Taiwan, China and Sun Yat-sen's Democracy

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Monday November 1, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Anyone who has lived in Taiwan very long quickly sees that October is a month of posturing, irony, and anomalies. This year’s October not only met that mark but was rich in overtones and humor.

October 1 is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), formally established in 1949; and so the month always begins with PRC posturing. This October, Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated China’s worn out claims on how it must reunite what really had never been united in the first place.

As backstory, Xi’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921 a decade after the 1911 Xinhai revolution that split the Manchu Qing empire and the founding of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). That occurrence was also more than two decades after the Manchus had given “in perpetuity” the part of Taiwan that they controlled to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Going farther back, as for the part of Taiwan that the Manchus did control, there reportedly were “uprisings every three years and rebellions every five.” The many people on Taiwan also fought among themselves; ironically they all just wanted to be free to live their own lives. As a final result, despite Taiwan’s many historic colonizers, Japan became the first nation to colonize, unite and control the whole island.

Nonetheless, the lack of legal or formal claim to Taiwan, did not stop Xi from his posturing. He did know that Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT had fled to Taiwan in 1949 to set up a government in exile, but that also did not work. Apparently neither Chiang nor Xi got the proverbial memo that when Japan did officially surrender Taiwan in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, no recipient was named. Many therefore ironically conclude that Taiwan’s determination belongs to the US, as the chief victor in the Pacific War.

Complicated? Yes, but Xi was not done. He went on to say how the “Chinese people” have a “glorious tradition of opposing separatism.” Really. This left others in a quandary as to who exactly he felt were the “Chinese people?” Are they the Uighurs, dispossessed Tibetans, Falung Gong, Hong Kongers, Inner Mongolians and so on? Do they oppose separatism or are they full of “separatist” inclinations themselves?

Xi also ignored China’s literary tradition such as the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms with its classic opening line: “The Empire long divided must unite, long united must divide.”

Others asked could the Manchu empire really be considered “China” since China was only one of the territories that the Manchus conquered in building their empire? From this, were these Xi’s “Chinese people,” those who were bent on dividing rather than uniting the empire? So many questions remained unanswered.

Not to worry, Xi finally ended his October message by graciously shying away from earlier remarks he had made in July when he pledged to “smash” any separatists. This October he decided that they would be “welcomed back.”

That was Xi. Ten days later, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen delivered the National Day speech of the Republic of China (ROC) aka Taiwan. Tsai was more reserved but nonetheless did not spare the irony as she laid down Taiwan’s own independence red lines. Tsai phrased her declarations as commitments, as China becomes upset if Taiwan uses the seemingly dreaded “I” word of independence.

Tsai’s four commitments were:

1) Taiwan is committed to being a free and democratic nation. This had a nice touch of irony since Sun Yat-sen whom the KMT and the CCP give lip service to, always preached democracy.

2) Neither Taiwan as ROC nor the PRC would be subordinate to each other. With this commitment Tsai was telling Xi to stop flaunting the “one China” rhetoric since their two nations were never united.

3) Taiwan would resist annexation by the PRC. In short, Tsai reaffirmed that since Japan named no recipient in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Taiwan would not allow itself to be annexed by anyone including the PRC.

4) Taiwan’s future is to be decided only by Taiwan’s 23 million people. This commitment presented an interesting challenge to Xi by implying that if he invites Taiwan to join the PRC, he should first make it a democracy and then come back with an offer. As a democratic nation Taiwan would be open to considering it.

With those commitments, Tsai finessed Xi, and pointed out how Taiwan had become the nation that actually put Sun’s democratic doctrine into practice.

October was not done yet by any means. This year, US president, Joe Biden put in his two cents. In responding to a question at a CNN town hall meeting, he said that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid if it were attacked by China. This declaration was slightly backtracked by state officials to say that Biden was referring to the US’s nebulous “one China policy,” which is vastly different from the PRC’s “one China principle.”

More posturing, ironies and anomalies followed. October 25th enjoys a “privileged relationship” in Taiwan’s complicated history. In China, it marks the date that the UN recognized the CCP as the legitimate rulers of China in the UN and threw out the “followers of Chiang Kai-shek.”

However, astute legalists note that the UN was only referring to who represents China after its civil war and not what its boundaries were.

On Taiwan’s side, October 25 is celebrated by the KMT as Retrocession Day. Ironically they also did not get the proverbial memo that when Japan officially gave up sovereignty over Taiwan in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the KMT were not mentioned. They were only acting as representatives of the victorious Allied powers.

So October draws to its usual close with many questions up in the air. Chief among them is how Taiwan became a democracy despite being lorded over by the KMT one-party state government in exile and when Taiwan might change its name and constitution to comply with reality.

The answer to how Taiwan became an independent democracy is complicated by the fact that some in the KMT still claim that Taiwan is a part of China. So how did the Taiwanese achieve Sun’s goals? Former president Lee Teng-hui answered this when I interviewed him in 2005.

Lee mentioned that as vice-president from 1982 on, he met daily with president Chiang Ching-kuo and took notes. Chiang of course was the one who lifted Martial Law in 1987 and set the foundation for a multi-party democracy in Taiwan, but he also had a checkered past with regards to democratic goals.

Therefore, I pointedly asked Lee: “Did Chiang allow democracy because he believed in it as a follower of Sun Yat-sen or because he could see the writing on the wall?”

We both knew that the US had already moved its embassy to Beijing in 1979 and that the pivotal Kaohsiung Incident later took place. Further, Lee had become vice president solely on Chiang’s choosing and owed much in return. Yet it was Lee who proposed the “state to state” theory between Taiwan and China.

Lee paused as he pondered the question and then answered ambiguously: “Both.”

And so October draws to a close, replete with its posturing, irony, and anomalies. Taiwan is still Taiwan and China is still China. What will next year bring?

Will there be war? As I said in “Why Taiwan must prepare for war,” it all depends on how desperate the CCP is to hold its losing grip on power in China. The rest of us can only wait and see.