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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Both Washington and Beijing have been confounded by it. American expectations were scrambled as soon as the people who lived on Taiwan gained a real say in any “settlement” between Taipei and Beijing. “Realists” who had expected that, over time, this “irritant” in U.S.-Chinese relations might be removed now have to cope with Taiwan’s institutionalized right to self-determination. Meanwhile, Beijing’s Communist leadership knows that the workings of Taiwan’s democracy are routinely seen in China on satellite television and widely discussed on blogs. In recent months, especially, the entire Chinese-speaking world has observed the contrast between Taiwan’s open politics and China’s thuggish intra-politburo struggle. We may be nearing the denouement of modern China’s long and bloody struggle over politics and governance. Taiwan now matters very much to this big story, and Shelley Rigger’s book is a fine primer for understanding how that has come to be. 

There is another theme as well. In a speech in Singapore last June, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described what has been interpreted as America’s “strategic shift to Asia [that] aims to use traditional allegiances, as well as budding partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and India, to offset China’s rising military power and assertiveness” (Washington Post). Panetta went on to visit an American naval vessel which just happened to be calling at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, but neither the man nor the ship would go to Taiwan. Yet today, maritime security is another reason why, in Rigger’s apt phrase, Taiwan matters. If the United States continues to act on its now-outdated verbal position—no, we ourselves do not say that Taiwan is a part of China, we just say that we will not argue with those who do—it will be China’s navy that will be making the visits to Taiwan, not ours. To be sure, Taiwan does not help either us or itself by clinging to its own antiquated maritime claims; instead, it should be joining with the like-minded democracies nearby that are increasingly resistant to China’s pressure tactics. 

In a brilliant article in March’s China Heritage Quarterly, the Australian sinologue Geremie Barmé traces the history of written and spoken Chinese since the late 19th century and its submergence, since 1949, into the PRC’s officially sanctioned way of speaking and writing:

New China Newspeak was and is used by the Party, its propaganda organs, the media and educators to shape (and circumscribe) the way people express themselves in the public (and eventually private) sphere, and to enable the party-state apparatus to inculcate its ideology by means of relentless verbal/written imposition and repetition. .  .  . [I]t is also commonly employed in creating what I call “translated China,” that is the English-language Party langue that has evolved over many decades to present China to the outside world.

Barmé goes on to describe how, in the best Orwellian fashion, Beijing seeks to control not only what Chinese think and say about China, but what everyone else does, too. 

Accordingly, we need to guard against what the late Fred Iklé called “semantic infiltration,” which starts with using the language of enemies and adversaries to define reality, and ends with accepting their definitions. America’s discussion of Taiwan—indeed, almost all the world’s discussion of it, not least that of the government of Taiwan itself—has been thoroughly infiltrated by New China Newspeak. For example, there is the term “reunification”—except that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China, not even for an hour. There is the notion that, historically, Taiwan has been part of “China,” even though there was no political entity with the word “China” in it until 1912. (Before then, what we think of as “China,” and what we now call Taiwan, were both parts of the Qing Empire.) In fact, Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire from 1895 until the end of World War II.

Beyond this, even though Taiwan is de facto an independent country, neither the adjective nor the noun it modifies is mentionable in routine diplomatic discourse. The United States recognizes and supports the independence and United Nations memberships of Kosovo (population, 1.8 million; GDP, about $6 billion), East Timor (population, 1.2 million; GDP, less than $1 billion), and even Tuvalu (population, 10,000; GDP, $32 million). We do this to prove a point. But what point are we proving when the United States government bars the democratically elected president of a country of 23 million (with a GDP of more than $500 billion) from entering our country?