Another poorly written article on Taiwan

I get so fed up with the abysmal quality of reporting on Taiwan. Your typical Taiwan story is generally barely researched and hugely biased. Dev Nadkarni (who seems to be a Journalism lecturer from Fiji) served up a recent example in the New Zealand Herald. You can read the story here.

I am sick of reading this garbage so on Friday I shot a letter off to the editor of the New Zealand Herald. Of course my letter was way too long to publish (one of the problems with the whole Taiwan issue is that it is complex and doesn’t lend itself to simple analysis), but hopefully the New Zealand Herald will pass the letter on to Mr. Nadkarni. My letter follows (slightly edited from the original version, which went out unedited and contained a couple of typos).

Dear Editor,

Dev Nankarni’s article on the KMT election win in Taiwan and its implications for Chinese-Taiwanese relations and Pacific diplomacy was ridiculously misinformed. Some quick points follow.

To blandly state that China and Taiwan were united until they “went their separate ways” after the civil war misrepresents history. Taiwan was originally a non-Chinese Austronesian society. Ironically, despite being based in Fiji, Mr. Nadkarni completely ignores Taiwan’s Austronesian beginnings. Permanent Chinese settlement in Taiwan only began during the Dutch colonial period in the early 17th Century, when Dutch subjugation of the Austronesian aboriginals first made settlement attractive to Chinese emigrants. Taiwan first became part of a China based state only when the Ming loyalist Koxinga (a mixed Chinese-Japanese born in Nagasaki) drove the Dutch from Taiwan in the later 17th Century. From this point Taiwan evolved as a predominantly ethnically Chinese society.

Koxinga’s government did not represent the Manchurian Qing Dynasty that ruled China at the time though. Koxinga was the head of a small anti-Qing state (little more than a couple of cities) that fell to the Qing armies shortly after he seized Taiwan. The Qing Empire (technically a Manchurian Empire that happened to rule China) then gained control of Taiwan but largely neglected it. While the Qing Empire exerted political control in Taiwan, its control never extended into the mountainous interior or across to the east coast of the island.

In the late 19th century the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to the Japanese following a short war, trading Taiwan to keep Japanese influence out of the Chinese and Manchurian heartlands. This trade demonstrated the peripheral importance of Taiwan to China at that time. Taiwan then experienced 50 years of Japanese rule. The Japanese invested heavily in the economy and Taiwan leapt ahead of China in terms of development.

After WWII the Americans handed Taiwan over to the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) government of Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan saw its considerable wealth siphoned off to line the pockets of corrupt politicians and gangsters in Shanghai and the island’s economy collapsed. When the CCP defeated the KMT in the civil war, the KMT fled to Taiwan and spent the next several decades oppressing the Taiwanese population and trading occasional shell barrages with their CCP enemies. The arrival of the KMT in Taiwan was as much another colonization as it was a joyous return of Taiwan to the Chinese ‘motherland’ – a ‘mother’ that adopted it relatively late and never especially cared about it. Hokkien (the Chinese language spoken by the majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants) was banned from education and public life, and Taiwanese school teachers, officials and intellectuals were harassed and murdered and saw their jobs taken by KMT loyalists from China. The situation only improved as democratization was gradually introduced during the 1980s and 1990s and Taiwanese once again got the opportunity to run their own affairs.

Taiwan has spent centuries as the pawn of other nations. In the past decade or two democratization has finally given Taiwanese a chance to chart their own future. It is depressing to see badly informed commentators unquestioningly swallowing Beijing’s rhetoric on the nature of the “Taiwan issue” and thus constraining the space available to democracy in Taiwan. A few points that Mr. Nankarni should take note of:

- The chequebook diplomacy Mr. Nankarni complains about was initiated decades ago by the KMT. It has absolutely nothing to do with the DPP, which has controlled the presidency for less than a decade and has never controlled the legislature, which has remained KMT controlled. There is no reason to assume this chequebook diplomacy will vanish following the KMT’s recent electoral win. The budget for this activity has always been approved by the KMT controlled legislature!

- The DPP actually slightly increased its vote total in the recent legislative election, but the electoral map and electoral rules had changed relative to the previous election. The KMT landslide results from a new electoral environment, specifically gerrymandering of electoral districts and the collapse of the minor parties allied with the DPP (namely the TSU). Vote counts do not indicate a strong shift in public sentiment against the DPP.

- It is ridiculous to claim that Taiwan under a DPP president has not pursued a policy of engaging economically with China. Most of Taiwan’s industries long ago moved their production facilities to China. Some figures rank Taiwan as the biggest foreign investor in China, and however you work the figures Taiwan has a top three ranking. Also remember that a large percentage of Hong Kongese investment in China is by Taiwanese controlled but Hong Kong registered companies, meaning the official figures understate the real level of Taiwanese investment in China. The number of Taiwanese working in China must already exceed a million, with over 300 thousand in Shanghai alone. Taiwan’s total population is only a little over 20 million. How economically engaged with China would Taiwan have to be for Mr. Nankarni to drop this nonsensical claim?

