Strait-jacketed Thinking on Taiwan

Strait-jacketed Thinking on Taiwan

By Furqan Bahadur

Coming off the news of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surprise and controversial state visit to Taiwan in August, followed by the visit of various bipartisan congressional delegations since, a hodge-podge of U.S. and Chinese pundits have weighed in on the damage done to the few areas of cooperation between the two superpowers, including the global fight against climate change. As has been alleged, for a U.S. politician as prominent as Pelosi to visit Taiwan only bolsters the notion that it is independent, thus undermining China’s claim–and one that the United States has acknowledged– to sovereignty over it. There is no doubt that Pelosi’s visit was unnecessary and incendiary at a time of already strained relations between the two superpowers. But a crucial party has been ignored in these critiques: the Taiwanese people themselves, particularly leftists. Democratic Left spoke to Brian Hioe, a freelance journalist and translator in Taipei and editor of New Bloom Magazine, a prominent leftist Taiwanese publication, to explore a truly internationalist approach to cross-straits relations and the threat of war between the world’s two premier powers. 

Although online discourse is hardly representative of the U.S. Left as a whole, in a variety of viral tweets, various nominal leftists in the United States compared Taiwan to Hawaii: what, they asked, would be the U.S. government’s response if the Chinese government sent an official delegation to Hawaii and promoted Hawaiian independence contrary to U.S. claims? Along those same lines, another popular tweet compared the Taiwanese government to a Confederate government in exile that had survived and fled to Hawaii.  For Hioe, such metaphors represent one of the worst aspects of the U.S. Left: the tendency to “view all of world history through American metaphors.” Taiwan is not Hawaii, and the world is not the United States. 

To understand Taiwan, we must understand its complex history. In a recent article, Jacobin attempted to do just this, but made several errors, getting both the basic chronology of the island’s history wrong and asserting that nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek declared Taiwan to be “an independent state” in 1949. The People’s Republic of China argues today that Taiwan is and always has been a part of China. As Hioe notes, however, “Taiwan has seen thousands of years of settlement” by the “original residents of Taiwan”: its indigenous peoples. They in particular would reject any notion that their home is a natural extension of the modern Chinese nation-state. Chinese-speaking peoples, largely from Fujian in southwestern China, began to settle in Taiwan from the late 13th century onward, becoming a more prominent presence by the 1600s. Meanwhile, the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish empires attempted to establish a foothold on the island, building forts and trading posts throughout the 17th century.  In the face of the collapse of the Ming dynasty by the Manchus–who thereafter established the subsequent Qing dynasty–the Ming loyalist general Koxinga fled to Taiwan, ended nominal Dutch rule, and established an independent kingdom over parts of the island in the 1660s, displacing much of the local indigenous population. By 1683, the Qing displaced this government and ruled over parts of the island, though their administration was never able to penetrate the “highlands” of central Taiwan, where various indigenous tribes had been driven. 

Taiwan’s new rulers in Beijing had little interest in the island, having invaded only to depose Koxinga. The island was regarded as a backwater until the late 1700s, when the Qing began actively promoting migration, leading to a rapid growth in Taiwan’s Chinese-speaking population. In 1885, the island was finally made into a formal province, but ten years later a costly defeat against the rising Japanese Empire led to the Qing ceding the island to them. Taiwan remained a Japanese colony until 1945, whereupon it reverted to the control of the Republic of China, then still under the government of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

Formal control over Taiwan by a modern Chinese state based in the mainland lasted four years–1945 to 1949–whereupon the KMT was defeated by the resurgent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a civil war. Chiang Kai-shek’s government and military fled to Taiwan, proclaiming that they still represented the Republic of China and were thus the legitimate government of mainland China, contrary to the newly established PRC’s claims. This was, in essence, a form of colonization in and of itself. The KMT’s arrival did not go uncontested and created a schism in the population between those who had arrived with the KMT and the island’s Chinese speakers as well as the indigenous population that had lived in Taiwan for centuries prior. 

Contrary to claims by the Jacobin article and other commentators, Chiang did not declare that Taiwan was an independent country. Rather, he insisted that the PRC was an illegitimate entity, and that there was only “one China” – the Republican government based in Taiwan. The PRC argued the opposite: that it now represented the vast majority of the Chinese population, had total control of mainland China, and that Taiwan rightfully belonged to China as a territory that Japan had relinquished to the now-defunct Republic. Interestingly, this was not the position that the CCP had taken prior to the end of the Second World War, with Mao Zedong himself noting that the Taiwanese were a distinct people and Taiwan, as Hioe put it, essentially constituted “a separate country.” This would not have been a controversial opinion at the time; Taiwan had never been controlled by the modern Chinese state, and even during the Qing had been relatively unimportant. The idea that the Taiwanese constituted their own people was not surprising. 

Geopolitics shifted this. Chiang had wanted Taiwan “returned” from Japan because of its strategic importance in a new era of naval and aerial warfare. Once Chiang’s regime retreated, the United States continued at least formally to back Chiang’s claim that the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, was the only legitimate government of China, setting Taiwan up as a possible staging ground for a future conflict with the newly established PRC. This was of course an outrage to most of the global Left, which correctly saw this as part of a larger plot to encircle and isolate the PRC and keep the country out of the United Nations. To that end, Chiang’s claim was rejected by many governments, particularly those in the Global South, who saw the Republic of China as little more than an American-backed puppet regime.  

