Taiwan and China, a local voice <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 15 Mar 1996 18:08:05 +0900

The following is reposted with the permission of the author. I think
that it's useful for all of us to hear from one of the folks most
directly concerned.

John McCreery

Subj: From War of the Words to a War of the Worlds?

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Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9603141223.A33360-0100000@ccvax.sinica.edu.tw>
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 1996 12:44:44 +0800
Reply-To: East Asia Anthropologists' discussion <EASIANTH@VM.TEMPLE.EDU>
Sender: East Asia Anthropologists' discussion <EASIANTH@VM.TEMPLE.EDU>
From: Allen Chun <etachun@CCVAX.SINICA.EDU.TW>
Subject: From War of the Words to a War of the Worlds?
To: Multiple recipients of list EASIANTH <EASIANTH@VM.TEMPLE.EDU>

With the stepping up of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan straits
from test firing of missiles to war games and from the use of blank to
live ammunition has come an increasing flow of anxious inquiries from
concerned outsiders about the actual situation in Taiwan. Many are
surprised when I remark quite frankly that life goes on as usual. People
continue to go about their daily business, and there is no discernible
outflow of people, although stocks and the local NT dollar have taken a
marked beating. On the surface of things, this should appear to be
another Kuwait in the making. If it was the point of the military
buildup to show people in Taiwan that Beijing takes seriously any attempt
to secede, which in other places have led to bloody civil wars, why do
people here seem so oblivious to the apparent physical dangers, real and
potential? First of all, underlying the political rhetoric, there is a
rhetoric played out in cultural terms that goes beyond the events of the
past few years which came to a head with Lee Teng-hui's 'non-political'
visit to the U.S. by giving rise to a 'perception' of crisis over
reunification and independence. It is really the end point of an attempt
by the Nationalist regime to redefine the nature of the polity, whose
political legitimacy as Republic of (all of) China was undermined by its
expulsion from the U.N. and forced then President Chiang Ching-kuo to
embark on a policy of economic liberalization and ethnic indigenization
as a means of political survival, a policy which Lee, his handpicked
successor, has now carried to new heights by deftly playing with the
ambiguity of Taiwan as both part of China and a nation of Taiwanese.

The stretching of the nation-state is in essence a product of the success
of Taiwan despite its liminal status in the family of (politically
recognized) nations as well as the flexibility by which Chinese on both
sides of the straits view Taiwan as being part of the same nation
(despite decades of political alienation). It is clear to most Chinese
on both sides that the current rhetoric is not a sudden rush to exert
domination over a rebellious province. Reunification must be understood
in the context of a notion of common history that embodies an unreal
sense of destiny. China has been conquered so often by barbarian
invaders, the most recent being the Manchu Qing dynasty for 268 years,
yet people believe in the unbroken destiny of a single culture and
civilization. For some people, 1000 years would not be a long time to
wait for reunification. In this regard, Taiwanese independence
represents a threat to reunification, because it is a rejection of that
myth of a common destiny and not because it is a physical act of
secession from the motherland. Militarily, no one thinks that war is
possible or even winnable. In the 1950s, the Communist army could not
even take the island of Quemoy, just off the coast of Fujian, not to
mention the rest of Taiwan. Military weaponry has of course advanced
considerably since then, while China's possession of 'the bomb' would
appear to make Taiwan's chances a lost cause, but the cultural fact
remains. If Taiwan is part of China, as is claimed, it would be
illogical to threaten its destruction just to guarantee its 'sovereignty'
just as it would be illogical for one to cut off one's arm just because
it is acting uncontrollably. The military buildup is thus an effort to
test Taiwan psychologically but also an effort to test the U.S.
militarily (to see if the latter would actually intervene in a war).
However, the rhetoric over sovereignty has disguised in my opinion a more
important issue that has not been brought forth explicitly enough.

Beijing would like to make people believe that Taiwan is just another
Chechnya by telling everyone else not to interfere in its 'internal'
matters, making a Tienanmen type or Tibetan solution a legally viable one.
However, this is not just a human rights issue. The reality is, Taiwan is
already part of the global community, economically and culturally, despite
its diplomatic non-recognition. War against Taiwan, the territory, also
represents a threat to that complex web of transnational capital and
cultural interests within which Taiwan is equally a part and that
ultimately ties it to the rest of the world. This threat should even be
more threatening than nuclear tests in the Pacific, precisely because
tangible, short term interests are at stake. So why is the rest of the
world so complacent? By directly addressing the independence-
reunification issue, Taiwanese politicians are playing right into the
rhetorical hands of Beijing as well by implicitly recognizing the
relevance of sovereignty. But the real issue is not and has never been
one of sovereignty but rather about the legitimacy of the Beijing regime
to interfere in the everyday political affairs of Taiwan. For all
effective purposes, Taiwan has been independent of Beijing since 1949.
Does it matter whether Taiwan is a rebellious province or nation? In my
opinion, the reality of modern nations has already undergone so much
radical change that one must wonder in the end whether claims of
sovereignty-cum-territoriality and imagined ties to mythical histories-
cum-destinies are really worth fighting for. Indifference to
psychological terror is the most effective way of calling Beijing's bluff,
since it would expose its powerlessness to control Taiwan politically in
any concrete sense, but this must be combined with strong international
involvement to protect interests and rights that by nature have no

Allen J. Chun
Research Fellow
Institute of Ethnology
Academia Sinica
Nankang, Taipei, Taiwan