- There has been high dissatisfaction with the poor performance of the Chen Shui-bian presidency. However, much of the poor performance results from obstructionist behavior by the KMT controlled legislature. When Chen Shui-bian won the presidency the initial reaction of the KMT leadership was to seek to have the results overturned. There were even subtle suggestions that a military coup could be an option. Senior KMT leaders commandeered trucks and used them to assault riot police! Since the DPP presidency started the KMT has used its control over the legislature to block huge swathes of legislation, much of it routine and uncontroversial. Economically stimulatory infrastructure spending has mostly been blocked. Unfortunately the presidency is weak in Taiwan so the DPP has been powerless in the face of these obstructionist tactics. Surely the KMT is as much to blame as the DPP for the messy governance?

- Mr. Nankarni claims that people-to-people relations between Taiwan and China have worsened in recent years mainly because of Chen Shui-bian and the DPP. I would say that a larger reason for poor people-to-people relations would be the behavior of China and its people. Lobbing missiles into a Taiwanese harbor to try and influence election results, as Beijing did in 1996, is not a good way to win friends. Encouraging your citizens to harass Taiwanese participants in international events is also guaranteed to escalate a sensitive situation, yet it has become routine to see PRC citizens demand that organizers of international events remove Taiwanese flags. The Chinese government regularly threatens to ban representatives on national teams from attending future events or denies them funding if they fail to prevent the display of the Taiwanese flag. Young Taiwanese computer gamers have seen their awards ceremonies ruined by politics as Chinese boo their flag. Taiwanese beauty queens have been reduced to tears in similar displays of nasty bigotry. I have been harassed myself by Chinese staff in a Foodtown here in Auckland simply for wearing a t-shirt displaying a Taiwanese flag. Ironically the t-shirt was a historical souvenir purchased in a museum in China - the ‘Taiwanese’ flag being the pre-CCP Chinese flag. Blaming Chen Shui-bian for poor people-to-people interactions ignores the real problem. Certain behavior is simply unacceptable regardless of what some democratically elected politician may or may not be saying.

I have no opinion on how to solve the ‘Taiwan question’ other than to urge everyone with an interest to open up their minds, study the facts, and consider the wishes of the Taiwanese people, whatever those wishes may be. Badly researched and misinformed articles are counterproductive. Mr. Nankarni’s piece was extremely disappointing.


Seamus Harris

P.S. I realize this is far too long to publish, but please forward it to Mr. Nankarni. If you could distribute it among any other writers on your staff who are likely to write about Taiwan then that would also be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

5 Responses to “Another poorly written article on Taiwan”

  1. Daphne Says:

    “Most of Taiwan’s industries long ago moved their production facilities to China.Some figures rank Taiwan as the biggest foreign investor in China, and however you work the figures Taiwan has a top three ranking”

    —-may I ask where did you get this point, and where are the references?and also this part:

    “The number of Taiwanese working in China must already exceed a million, with over 300 thousand in Shanghai alone. Taiwan’s total population is only a little over 20 million. ”

    As I read though your articles I found them very interesting, but some points I can’t agree with.

    I agree with what you said about most population in Taiwan come from China mainland, actually, the Hokkien (the Chinese language spoken by the majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants) was NOT banned by anyone, they still speak this language along with 普通话, this language also is a local language original from Fujian province(福建话as you said Hokkien)

    many people in Fujian still speaks Hokkien in their hometown, when they meet their old friends, certainly they don’t speak that to you coz they assume you have nothing to do with understanding that language.

    the point I try to make here is,no matter from the language, and the culture, they all came from China, Fujian, they are actually 福建人 except small amount of their local people called 原住民, just like Mori in New Zealand.



  2. seamus Says:

    Hi Daphne,

    It was a while ago that I wrote that and now I can’t remember where I got the figures. One million could be a little high, but the figure of 300k Taiwanese living in the Shanghai region is widely quoted (even by the People’s Daily).

    There is also this figure of 4 million visitors from Taiwan to the PRC annually.

    Don’t forget many Taiwanese are working partly in the PRC and partly in the ROC – perhaps in the PRC for several months of each year.

    I think putting an exact figure on the number of Taiwanese working in China is kind of hard, but with 300k in and around Shanghai alone it must be a lot.

