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).
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.
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.