Understanding the Faces of China

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Thursday April 28, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan is a medium-sized nation. Not only is it a thriving Asian democracy but also in population Taiwan is larger than over 70 per cent of the countries in the world. In terms of GDP per capita (PPP), it also ranks high (17th); therefore there should be no doubt that democratic Taiwan is a vital country to its Asian neighbors and the world.

However, unfortunately, for too many pundits, all this is continually overlooked simply because next door to Taiwan, across the Taiwan Strait, is China, the most populous nation in the world and the 4th largest in land mass.

Because of its size and because it covets Taiwan, many pundits still imagine--and even foolishly predict--that Taiwan will be forced to join China.

That is not so, for not only does China, which ranks 83rd in GDP (PPP) have many existing problems but those problems are increasing in a time when they can no longer be hidden.

To understand China means to understand its many faces, each with its own paradigmatic and conflicting perspectives. When the topic of China comes up, the immediate next question should always be what China are you talking about?

This will not be China's century; that fleeting idea may have had a moment's credence in the past, but from Taiwan's perspective where freedom of the media and a desired transparency in government are emphasized, this will be the century that China is finally exposed and that means more than reading the so-called "Panama Papers."

Start with population. With more than 1.3 billion people, where so many are ruled by so few, problems exist. China happens to be the Middle Kingdom of millions of uneducated poor.

The Chinese Communist Party Central Politburo is working hard to reduce those numbers, but the economic juggernaut is running out of steam, and China has not even begun to face what can be called the dissatisfied working middle-class blues. Foreign factories have already started to relocate to Indonesia, Vietnam and other lower cost labor countries, yet the expectations of the millions of remaining Chinese poor are unlikely to disappear.

Some of course still cling to what could be called the "Pearl Buck" vision of China--the romanticized version of the millions of poor villagers who follow a simple life under Confucian traditions. However, these Pearl Buck visionaries have shied away from the realities of what had happened to those poor in the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine, the later in AIDS villages, and the harsh enforcement of the past draconian one-child policy. Those realities remain.

When speculating about China, any discussion has to always be taken in terms of millions of people. For example, if one focuses on the deaths resulting from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's Great Famine alone, they numbered more than 30 million. That is the equivalent of wiping out the total population either of Australia or Taiwan plus a few lesser nations.

In the complexity of this milieu, many millions of Chinese poor still remain locked in the past and ironically harken to the mythical days of old where they could go to Beijing to "petition the Emperor" with their grievances. Once there, they are usually beaten and sent home with no hearing. This still happens today.

Manufacturing China, the factory of the world, is part of this. Pundits went wild about the millions of people that worked in poor conditions for decades, but now they are refocusing. To have an idea of issues beneath the surface here, simply Google phrases like China's "rustbelt," "zombie firms," and "unpaid workers" and the mounting problems begin to be seen.

The vast numbers of Chinese that work away from home are easily seen with the Lunar New Year migrations, where millions go home for the extended holiday. They are only the tip of the iceberg of displaced families.

In contrast is "rich China." This China boasts the greatest number of billionaires and is No. 6 in the number of millionaires. Though only 6 percent of Chinese can get visas to travel, these rich are predicted to buy about 50 per cent of the world's luxury goods in the next decade.

The people of Hong Kong, who see more of these privileged Chinese than others, label them as "locusts."

Taiwanese also experience their boorishness.

There is also the "blind every-day side" of China. Here millions of Chinese in the first, second and third tier cities are busy with their jobs and are unaffected by the governmental happenings and repression. Expatriate workers and foreigners can operate in these cities as in any other big cities in the world and be oblivious to all else around them.

For example, many Americans who lived in Taiwan during the White Terror era to this day remain blind to what was happening beneath the surface.

Pundits might not be aware of these many faces of China and the problems each has, but Taiwanese are and that is why they voted for president-elect Tsai Ing-wen In January.

The obvious question remains: Why would a democratic medium-sized nation like Taiwan even contemplate entering the above cauldron?

The answer of course is, it would not.

It would not because it already is a medium-sized nation; and it would not want to risk its democracy, freedom of the media, freedom of religion, its transparency and other privileges to a country that despite masking itself with Confucian virtues, still operates out of a draconian legalist tradition of one-party control over the dark side of man.

Pundits might immediately want to counter this and raise the very real point of the increasing difference in size between a hegemonic China's military and that of Taiwan.

Yes, an insistent China could easily overwhelm Taiwan if China and Taiwan were the only ones involved, but despite appearances they would not be.

First, what is happening in the South China Sea has finally made other nations including the US aware of how their ox can be gored by a hegemonic China that wishes to make the South China Sea its Mare Nostrum. The loss of Taiwan would exacerbate that.

Second, pundits continually forget that a well-prepared Japan is just north of Taiwan, and it is in Japan's core interest that a free and democratic Taiwan is on its southern flank.

Japan is preparing to free itself for action by amending Article 9 of its Constitution that would allow it the right to defend an ally under attack.

Taiwan could be that ally.

And so although China might wish to posture and insist that Taiwan not use the "I" (independence) word; Japan has already accepted it.

China should be more worried about the word spreading to Hong Kong.