    Sorry, but you are wrong in saying Hokkien was never banned in Taiwan. I realize Taiwanese still speak Hokkien (though young people mostly speak it badly now). However, it was forbidden to speak Hokkien in Taiwanese schools from around the arrival of the KMT in Taiwan through into the 1980s. Students were beaten or fined if they were caught speaking Hokkien. Hokkien broadcasting was also heavily restricted during this period. Hokkien was also banned from public life. Hokkien only entered public life in the 1980s, and its use in public life has been closely linked to the DPP and the pro-Democracy movement. Hokkien education has been heavily emphasized during the Chen Shuibian presidency, so things are very different now to 20 years ago.

    I realize that Taiwanese is just another version of Fujianese Hokkien (at least the 閩南 version), and that of course the language (and most of the people) came originally from Fujian.

    Personally I don’t think the origins of people and language are the critical consideration in ‘deciding sovereignty’ though (i.e. deciding if Taiwan should be part of China). I mean, Singaporeans also mostly speak Hokkien and mostly come from Fujian. So is Singapore ‘part of China’? Just an example. . . . I just mean, of course it is interesting that Taiwanese basically mostly come from Fujian. But is it relevant to the whole ‘Taiwan question’? I think it is a little relevant but not a ‘deciding factor’.

    Thanks for the nice comments about my blog and my writing.

    As for the ‘three links’. It is a little more complicated than you describe. People can easily travel back and forth now, but since they have to travel via Hong Kong (no direct flights) it is a little expensive. The problem is with Beijing as well. Just blaming Chen Shuibian is not fair. Beijing is unwilling to negotiate with CSB and the DPP. The pre-condition for negotiations is always that CSB accepts Taiwan is a part of China. When Beijing negotiates with the KMT they are more open minded and willing to ‘agree to disagree’ (e.g. “one China with different interpretations”). This is unfortunate. Still, at least one good outcome of the KMT winning the election is that the three links may now progress.

  3. Daphne Says:

    “Students were beaten or fined if they were caught speaking Hokkien.”

    En… I have to check that out…might be a part of history I missed.

    But what “deciding factors” do you think are relevant to “deciding if Taiwan should be part of China”?

    Im quite interested in your point of views^^

  4. seamus Says:

    So far as ‘deciding factors’ go. . . Actually I think it is something like this. . .

    The history, the origins of the people, the cultural similarities and differences across the Taiwan Strait, who colonized who, and so on. . . All of these things are interesting, and if you understand them you can understand who the people are, who they feel they are, why they feel they way they do, etc.

    However, ultimately I don’t think any of the above is important in ‘deciding sovereignty’ – so to speak. I think the only thing that really matters is what people in Taiwan want, because at the end of the day they are the ones whose lives are most affected by the whole ‘sovereignty question’.

    Maybe a simple example helps illustrate my whole perspective on the thing, and why I think many Mainland Chinese have a problem in their views on this. Imagine a woman is pregnant. Obviously, the best outcome (in a perfect world) is that she and the father of her child can agree on what she does with her unborn child (i.e. does she keep it or does she have an abortion). However, even though the father has some ‘ownership right’ (so to speak) over that unborn child, his right to decide what happens to the child is weaker than the mother. So basically, although both mother and father should have a say in the child’s future, the mother’s right is always stronger than the father’s (not only does the child belong to her, it is inside her body – a part of her, not a part of the father).

    I think the situation with Taiwan and Mainland China is a little similar. Obviously there is some shared history between them, and lots of shared culture. Maybe the ‘happiest’ solution is if they can get along. But if they can’t get along Taiwan should have the right to determine its own future (because that future affects people in Taiwan more than it affects people in Mainland China).

    A few societies in the world give the father the right to decide whether the woman carrying his child should abort it or keep it (they say the child is ‘more his than hers’). I just find this way of thinking very wrong. It seems quite backwards and barbaric to me.

    So I simply think the issue is something for Taiwanese people to decide for themselves. I also think they need to be able to decide it without China bullying them (which unfortunately is the current situation). If they can just be left alone to make their own decision then who knows? Maybe they will make the decision China wants anyway – and totally of their own free will?

    Taiwan freely deciding to reunite with China seems like the perfect outcome from China’s point of view. On the other hand, Taiwan being bullied into reuniting with China seems like a worse outcome from China’s point of view. If that outcome happened then people will always remember Taiwan was bullied into reuniting. This is not good for anyone.

    Also, even if Taiwan continues to choose to remain separate, does it really matter? Most of the European countries are now independent but also share a common identity as part of the European Union. A more flexible approach like this could also work for Taiwan. And again, who knows? Maybe there could be a flexible period in the short term and in the long term Taiwan really would freely decide to join with China?

    So basically I think any ‘decision’ is a good one so long as it is a decision made freely by Taiwanese, not forced on them.

  5. Kaohsiung Forum Says:

    Kaohsiung Forum…

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