Orville Schell: The Complex Relationship Between Beijing and Taiwan

Roundup: Historians' Take

South China Morning Post 3-19-04

Orville Schell
Mr. Schell is dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Why is Taiwan's relationship with Beijing so intractable an issue? Why, when they share common economic interests - 1 million Taiwanese live on the mainland, working in about 50,000 firms in which Taiwanese have invested over US$ 400 billion - does Beijing aim 500 short-range missiles at Taiwan? The run -up to Taiwan's presidential election tomorrow has been one current source of tension. Chen Shui-bian has initiated a referendum process that might someday be used to ask Taiwanese if they want to formalise today's de facto independence. This infuriates Beijing.

After all, as Mao Zedong told Edgar Snow in 1936,"It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories," explicitly including"Formosa". Since then, Beijing has sought to make good on Mao's pledge.

Beijing's new leadership often evinces a new judiciousness and moderation in its diplomacy. But Luo Yuan, a senior colonel at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, recently declared that if Taiwan's leaders"refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referendums as an excuse to seek independence, they will push their compatriots into the abyss of war".

In an age when self-determination is a hallowed principle, how is it possible that Taiwan - which has been part of China during only four of the last eleven decades, and has never been under the control of the People's Republic of China - is shunned by every nation when it presumes to wonder aloud why it should not be allowed to go its own way?

The reasons have deep historical roots. When Mao and the Communists came to power in 1949, they promised"reunification of the motherland", which included bringing Xinjiang (the Muslim desert regions of the west), Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan back under central government control. It became a matter of national pride for a country that had been guafen," cut up like a melon" by predatory colonial powers, to end national feelings of humiliation by restoring itself to wholeness. Communist propaganda relentlessly proselytised for re-unification as a sacred duty.

As Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau returned"to the embrace of the motherland", Mao's commitment seemed close to realisation. The fact that only Taiwan stands in the way makes reunification all the more non-negotiable.

But there is another dynamic at work. Over the past two decades, almost every other plank of the communist platform (world-wide people's war, proletarian struggle leading to a classless utopia, triumph over global capitalism and so on) has been abandoned. This leaves unification as the last tie to Mao's revolution and justification for one-party rule. Beijing's leaders play up this"revolutionary" commitment, for it helps generate nationalist sentiment, one of the few things that legitimises the Communist monopoly on power.

China's leaders ought to reflect on the fact that their country is no longer the"sick man of Asia". It is increasingly powerful, globally proactive and economically robust. So it is a timely moment to reappraise its position and to begin acting from strength, not weakness. In short, it is time for mainland leaders to change the chemistry of their long feud with Taiwan.

After all, the mainland and Taiwan have struggled politically even as their economies become increasingly unified. In due course, they may well be able to become more unified on the political front - if they do not push their disagreements too aggressively. For economic convergence, if allowed to ripen, could set Taiwan and the mainland on an evolutionary course towards common sovereignty.

How can such a scenario be realised? Beijing must declare, loudly and clearly, that greater democracy is its ultimate political goal. Further, that as this evolutionary process takes place and the political climate becomes more congenial, they look forward to discussing how to better weave a political, as well as an economic, fabric with Taiwan. Such a declaration alone would give Taiwanese the ability to imagine that they may one day find it in their interest to reunite with the mainland.

For its part, Taiwan needs to calm down. Its leaders must understand that, even though"independence" may sometimes seem like a logical scenario, Taiwan is a small, vulnerable island, and the mainland an emerging superpower. Even though Taiwan may have a right to independence, its leaders need to remind their people that provocative actions will gain them little.

In 1973, as Sino-US relations were thawing, Mao admitted to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger that, though he did not believe reunification would come peacefully,"We can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after 100 years... Why is there a need to be in such great haste?"

Mao's advice is not bad. Beijing must take to heart its newfound dynamism and strength, and write a new scenario for its relations with Taiwan emphasising persuasion instead of missiles. For the first time in 50 years, the mainland and Taiwan share real interests. What blocks matrimony is the mainland's lack of democracy. Most mainlanders would probably like to see this absence remedied as much as they favour full reunification. Only democracy on the mainland can bring lasting peace to the Taiwan Strait.

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