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CHINA: The Volatile Ties With Taiwan

The Historical Basis for a Free Taiwan

March 26, 2000|MAURICE MEISNER | Maurice Meisner, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is the author of "Mao's China and After." He is writing a book about the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century

MADISON, WIS. — For Communist leaders in Beijing, the results of last week's election in Taiwan make the future of the island an even more complex and vexing question than it has been for the past half century. For the victor in the presidential race, Chen Shui-bian, who received 39% of the vote, is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, whose platform calls for an independent Taiwanese Republic. James Soong, an independent whom Beijing seemed to have favored, ran a close second, with 37%. The big loser was the Nationalist Party, which had ruled Taiwan since Chiang Kai-shek established his dictatorship there shortly after the end of World War II. The Nationalist Party was not only reduced to 23% of the popular vote, but its own supporters besieged party headquarters in violent protests, directed against former party head and President Lee Teng-hui, in the wake of the defeat.

It might have been expected that the disintegration of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, against whom the Communists had fought a long and bloody civil war that ended with Chiang's flight to Taiwan in 1949, would have brought rejoicing in Beijing. Instead, the demise of their old foes could well be a cause of despair among China's Communist leaders.

The seeming paradox is not difficult to unravel. Historically, the 100-year-old Nationalist Party shares with its Communist rivals a firm commitment to the idea of "one China." From the time of Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the nation" and the founder of the Nationalist Party, well before there was a Communist Party in China, the unification of the lands of the old Chinese empire, divided by warlords and foreign imperialists, was a sacred national mission. "China" included not only Taiwan, seized by Japan as war booty in 1895, but also such ethnically non-Chinese lands as Tibet and Mongolia.

In 1949, when Chiang fled to Taiwan with the remnants of his army and bureaucracy, after being defeated on the mainland by Mao Tse-tung's Red Army, Taipei was presented not as the capital of an independent Taiwan but as the temporary seat of government for all China. The Nationalists vowed to retake the mainland, and elaborate preparations were made in the 1950s and 1960s for the great counterattack. The islands of Quemoy and Matsu, a few miles off the mainland shore, were heavily fortified by Nationalist troops and presented to the world (and particularly U.S. politicians) as forward bases in the coming war to retake the mainland.

For their part, the Communists ritualistically bombarded the islands, usually with shells filled with propaganda leaflets, but had no intention of occupying them. The offshore islands, of no real economic or military significance, were symbolic of a continuing civil war and therefore a symbol of the link between mainland China and Taiwan. Neither the Nationalist government in Taipei nor the Communist government in Beijing wished to remove the symbol.

Other symbols linking Taiwan to mainland China were also retained by the Nationalists. For example, Taiwan's legislature, the Legislative Yuan, was dominated for many decades by delegates selected from China's various provinces and territories before 1949. Though it had no real power, the composition of the Legislative Yuan personified the Nationalist claim to be China's legitimate government.

Things began to change with the end of the Chiang family dictatorship. Chiang died in 1975. With the 1988 death of his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo (who pursued somewhat less-repressive policies), the long-suppressed forces of Taiwanization and democratization blossomed. Those forces were felt even within the Nationalist Party, which had been under the control of "mainlanders": those who fled to Taiwan with Chiang in the late 1940s and their descendants, now only 15% of the island's population. The new leader of the Nationalist Party, and Taiwan's first democratically elected president in 1996, was Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese.

But Lee, though Taiwanese, could not make a credible case for an independent Taiwan. He is, after all, head of a Nationalist Party whose entire history and raison d'etre revolves around Chinese nationalism. Chinese nationalism, at a minimum, demands "one China," including Taiwan. Lee's rather awkward comments about "state to state" relations between Taiwan and China were not taken seriously in Beijing. Communist leaders were no doubt biding their time, waiting to deal with Lee's successor, whom they expected to be a Nationalist Party official or an ex-Nationalist Party leader such as Soong. It has long been the Communist expectation that, sooner or later, the Nationalist Party, if not Lee, would cut a deal for some sort of "reunification" to achieve common Chinese nationalist goals.

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