By the 1970s, however, geopolitics shifted again, setting a new stage for Taiwan’s murky status. The relationship between the United States and the PRC warmed in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing; the PRC took its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and by 1979 was finally formally recognized by the remaining Western countries that had refused to do so  previously. This marked the birth of the “One China principle”: that there is only one China, the PRC. Taiwan, however, was not “returned” to the PRC. The United States recognized that the island had its own special status and, while acknowledging the PRC’s claims, established a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan and continued to maintain unofficial relations with the de-facto independent nation. Crucially, both the PRC and the United States initially maintained that any future settlement of Taiwan’s status would have to be done peacefully. 

This essentially marked the end of the KMT’s aspirations, by then already stillborn, to recapture the mainland. Hioe noted that by the end of the 1980s the Taiwanese democratic movement rose to prominence as an “attempt to create another party outside of the KMT” and was heavily influenced by a left-wing base and “South-South alignment” as advocated by other movements in the Global South. At this point, having disavowed its former autocratic rule, a reorganized KMT renounced claims to representing mainland China and instead advocated for continued cross-strait engagement and a future, peaceful unification. The opposition, most chiefly represented by the now-ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wanted Taiwan to chart its own course, either by continuing with the status quo or perhaps one day moving toward complete independence, although that latter option has continued to be ruled out by mainstream Taiwanese politics. 

This is a complex history, but what is less complex is the question of Taiwanese popular sentiment. As Hioe noted, the Chinese government would like to claim “overseas Chinese people as part of the Chinese nation.” However, the question of who is Chinese or what “Chineseness” constitutes is difficult. There are various Chinese languages spoken in Taiwan, from Mandarin to Fujianese to Hakka, as well as a variety of indigenous languages. But many Chinese-speaking Taiwanese also do not wholly identify with “being Chinese” in the same way that people in mainland China do. In recent years, the PRC has cultivated the perspective that the Chinese state as it currently exists effectively represents all Chinese people–however that may be defined–throughout much of the world. This claim, which some U.S. commentators have been willing to swallow, does not hold much sway among the Taiwanese themselves. Hioe noted that, especially among younger Taiwanese, “Taiwanese identity is on the rise” and “mutual identity between Chinese and Taiwanese is on the decline.” Polls bear this out: more people on the island now feel “Taiwanese” than Chinese, and this has in turn weakened support for unifying with the PRC, which is now at an all-time low.

Hioe told me that “these agreements from 50 years ago,” particularly with regards to the One China Policy, don’t “actually correspond with the ideas of most Taiwanese people.” Taiwan is not the seat of the sole legitimate government of China, nor is it truly a “rebel” province, having long dispensed with the idea of toppling the PRC. The geopolitical conditions that produced the so-called Taiwan question no longer exist. Today, both China and the United States are major powers and, even as we must condemn U.S. efforts to isolate China and escalate Cold War-like tensions, we should also recognize that Taiwan is not likely to be the site of a future invasion of the mainland. The KMT does not seek to violently take China ‘back.’ Ironically, it has grown increasingly pro-CCP, having traded its allegiance to the United States for a new affinity with the PRC, with the hopes of restoring their status as a settler-colonial ruling class if they were at some point to facilitate a unification with the mainland.  

At the same time, right-wing narratives of Taiwan as a sort of bastion of freedom and liberalism in the face of a communist China are also outdated. Chiang Kai-shek’s brutal and unpopular regime, backed wholly by the United States, encompassed the very worst of the violent U.S. campaign against global communism. The Taiwanese themselves were this government’s greatest victims. At the same time, U.S. ties to the Taiwanese government today are of a different caliber. I was surprised to learn from Hioe that the United States had in fact attempted to swing the election of 2012 in the KMT’s favor, suspicious of the current DPP’s government’s policies. To thus say that the current Taiwanese government remains a pawn of U.S. schemes against China fails to convey the discrepancies between U.S. aims and the DPP. 

Hioe agreed with many U.S. leftists that we ought to be critical of Pelosi’s visit as needlessly provocative, but perhaps more dangerous was the rhetoric that surrounded it. He noted that for many Taiwanese, Pelosi’s visit hardly received much coverage at all before she arrived. In contrast, most U.S. observers warned that her visit would create a dangerous situation. In an almost self-fulfilling prophecy, this perhaps pushed the PRC to respond with force. In the aftermath, polls indicated that Pelosi was broadly welcomed by a majority of Taiwanese. Chinese provocations, military drills, and threats have not done much to advance sympathies for the mainland in Taiwan itself. As Hioe put it, China’s saber-rattling has only “pushed Taiwan further away.” It remains to be seen whether or not this escalates into another Taiwan Strait Crisis, but Hioe does not believe that the rhetoric around the trip from U.S. commentators was helpful for preventing one. 

What, then, are the lessons the U.S. Left can take from this episode? Hioe believes that, although we must remain resolutely critical of U.S. imperialism, a failure to recognize the contest between the United States and China as an imperial one in and of itself misses the point: we must collaborate across borders to resist imperialism and aggression in whatever form it manifests itself in. Both countries are attempting to shore up their positions in the region, and Taiwan is hardly the only place caught in the crossfire, as the latest Chinese missile tests would augur. A more robust internationalism among the U.S. Left, therefore, has to account not only for older narratives and history, but also for contemporary realities and popular will. In a growingly multipolar world, it will be imperative to listen to the voices of those on the frontlines of Great Power competition.