China and Taiwan's relations with George Hong (2001-02-07)
George Hong is a PhD student who has been in the UK for some seven years. He also happens to be an ardent supporter of Taiwanese independence and formerly held the position of President of the Taiwanese Student Association in the UK. My impression was of a shy, studious young man, who seemed nervous at talking at first, but occasionally his voice rang out with defiance, and with his careful presentation systematically deconstructed China's historical claims to the island of Taiwan.
George argued that instead of seeing Taiwan as an integral part of China, the Chinese had a military outpost on one tiny island, and rather viewed the place as one of their vassal states, rather like Korea. Taiwan has become a place of great political significance today, but this seems more to do with the competition between the two governments. Apparently Taiwan was not named as a province in the Kuomintang's first Constitution, and Mao Zedong told Edgar Snow in the book 'Red Star over China' that Manchuria must be wrested back from the Japanese, but that Korea and Taiwan could be let go.
Chinese nationalism, it was argued, is quite a new concept for the Chinese, and Taiwan is becoming an inevitable victim of that. Once a Chinese, always a Chinese. George admitted that a substantial proportion of Taiwanese do see themselves as Chinese, partly as a result of their education. Taiwanese schoolkids learn all about China's history and are taught to think of one China. But the Taiwanese have worked hard to make their country wealthy, and they are used to enjoying a certain level of democracy.
Even in the face of the overwhelming arguments that suggest Taiwan's reunification is inevitable (geographical proximity, economies of scale, cultural similarity - many of these people only left the mainland 60 odd years ago, and still have family on the mainland) it was hard not to agree with George when he said "Why should the decision not lie with the people of Taiwan? Why are we inevitably Chinese?". If Taiwanese people have created a new identity for themselves, why should they be coerced to surrender that? It is an intractable problem. A mainland friend of mine said China is like a mother and Taiwan is like her renegade child. Of course she still loves it, even if it rejects her. For my part, if the Taiwanese honestly do not want to go back, I see no reason why they should be coerced. But there are many Taiwanese who are willing to get back with the mainland, for economic reasons as well as a sense of loyalty. The ball is in the court of the mainland government. By improving domestic living standards and behaving responsibly in Hong Kong, perhaps unification will become an attractive prospect. At the moment its more like the idea of a tiny West Germany merging with an elephantine East Germany, plus swapping the system of government to boot. Is it surprising no-one's rushing forward with open arms?
summary by Kate Mulrenan