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How China Lost Taiwan


For foreign correspondents who had been present in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the events of the night of March 17, 1996, in the plaza in front of the Taipei city hall, showed more clearly than any other what the China-Taiwan crisis is about.

With the first truly democratic election in history for a Chinese president only a few days away, 20,000 supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which stands for full Taiwanese independence, were holding a rally in which the burning of an effigy of Deng Xiaoping was only a sideshow. Since 1989 none of us who have been reporting for years from the mainland had heard so many thousands of voices demanding that the national leader himself, in this case Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, “get off the stage,” or resign; they were also shouting, “Down with the Kuomintang” (KMT), the ruling party. These cries were only an amplification of what we heard nightly on Taipei’s radio talk shows when callers described the KMT leaders as “hoodlums”—liumang—and President Lee Teng-hui, who was soon to be reelected, as the chief hoodlum.

Also reminiscent of Tiananmen Square seven years ago were the professors and young intellectuals who conducted seminars on the history of Taiwan with hundreds of young people squatting on the ground, while excited demonstrators buttonholed every foreign journalist in sight to tell them of the iniquities of the president and the KMT, and to explain that while Taiwanese were ethnic Chinese, politically they were independent. They wanted, the professors said, nothing to do with the Republic of China, an alien, defeated regime that had fled to Taiwan in 1949, uninvited by the original inhabitants, who today make up 85 percent of the population, and who have long been tired of rule by the heirs of Chiang Kai-shek’s mainlanders.

There were armed police in and around Taipei’s central square that evening, and for those who remembered how in Peking in 1989 the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police smashed their way into Tiananmen Square, it was astounding to watch the Taipei police briskly directing traffic through the tumultuous throng as if it were no more than a crowd leaving a football match.

Peking would have called what was being declaimed in that square subversive, but it was something else. It was the kind of energetic, frantic, and occasionally libelous political discourse that one can still hear on Hyde Park Corner. It ranged from insistence on alternative views of Taiwan’s status to charges that had a McCarthyist tinge, directed mostly against President Lee by militants from the DPP and his other main adversaries. Some said that Lee had been a Communist in his university days in Taipei. In fact he had probably belonged to left-wing groups that were anti-KMT. But listening to the excited crowds during that warm Taipei night, I wondered for a moment if Peking was not making a big mistake in attacking Lee so fiercely. Very few people in the crowd that was calling for independence as soon as possible said that they thought of Lee as what Peking calls a “splittist,” someone who wants to permanently sever Taiwan from the mainland. But, as will become clear, Peking is right about Lee.

So far as I could see, the Taiwanese, who only ten years ago risked jail for having outspoken anti-KMT views, were now uninhibited about expressing every sort of opinion. The slogan painted on a bed sheet draped across the front of a van put it directly: “Fuck China.”

The owner of a photography shop said, “Lee thinks that Taiwan is part of China. The KMT has controlled Taiwan for forty years, and we still don’t even have a name, and we’re not part of the United Nations. We are not Chinese, we are Taiwanese.”

Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, too, but 98 percent of them say they are Singaporean, not Chinese,” said a professor at the National University. “If Chinese come here, I’ll fight.”

A mild-mannered Taiwan-born law professor in his sixties, educated in Göttingen, and whose German was better than his Mandarin or English, came through the crowd on March 17 listening to one of the weekly “underground seminars” being broadcast on an unlicensed radio station. “Taiwan is Taiwan, not part of China,” he said. “There is no evidence or law to show it’s part of China. Lee wants to unify, but that would be death.” He made a pistol with his hand. “And we don’t want to be dead.”

The entire event surged with the same political euphoria that we saw in Tiananmen Square, but without any bloody consequences whatever, and this seemed to underline the challenge that the Taiwan elections pose for Peking.

The Chinese Communist state in recent decades has had to deal with “splittists” in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia, but the peoples involved, although called Chinese by the regime, both linguistically and in other basic respects, come from non-Chinese cultures. The men and women demanding independence in Taiwan, however, speak a Chinese dialect, read Chinese characters, and come from an unquestionably Chinese Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist background. Their island had been under rulers from the Chinese mainland until 1895, when the Japanese took it over. Only after the defeated Japanese left in 1945 did Chiang Kai-shek’s government take control of Taiwan.

