How Chinese are the Taiwanese?

Washington, 29 September 1998

On 29 September 1998, the Washington Times published an excellent article regarding Taiwan and U.S. policy towards the island nation by Mr. Edward Wei, policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Taiwan International Relations.

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Washington, Tuesday, September 29, 1998

dragon If a day arises when an unwilling Taiwan is snatched into the grasp of China [the People's Republic of China], it would be wholly accurate to say that Taiwan was "shanghaied."

American Presidential visits to Shanghai have never boded well for Taiwanese aspirations of self-determination. In his recent visit to China, President Clinton chose the venue of a small roundtable of academics in the Chinese metropolis to state publicly for the first time the "Three Noes" which enunciate American unwillingness to support (1) Taiwan independence, (2)'one China, one Taiwan' and 'two Chinas', and (3) Taiwanese entrance into international organizations.

Despite the gravity of this policy for the Taiwanese and the ire it has drawn among them, the significance of Clinton's utterance can not match Nixon's 1972 Shanghai Communique in scope and effect. This groundbreaking document is singly responsible for having inextricably changed US-Taiwan-China relations and for unwittingly drawing the battlelines for how the political war over Taiwan has been waged ever since.

Within the Communique is an often overlooked and seemingly innocuous statement. The US declared that "it reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves." Subtle, but far-reaching, the opinion that the "Chinese themselves" should resolve the conflict suggests two critical misconceptions of this highly charged debate.

First, the statement insinuates that Taiwan is wholly composed of people of Chinese identity. Although in 1972, those heading Taiwan's authoritarian government considered themselves Chinese and the legitimate Chinese government, the statement implicitly disempowers and ignores all those living in Taiwan who don't consider themselves Chinese. In fact, polls currently show that only 16% identify themselves as strictly Chinese.

Moreover, in the late 1940's, when the Kuomintang began rule in Taiwan, roughly only one-quarter of the 8 million people were "Chinese" i.e. those who themselves came from mainland China, while the rest were natives.

That the China-Taiwan conflict involves more than the Chinese but also the Taiwanese people is imperative to remember in the forum for debate of American policy even if it still adheres to the "One China" policy. Second, the Communique language of "Chinese themselves" implies the conflict is [to use the language of the Chinese] an "internal affair."

Peering through these faulty lenses, the visions of American policy makers have been blurred from realizing that primarily a universal, not an internal issue is at stake in the Taiwan-China discord. That elusive issue is human rights which Taiwan's alliterative and subjected counterparts: Tibet and Tiananmen, receive much attention for, but which in discussion of Taiwan is usually excluded.

Often forgotten is the Taiwanese people's entitlement to choose their own nation free from fear of force. This concept is succinctly stated in Article 15 [excerpt] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality."

If the Taiwanese people do not have a say in the possible unification with China, the Taiwanese would be suffering a deprivation of their nationality and a violation of their human right. Though seemingly obvious, the belief that the 21 million Taiwanese people should ultimately decide their own fate is not entrenched in the current framework for debate.

Instead, the two aforementioned misconceptions continue to be pervasive. A prime example lies in President Clinton's reply to a question at Beijing University where he said, "United States policy is not an obstacle to the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan ... we have encouraged the cross-strait dialogue to achieve that." The prefix "re" in reunification suggests that Taiwan and its people were in some way unified with China before.

Although this concept may apply for the two million Kuomintang supporters who came over from China by 1949, it is false for the six million who were already living on the island at that time and the 84% of the people today who do not consider themselves "Chinese." President Clinton speaks as if no Taiwanese people live in Taiwan.

Furthermore, President Clinton's naming of "cross-strait dialogue" as the means to "reunification" undermines the human right of the Taiwanese to choose their nationality and their leaders. Ultimately, neither Jiang Zemin, Lee Teng-Hui, nor their respective circles should solely decide for or against unification, but the Taiwanese people themselves should wield that power.

In the current forum surrounding the China-Taiwan conflict, little is ever said about empowering the Taiwanese people to make the choice of nationality.

President Clinton has not been the only American official maintaining these misconceptions. Supporters of the Taiwanese cause and well-meaning Congressmen and Senators have been equally as susceptible in believing that the China-Taiwan conflict is purely a Chinese disagreement and an internal, not universal issue.

Only last year, a bill introduced in the Senate read: "Taiwan reached a historic turning point in the development of Chinese democracy ... when it conducted the first ... popular election ... in over 4,000 years of recorded Chinese history." Linking the Taiwanese election to Chinese history assumes that the people in Taiwan are Chinese, a premise that is at least 84% wrong.

A survey of every bill introduced in the 105th Congress thus far shows that not one mentions the Taiwanese people's entitlement to decide their own nationality as an universal or human right. Legislation has invariably focused on trade, security, and international recognition, issues of utmost importance, but has missed the underlining point: the Taiwanese people and their human right to choose their nationality.

Even legislation that explicitly supports Taiwanese sovereignty often fails to emphasize the Taiwanese people's, not its government's, power to decide its own fate. To this end, the US should back its ubiquitous democracy and human rights rhetoric and support a resolution by national referendum. The Taiwanese people themselves, not strictly the Kuomintang nor the Democratic Progressive Party leaders, ought to choose their own leaders and country.

The Chinese should be told that the referendum is the only way the US will support unification and that China must renounce the use of force. To prevent the referendum from being an absurd choice between authoritarianism and democracy, the referendum may not occur until the Chinese demonstrate significant steps in democratization.

By this method the US simultaneously encourages democracy in China and sustains human rights in Taiwan. It allows a scenario for China to unify with Taiwan while also permitting the latter to completely disassociate itself with the former also.

Additionally, the US finally removes itself from the zero sum characteristic of American relations toward China and Taiwan and grounds American policy in concrete, worthwhile principles: democracy and human rights. In the meantime, the US should support Taiwanese bids to join international organizations.

Critics will charge that a strong American support for a Taiwanese referendum may lead to a potentially catastrophic end game. However, they fail to see that the status quo offers a greater chance for this scenario. Low level talks are scheduled to resume between Taiwan and China with no likely or viable scenario for Taiwan to unify with China in sight. At current pace, China's drive toward unification will only reach frustration.

At least, the referendum offers a peaceful script where Taiwan may unify with China, but of more importance the power of decision is rightfully placed within the hands of the Taiwanese.

Furthermore, while American policy can stand firm in support of human rights for the people of Tibet and Tiananmen, it never does so for their sister "T". Human rights should be extended to all. Don't forget the Taiwanese people.

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