The Magazine

One Nation, Two Passports

Taiwan edges closer to independence.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By DAVID DEVOSS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Taipei, Taiwan

TING TAI FUNG on fashionable Hsin-I Road is the hottest new restaurant in Taipei. Its specialty is Shanghai dumplings made by photogenic chefs who labor in a glass-walled kitchen. Spend a few minutes eavesdropping on the café's upwardly mobile customers, however, and you'll hear people talking, not about the shrimp and pork shao-mai, but of a new name for their homeland.

Early last month, 150,000 people took to the streets of Taipei in the largest demonstration ever held in the city. Led by former president Lee Teng-hui, the crowd called for all government agencies, organizations, and joint ventures to replace the word "China" in their legal name with "Taiwan." Lending credibility to the cause was the country's State Department, which immediately began issuing new passports with "Taiwan" as well as "Republic of China" on the cover.

The proposed change has alarmed the Chinese Nationalist party, or Kuomintang, which represents the interests of the four million Chinese who fled to Taiwan following the Communists' defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Like the Chinese Communist party in Beijing, the KMT subscribes to the "One China" policy.

Last week, however, the KMT's outrage turned to apoplexy when Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian of the ruling Democratic Progressive party, proposed a referendum that would pave the way for a new constitution in 2006. "It is an irreversible path for Taiwan to continue with its democratization," Chen told a group of cheering supporters. "You all must serve as the midwives for the birth of Taiwan's new constitution."

Though Chen never mentioned independence specifically, opposition parties assume he wants the new document to enshrine the island's status as a nation independent of China.

Creating an independent Republic of Taiwan pleases Taiwanese nationalists, who already consider their island of 22 million to be a successful independent country. Gaining recognition as a country could lead to full membership in global organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, where the Republic of China now has observer status alongside organizations like the PLO and International Red Cross. "We no longer identify ourselves as the Republic of China," says legislator and Oberlin College graduate Hsiao Bi-khim, who heads the party's Department of International Affairs. "We are Taiwanese. We're tired of being confused with citizens of the People's Republic of China."

The status quo, however, does have some benefits. Most Taiwanese businessmen have prospered. More than 500,000 Taiwanese now work in Shanghai. Eleven percent of China's exports are produced in factories owned and operated by Taiwanese. Indeed, Taiwan dominates mainland China's information technology industry, accounting for 68 percent of its exports. "China is not our enemy," says Justin Chou, a Cornell Ph.D. who serves on the KMT's Central Committee. "China's economic growth is a win-win situation for people on both sides of the Strait. The KMT supports the One China policy, but believes unification must wait until China is fully democratic."

U.S. diplomats, who work out of an "institute" rather than an embassy, oppose the creation of a Republic of Taiwan, believing it could start a series of unintended consequences leading to war. With Islamic militants taking over large patches of Indonesia and the Philippines, and increasing belligerence shown by North Korea, the last thing Washington needs is additional tension along the China coast.

"The U.S. wants a peaceful resolution of the cross-strait relationship," says Richard Vuylsteke, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. "Independence may not be an option at this point," he adds. "Now that communism no longer is a unifying ideology, nationalism and economic development are the only things holding China together. If Taiwan, an island full of ethnic Chinese, breaks away, Beijing rightly believes Xinjiang and Tibet, which both have substantial minority populations, could follow."

THE DEMOCRATIC PROGRESSIVE PARTY'S push for independence has its risks, but the status quo has brought, along with some benefits, much stagnation. Only a small percentage of the profits earned by Taiwanese companies on the mainland are repatriated because the businesses tend to be controlled by offshore corporations. Over the past decade, Taiwanese investors have poured $100 billion into China. Meanwhile gross domestic investment in Taiwan has fallen 25 percent since 2000. The trend will likely continue as more Taiwanese companies move manufacturing operations to the mainland.