When the people I talked to said, “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese,” they were making a political statement; they were not much different from the American colonists of the eighteenth century who demanded freedom from the Britain where many of them had originated. Here lies China’s danger. Although for 2000 years there were long periods of disunity when the country fell into independent or semi-independent kingdoms or warlord territories, most regional potentates were pretenders to the imperial throne and advocates of unity. In Taiwan, the marching men, women, and children were demanding something much more limited: an independent island. But the demand was limited only with respect to physical size. The banner that said “Fuck China” and the signs saying “One China, One Taiwan” posed a threat to Peking. So did the steady renaming of streets and parks which now have local, even aboriginal names, like Katagelan, the name of a tribe, replacing KMT names like Reunification Road; the disgusted older people originally from the mainland, steadily declining in proportional numbers and influence, resolutely refuse to learn the new names.

Except for a few firebrands from the DPP advocating total independence, no one I met anywhere on Taiwan, including its outer islands, bragged about beating back the mainland invaders. A war, it was generally agreed, would be horrible. But Taiwan has shown itself well able to resist Chinese pressure. Unlike Hong Kong it is guarded from immediate mainland assault by an excellent army, by the Taiwan Strait, and by the possibility of American defense. Nor is it encumbered, as Hong Kong is, by an unbreachable treaty which makes reunification inevitable on a certain day. Whatever Taipei and Peking may say about ultimate reunification, the last real military collision between them came in 1958, when mainland shore batteries bombarded Quemoy and Matsu.

What happened to interrupt this seeming coexistence, and in so spectacular a fashion that 620 international journalists came to a small island with a population of about 21 million to watch 14 million of them vote? Part of the attraction was the possibility of an accident which could transform Peking’s war games into some sort of battle, possibly involving what US Defense Secretary Perry called “the best damn navy in the world.”

The new crisis over Taiwan began last spring when President Lee announced he would attend, in June, a college reunion at Cornell, where he had received his doctorate in agricultural economics in 1968. Peking demanded that this leading opponent of its claim to Taiwan should not be given a visa for this trip and, in May, Warren Christopher assured Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that he would not. When the Republican Congress insisted that Lee receive a visa after all, Christopher had to explain to the Chinese that under American democracy there were limitations on presidential power. This was an embarrassment for Qian, and something which China’s leaders did not want to believe, although they have experts on America who could have explained it to them if they had been willing to listen.

Peking’s leaders are convinced anyway that in its policy toward China the US is waging “smokeless warfare” and that it favors a “peaceful evolution” of Chinese communism into something else. They believe that Washington was secretly encouraging Taiwan to proclaim de jure independence. Lee had already offered the United Nations $1 billion in exchange for membership in June 1995. It looked, in Peking, as if Lee was spurning a reasonable-sounding offer of a deal made the year before by President Jiang Zemin. Under that deal Taiwan would accept a long-term plan for reunification—but for how long a term no one can say. By making this offer, and then being thwarted by Taiwan and the US when Lee made his fateful trip to Cornell, Jiang put himself at the mercy of the saber rattlers in the army.

The apparent collaboration between Lee and the US in administering a snub to the Peking leaders has been repeatedly mentioned in the Chinese press for a year, as if to justify Peking’s subsequent show of force in the Taiwan Strait, the cancellations of high-level meetings with the US, the recall of the Chinese ambassador from Washington, and cessation of discussions with Taiwan on shipping and trade guarantees.

Throughout July and August of 1995, with only mild protests from Washington, China fired missiles into the waters near Taiwan and conducted war games that included mock landings and the use of live ammunition. There was a brief lull in December, when candidates favoring eventual reunification did well in elections for Taiwan’s legislature. Meanwhile Peking was concentrating what eventually amounted to 150,000 soldiers along the coast directly facing Taiwan, and menacing the islands of Quemoy, Little Quemoy, and Matsu, from which one can easily see the mainland. In March, with the presidential election a few weeks away, Chinese missiles again began landing in the ocean near Taiwan. To express the army’s often stated conviction that its “holy task” was to maintain Chinese unity, the big war games began, with thousands of troops charging ashore on mainland beaches resembling Taiwan’s. The US dispatched two naval battle groups to the western Pacific, the largest such force seen in those waters since the Vietnam war. Much cited in Peking was Deng Xiaoping’s statement of a few years ago that China would use force if Taiwan attempted to go independent.


The plain fact is that Taiwan is independent, with a few anomalous limitations. It has a flag, a national anthem, an army, and a government which now includes a democratically elected president. Few governments recognize it, although it is one of the world’s major traders. But no matter how many billions President Lee offers, the United Nations is not going to enrage China by even considering some sort of recognition for Taiwan.

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