all about. The essence of true states is comprised of peoples, not of territories, and it is plain now that the most able people increasingly choose to go where their competence is accorded the highest value – value sometimes as monetary reward, but more often in terms of appreciation, professional opportunity, personal security, lifestyle, and so on. Some of the highest bidders for this talent are in fact "states" with no territory at all – multinational corporations, as well as other large international institutions and NGOs.
Nevertheless, although land is insufficient in itself to define a state, it is of great importance. Where large numbers of people choose to congregate, as in cities, they put great value on land, continuously bid its price up, and often invest their life savings in it. Also, without land food security becomes dependent upon trading relationships, and cultural insularity becomes self-defeating. Without water and fuel, similar consequences come into play. Historically people have also invested their myths, together with many cultural habits in particular pieces of land or water, and not infrequently defended these assets to the death. These are all necessities and habits not easily abandoned, yet the history of migrations show us that the most dynamic individuals have always been prepared to put factors like land, familiar social organization and even core beliefs aside for other opportunities.
The land question has most often been used by political elites as the excuse for war, while the real engine perhaps has typically been a lust for power. Such a double equation is one way to view the troubled relationship between Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China. Will the Chinese elites ever be able to reach past the old obsessions of land, power and glory? (We can ask the same about American or Russian or any other political elites). The rewards could be immense. China has fourteen nations on its land borders, and many others within important economic proximity. China's relationships with these other states are of course complex. Much of the human interaction is quite similar to what you would find between Australians and New Zealanders, Germans and Austrians, and so on. Indeed, increasingly this is the friendly nature of personal relationships between the peoples of China and Taiwan. However, at the level of governments, a huge shadow hangs over Chinese interstate relationships. Not one of the countries on China's borders trusts its long term intentions. That is sad, incomprehensible to most ordinary people within China, but true. It is in nobody's interests excepting only the merchants of death.
To summarize, in thinking about the China-Taiwan issue, there is a mix of old and new ingredients to consider:
a) Traditional concepts and conflicts:
- The Chinese people and their government believe that Taiwan should rightfully be a part of China. Very few Taiwanese people want Taiwan to be a political part of China, and they have developed a vibrant, successful democracy to express those views.
- The Chinese government has threatened to invade Taiwan by military force (as the Chiang Kai-shek forces did in 1949), and have positioned large military assets to back up the threat. Taiwan is forced to invest considerable resources in maintaining a credible defence force.
- The Chinese government has introduced extensive incentives to persuade the Taiwanese people to the many advantages of political union. These include very large cross-strait investments, business openings for Taiwanese industry on the mainland, opportunities for Taiwanese students to study in mainland universities, permission for a major cross-strait tourist industry, increasingly relaxed travel rights, and so on. In spite of this increasing interdependence, Taiwanese continue to value their independence.
- All of China's bordering states, like the people of Taiwan, remain dubious and fearful about the long term intentions of the Peoples Republic of China in its present form.
b) New concepts as catalysts for solving old problems:
- The European Colonial Era and its aftermath forced many cultures to adapt in radical ways, both within Europe and worldwide. Some of those cultural solutions may have ingredients useful to resolving the China-Taiwan issue.
- Austria-Germany and New Zealand-Australia are two examples of small-large states that have developed very close relationships based on mutual respect for each other's independence. The synergies arising from these pairs are far greater than any advantage which could come from a larger state coercively absorbing a smaller state.
- The idea of what a nation state is has evolved greatly. Now armies do not truly define states. States are more usefully thought of as large collections of people pursuing some common aspirations. Some of these human collections or groups do not have land (though land is important), and may exist across traditional borders. There are large international organizations that have more real power than many traditional states. The defining characteristic of successful human groups is their ability to nurture and attract competence. Traditional statehood is now hostage to the continual migration of able individuals for wider opportunity.
It is time to put this equation together. What would be the consequences, to follow our crazy thought experiment, if the Peoples Republic of China were to formally renounce all claims to sovereignty over Taiwan? Well, at first there would be a very confused Chinese public in the PRC and a desperate need for some inspired domestic persuasion out of Beijing. However, once that contradiction had been finessed (they've had tougher knots to untie), my guess is that within a short time Taiwan would become China's best friend and ally. They have so much in common. A free Taiwan choosing between America and China? No contest. Of course they would choose China. Taiwan has already shown the world what its enterprise can achieve under conditions of great handicap. Give its people back their hope and spirit, then Taiwan would be the best little brother that China could ever wish for. China would win immense international respect and trust. It truly would be on the fast track in that new Great Game, the contest for competence.
“The contest for the scarce resource of competence” is further explained in a posting at http://thorsunwiseideas.byeways.net/2009/01/15/47-the-contest-for-competence/ . Thor May’s doctoral dissertation dealt with aspects of knowledge worker productivity. He worked in China for five years and South Korea for seven years, but now lives in Australia. His central website is http://thormay.net, and public contact firstname.lastname@example.org.