Anchluss or ANZAC? – A Solution for Taiwan

Thor May
Bris­bane, Aus­tralia
12 Jan­u­ary 2012

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 rarely encoun­tered 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 pub­lic 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 1600 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, ??? Guó mín d?ng ) directly descends from Chi­ang Kai-shek’s ( ??? Ji?ng Jiè shí) roughly two mil­lion defeated nation­al­ists who fled the main­land after civil war in 1949 and forcibly took over Tai­wan as a last redoubt, backed by US mil­i­tary sup­port. Today their descen­dants (??? wàish?ng rén) num­ber about 12% of Taiwan’s pop­u­la­tion.

Scars from that hijack can still be found in pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment, recall­ing the mas­sacre of an esti­mated 30,000 local Tai­wanese lead­ers and resis­tance fight­ers in the “white ter­ror” of 1947, with con­tin­u­ing per­se­cu­tion of the local Tai­wanese elite until the repeal of mar­tial law in 1987. How­ever, there is no doubt that a major­ity of KMT sup­port­ers nowa­days see them­selves as Tai­wanese first and fore­most. The Tai­wanese KMT party has splin­tered some­what polit­i­cally, but remains home to major busi­ness fam­i­lies, many of whom have suc­cess­fully lever­aged tra­di­tional com­mer­cial inter­ests on the main­land. Known cross-strait invest­ments were esti­mated to be about US$150 bil­lion in 2008.

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 and rural dis­tricts, the areas least pop­u­lated by the 1949 inva­sion. How­ever, the Tai­wanese inde­pen­dence sen­ti­ments the DPP rep­re­sent are island-wide. This party lost a national pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2012, 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 Tai­wanese 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 had 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 had 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 mostly Ger­man speak­ing Holy Roman Empire, then the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Empire, for almost a mil­len­nium. Even­tu­ally in the 19th Cen­tury it was excluded from a new Prus­sian-dom­i­nated con­fed­er­a­tion of Ger­man states. It expe­ri­enced a shaky inde­pen­dence (rather like Taiwan’s) after World War I through the treaty of Ver­sailles. Aus­tria was forcibly incor­po­rated into Hitler’s Third Reich in 1938 (anschluss), but after 1945 it again found a new life as a rel­a­tively small but pros­per­ous nation.

As in Tai­wan, Aus­trian people’s views have evolved to sup­port an inde­pen­dent iden­tity, and by 1987 only 6% of Aus­tri­ans iden­ti­fied them­selves as “Ger­man” (Wikipedia at ). 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. China itself has had numer­ous rebirths through the inva­sion and inte­gra­tion of for­eign­ers, mostly Mon­gols, and the cre­ation of new dynas­ties. The West­ern colo­nial eco­nomic inva­sions set in train dra­matic changes which are still devel­op­ing.

Sud­denly in the colo­nial era there arose oppor­tu­ni­ties for enter­pris­ing indi­vid­u­als and new ideas, both amongst the colo­nials them­selves and amongst those col­o­nized. 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 (I have writ­ten on this topic in another arti­cle at ). 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 and prof­itable 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 as a nation. 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 which 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. It truly would be on the fast track in that new Great Game, the con­test for com­pe­tence.


Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 


All opin­ions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

Anch­luss or ANZAC? – A Solu­tion for Tai­wan ©Thor May 2012; all rights reserved



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