Zhang Zhijun's Ironic Visit

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Tuesday July 8, 2014, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The visit of Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) has come and gone and it drew its share of attention. It was the first visit of someone at his level in cross-strait affairs and a step above the previous visits of Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). Visits of the aforementioned lower-ranked, slick-haired, and dark-suited Chen replete with large fawning entourage, had come off more as pompous wine-and-dine affairs. In such, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) played the role of ingratiating hosts aiming to continue the impression that future cross-strait discussions belonged more realistically on a party-to-party basis. No, Zhang's visit was different.

For one thing, Zhang, in contrast, played things low key. Dressed in smart casual style with open shirt and no tie, Zhang relayed that his purpose was to meet the average Taiwanese and not just, shall we say, the "toadying KMT." Though not too successful in this goal, he did, to his credit, leave Taiwan's "blue north" to venture far down south to greener pastures where he visited with Chen Chu, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) mayor of Kaohsiung. Protests of course followed. One can't expect to be treated as a guest if one comes to Taiwan's home after his organization had declared that China's 1.3 billion people and not Taiwanese owned that Taiwan home and could foreclose on the rental agreement whenever they chose.

Still, all in all, things went relatively well. Zhang did, perhaps, get to experience a little more of the common people than he expected. There were some scuffles; a car got splattered with paint; a few appearances had to be cancelled, but the trip could not be considered a disaster. Zhang was not dictatorial; he even graciously if not condescendingly stated that he recognized that Taiwan was a pluralistic society with diverse views. But near the end of his visit he then unfortunately made an unexpected and revealing faux pas. He admitted that when at Fo Guang Shan Monastery, he made the wish that Taiwan and China would join together to revive the spirit of Zhonghua Minzu.

That revelatory statement regrettably exposed his true colors and promises to create additional future problems as what he said soaks in. For not only do many in Taiwan feel that they celebrate their own Taiwan Minzu in contrast to any revived sense of Zhonghua Minzu, but Zhang's message is the same message and goal that President Ma Ying-jeou, or "nine-per cent Ma," had been trying to force down Taiwan's throat all during his presidency.

There is more. In timely fashion, Zhang's statement highlighted that this is a problem that not only Taiwanese face but even one, which Hong Kongers are beginning to fully realize. The unifying sense of minzu speaks to more than a vague ethnicity, it cannot escape being tied to history. Here therefore is the rub, for Hong Kong's history just like that of Taiwan is different from that of China.

The history that Zhang and Ma have wanted to gloss over and blanket with this phrase is a crucial part of China's past. In Twentieth Century China, it was the wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai who first intended to revitalize this "sense of national minzu" that belonged to and had been developed under the Manchu Qing. For the Manchus, zhonghua minzu was their means of justifying the multiple and diverse ethnic groups that they controlled under Manchu rule. There was nothing in their viewpoint that sanctioned that the more numerous Han would be the ruling and dominant group. The Han had to fit in under Manchu rule just like the Tibetans, Mongols etc.

The revolution of 1911 realistically ended in an abortive standoff, and the only way to get Yuan Shikai and his powerful Beiyang army to join the others in ousting the Manchus was with conditions. The main condition being that he and not Sun Yat-sen would be president of this supposedly new republic. That was in 1912 and Yuan Shikai realized he had to use the claim of zhonghua minzu if he wanted to control all. Ironically, and again what is often unsaid is that ever vagrant Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) tried a "second revolution" against Yuan Shikai and they were soundly trounced, forcing Sun Yat-sen to flee to Japan.

Return now to Taiwan and Hong Kong. At that time (1912), Taiwan was already 17 years into its history with Japan. In its on-going minzu development of overcoming colonials, it would add fifty years of Japanese colonization and then suffer some forty plus years of Martial Law and White Terror as the KMT again fled China. In Taiwan's history and development of its minzu, Taiwan would struggle for and achieve its democracy, which it now enjoys. For Taiwanese, therefore zhonghua minzu has no meaning. Even back when half of the island had been under Manchu rule that canard never soaked in. Now of course it all the more means nothing to democratic Taiwanese, just as it means nothing to democratic Mongolians.

Hong Kong has had its own and different but related experience. It left the Manchu empire circa 1842 when it fell under British Rule. Hong Kongers could then watch the abortive 1911 revolution as well as China's warlord and civil-war developments. It even had a brief moment under Japanese rule before it returned to Britain. After that, again from the sidelines Hong Kong watched and accepted all sorts of refugees from China's Civil War. While it witnessed China's horrid Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong prospered. Its most recent changing moment came in 1997, when it returned not to the Manchus, but to a mythical gracious motherland with the promise of democracy in twenty years. So, Hong Kong's history is different as well; and having lived some 150 years with a sense of British justice, law and courts, it does know when a promise is kept and when it is broken.

This is ironically the ultimate revealing upshot of Zhang Zhijun's visit to Taiwan. For Taiwanese it more fully exposed how Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou has not lived and does not understand the democratic history and meaning of Taiwan minzu. Having been brought up in a separate history, Ma like Zhang still fantasizes over and wishes for the restoration of a lost Zhonghua Minzu. With ramifications outside Taiwan, Zhang's visit even did Hong Kong a favor. For as the people there see how the Taiwanese understand and apply their history, Hong Kongers can also understand how they too have a different history that they both can and need to defend as well. ***

*** (Footnote: The sense of a Taiwan Minzu continues to grow in 2017; and Hong Kong saw its umbrella revolution.)