The Magazine

One China, One Taiwan

Bush's democracy-promotion doctrine doesn't square with his China policy.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By ELLEN BORK
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DURING HIS RECENT TRIP TO Japan, South Korea, China, and Mongolia, President Bush extolled the region's wave of democratization as "one of the greatest stories in human history" and lamented the holdouts who are "out of step with their neighbors and isolated from the world." The president also made it clear that democratic Taiwan, though itself isolated internationally, is as important to the United States as Japan and South Korea. He pointedly held Taiwan out to China as an example of a "free and democratic Chinese society."

Such praise of Taiwan--delivered in Kyoto shortly before the president arrived in Beijing--contrasts sharply with Bush's humiliating rebuff to Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian in 2003. Partly as a result, Bush's trip to Asia has been interpreted as a turning point, marking the application to Asia of the Bush Doctrine of U.S. support for democracy. This attractive notion, however, is complicated by one essential fact: The Bush Doctrine is incompatible with America's one-China policy, which holds that Taiwan is a part of "one China" and that there should be a peaceful resolution of the dispute between Beijing and Taipei. More recently, the Bush administration has added the demand that neither side change "the status quo."

When Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election in 1996, it was praised internationally as the first "Chinese democracy." And indeed, Taiwan's people are overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese. Nevertheless, many, perhaps the majority, of Taiwan's citizens would choose other words to describe their achievement. More and more of them view themselves as Taiwanese, or as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Fewer and fewer consider themselves exclusively Chinese.

Several things explain this, starting with history. Taiwan has not been governed from Beijing since the end of the 19th century, when Japan took control of the island after the Sino-Japanese war. After World War II, Taiwan's people hoped they might be liberated, but instead Taiwan was placed in a trusteeship under Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang (KMT) movement had fought a civil war on the mainland with the Communists led by Mao Zedong.

When Chiang fled from China to Taiwan in 1949, his Kuomintang dictatorship empowered the small minority of newcomers over the island's existing population--often referred to as ethnic Taiwanese, though their forebears emigrated from the mainland centuries before. Eighty-four percent of Taiwan's 23 million people are descended from these immigrants, while 14 percent are descended from the more recent arrivals. As one scholar has pointed out, Taiwan not only experienced 100 years of development outside mainland control, it also missed "key events that shaped the national consciousness of the Chinese," including the collapse of imperial rule in the early 20th century, the civil war at midcentury, and the imposition of communism, with all the ensuing upheavals. Taiwan's people have never been ruled by the People's Republic of China.

When Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive party, the longtime opposition to the KMT, are accused of stoking Taiwanese identity for electoral gain, it must be remembered that, for decades, the KMT dictatorship repressed the Taiwanese and engaged in a program of Sinification, which included not only suppression of the Taiwanese language and culture but also the actual massacre of thousands in 1947 and almost 40 years of martial law. Only after martial law ended in 1987 and liberalization began in earnest in the 1990s have the Taiwanese been free to discuss their history, and Taiwanese intellectuals to compensate for what one of them calls Taiwan's "peripheralization," or relegation to footnote status in the history of grander subjects.

Contrary to a common misperception abroad, the recent development of Taiwanese identity is neither the product of pro-independence activism, nor a phenomenon confined to ethnic Taiwanese. Both the traditionally pro-unification Kuomintang and the traditionally pro-independence Democratic People's party agree that Taiwanese identity encompasses both ethnic Taiwanese and mainlanders. "These politicians did not invent this identity," writes Stanford University scholar Melissa J. Brown, author of Is Taiwan Chinese? "They merely articulated and emphasized a change in Taiwanese identity that had been developing" during the decade of democratization beginning in the mid-1990s.

A trend is clear. According to a poll by the National Chengchi University in 2004, 41 percent of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese in 2004, up from just 17 percent in 1993. In the same period, the share who called themselves Chinese fell by more than half, to under 10 percent.