The Magazine

One-China Syndrome

The self-deception that believes the lies about Taiwan.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By CHARLES HORNER
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In the past three decades, there have been three big stories in East Asia. 

Taipei by night, 2010

Taipei by night, 2010


The first is the Thirty Years’ Peace. The decades prior had seen both cross-border and internal violence on a grand scale but, as seemingly arbitrarily as the violence had begun, it stopped. The second big story—the rise of China—has certainly not been underreported; but in its deep origins, China’s 30-year rise is as thinly understood as Asia’s 30 years of peace. And there is a third story—the rise of democratic Asia through the consolidation of multiparty democracies in “Confucian” Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in the Catholic Philippines, and in Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia. A common political trend in places so different ought to be stimulating widespread discussion, but the Great Democratization is as understudied as the Great Peace. 

It is indisputable that, between 1949 and 1979, New China failed in its efforts to create several little people’s republics in its own image, and also had to abandon its attempts to create a socialist paradise at home. For many in the West, this seemed almost as big an embarrassment as the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should thus be grateful that Professor Shelley Rigger of Davidson College has written an excellent introduction to a place that not only is significant in its own right, but also illustrates how the rise of China and Asia’s democratization are now linked. Her book, like the area of Taiwan itself, may seem undersized, but, in both cases, size is not wholly predictive. 

Rigger is rare among China-interested academics in focusing on Taiwan at all. She describes how the 23 million people in Taiwan have come to run an economic powerhouse with an annual gross domestic product of $500 billion and foreign exchange holdings of about $400 billion, the world’s fourth-largest. Taiwan has also invested billions in China, and Taiwanese companies employ millions of Chinese workers who make the world’s smartphones and notebook computers.

Beyond economics, Rigger also stretches our minds regarding what is possible in politics and international relations in a once-exotic Asia. In a reversal of the fortunes of 1945-49, Beijing’s one-party dictatorship, on the verge of collapse in 1979, had little choice but to import Taiwan’s many financial and managerial competencies. Conveniently for Beijing at the time, the island which China had ritualistically promised to “liberate” had already been “liberated”—and in proper Leninist fashion: Under the control of the Kuomintang, Taiwan was living under a one-party dictatorship. When it allowed closer relations with Taiwan, China’s Communist leadership did not anticipate that the Kuomintang would combine economic success with a Great Leap Forward in politics that would put Taiwan far in advance of China itself.

In 1987, it became legal for Taiwan’s opposition parties to contest elections. Taiwan’s president is now directly elected and, last January, in the most recent of five consecutive elections, the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, was reelected. (In 2000 and 2004, Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive party had won.) Today’s Kuomintang descends from the Chinese Nationalists who lost the civil war to the Communists and fled to Taiwan with the stated intention of recovering the mainland. (Indeed, Ma Ying-jeou’s father had been a high-ranking official in China before leaving.) The opposition descends from the people who were living on Taiwan when the Kuomintang showed up at the end of World War II to take control of what had been a Japanese colony. This “liberation” of the island by a mainland-based government went badly: There was an uprising against it in 1947, many thousands were killed, and, for the next 45 years, a place hailed as “Free China” was also a very tough dictatorship. 

To be sure, life on Taiwan was paradisiacal compared with what was happening across the strait, and the people on the island knew it. Their sense of the harshness of Kuomintang rule was also mitigated by what became known as Taiwan’s economic miracle. But this modus vivendi between the Kuomintang and Taiwan’s citizenry came under pressure in 1972 with the beginning of the Washington-Beijing rapprochement, and under even more pressure after the United States withdrew formal recognition of the government of Taiwan in 1979. Since then, Taiwan has had to adopt a variety of tactics to retain its de facto independence, but its post-1987 political liberalization turned out to be a masterstroke.