Deconstructing the Middle Kingdom on Taiwan's Border: Part I

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Monday February 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan is an island nation that after a long struggle with a variety of colonial masters has achieved and enjoys democracy. Unfortunately, across the Taiwan Strait is a different nation, China, which covets Taiwan's territory and sovereignty. Since the average Westerner may not always be aware of Taiwan's complex history and/or struggle for democracy, some understanding is in order. This is especially so if such said Westerner may hear, accept and/or believe erroneous memes like Taiwan has always been a part of China or Taiwan has been a part of China since time immemorial etc. So where does one start to deconstruct such falsehoods? Begin ironically with Taiwan's bigger neighbor across the Strait. How does China's ruling Politburo seek to legitimize its current rule and questionable all-encompassing identity while at the same time seeking to extend China's borders?

First of all, China traditionally suffers from mixed metaphors; China's rulers have always attempted to legitimize their rule by claiming that they alone deserve the mantle to rule a mythic Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. There is nothing extraordinary with this; it is a common and symbolic tactic that the rulers of various nations and promoters of cultures have pursued to celebrate and justify such beliefs and identity. They are claiming what Mircea Eiade calls the "cosmogonic value of the Center." Troubles arise for China's current rulers with such claims in that while they pursue such an end they also suffer from a different metaphor. They project the fear that other nations are perceived enemies that are always trying to encircle them. How this conflict of mixed metaphors developed will be explained later in more detail. For now suffice it to be that China's problem is that it wants to claim a world where it is the center and other nations are simply satellites on its borders. But the claiming of this centric position and reputation brings the inevitable fear and complaint that other nations refuse to be satellites; instead they persist in trying to encircle China.

Another and separate expression that one hears mouthed by China's leaders is one that aims to excuse and explain away misdeeds and ill treatment of citizens by claiming that their rule is different, unique. They are different and therefore will never be understood by outsiders because they exercise socialism "with Chinese characteristics" or capitalism "with Chinese characteristics" etc. You will never understand them because they are, well, different and unique. Nonetheless one way to cut through such claims for unique opaqueness is to examine how easily other nations could make similar claims. Japan is a democracy with Japanese characteristics whereas Korea is a democracy with Korean characteristics and Taiwan of course is a democracy with Taiwanese characteristics. Outsiders will never understand them.

In China's case this claim becomes clearer if one phrases it by borrowing from George Orwell. China is "Animal Farm but with Chinese characteristics." For though Animal Farm was written with Joseph Stalin and Russia in mind, this allegorical tale has a similar easy application to China. In Animal Farm with Chinese characteristics substitute Mao for Napoleon, Squealer for the state news agency etc.; for the expression "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others" substitute all Chinese are considered equal, but some (the Han) are more equal than others (Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians etc.). You get the drift.

A further separate characteristic that flows from the above is how China's rulers often disguise their hegemonic ambitions by relying on the cyclic claim of Chinese history, it must always be seen as a return to the aforementioned greatness of the Middle Kingdom even though the borders keep changing and expanding. Luo Guanzhong, author of the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" expressed that idea well in the classic opening lines of that novel. "The kingdom long divided must unite, long united must divide, thus it has ever been." China is caught in an unending cycle of breaking from and returning to the "cosmogonic" center. Such a destiny gives China's rulers leeway to claim they are thus in one form of the cycle or another; in such a pursuit, they can always blame either insiders and outsiders for being the cause of trying to "split" the Middle Kingdom.

In the enveloping claim of their cyclic destiny China's leaders can also claim a further opaqueness of why others who are not Chinese cannot understand their history. Outsiders are simply not able to look back or forward far enough. Such is belied in the lines attributed to Zhou Enlai, when Henry Kissinger asked him what he thought of the French Revolution (1789). His answer was, "It is too soon to tell." This appears to be profound, but in reality it is an easy put-off since both will be long dead before the answer supposedly appears and one's interpretation could be challenged.

A final point in understanding methods by which China's rulers will try to both legitimize the expanding borders of their hegemonic rule as part of a larger cosmic cycle while at the same time claiming the unique opaqueness of that same history lay with the role of the court historian in this. It is the court historian's job to always demonstrate that the current administration bears the "mantle of heaven" and all others do not. In some ways this is an easy job; whomever wins has the mantle, whoever loses does not. The intricacies come in more in trying to demonstrate how the current China is at one end of the cycle and not another and why one was chosen and others were not. As long as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in power, a current Chinese historian could never say that Mao was more than 30 per cent wrong. You would not find a Chinese historian writing a book like Jasper Becker's "Hungry Ghosts, Mao's Secret Famine" or Frank Dikotter's "Mao's Great Famine, the History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958--62." Revisionist historians are simply not allowed in China; those that aspire to be such are either dead or in jail; their job is to show that the satellites are denying their destiny and instead trying to encircle China.

So goes the deception and while many western pundits and historians are reluctant to question or challenge it, hopefully those that know and deal with Taiwan will appreciate and understand the challenges that its democracy faces.