Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Future of China, as Seen from Taiwan (and Tibet, and Xinjiang, and....)

My last post was read (I am happy to note) by a number of critical eyes across the blogosphere, particularly Michael Turton in The View from Taiwan. I do not have many objections to Michael's perspective, except that he seems to be arguing against a case I did not make. My purpose was never to argue for the naturalness or even desirability of reunification with mainland China for the people of Taiwan, my post was commenting exclusively on the effect that cross-Strait interaction is likely to have on the political culture of China. In particular, I would not contradict Michael's assertion that-

"[E]ven China becoming a democracy would [not] entice Taiwan into the Chinese political embrace. One, and only one thing will create 'peaceful' union between China and Taiwan: the Taiwanese belief that China is willing to commit murder and mayhem on an island-wide scale, coupled with the calculation that they are unwilling to accept such destruction in exchange for their independence, that will cause them to pack up their tents and set out the white flag."

I would only add to Michael's observation that a)the Taiwanese people are not wrong in their belief that China is willing to commit murder and mayhem on an island-wide scale; b)nothing, not even China becoming a democracy will decrease China's willingess to use extreme force to prevent formal Taiwanese independence.

I must underscore that I am speaking in a completely non-normative mode. I do not approve of China's willingness to use force against Taiwan. No amount of disapproval upon my part or anyone else's can change the brute fact of Chinese nationalism, however, or the political realities to which it gives rise. As I have stated in earlier posts, the deep-seeded nationalist aspirations of the Chinese people preclude their ever accepting a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence. Even in a China that was fully democratic and in which the CCP no longer existed a Taiwanese declaration of independence could only lead to a cross-Strait war. No mainland Chinese government could survive the political firestorm that would follow acquiescence to such an event.

That being said, it is also true (as I clearly stated in my last post) that Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, and judiciary, its own body of civil and criminal law, and its own military for over 50 years. It is not reasonable to expect Taiwan, having enjoyed de facto sovereignty for so long, to revert to being a mere "province" of China. What then, is the way forward? The world (as world peace and prosperity do in many ways hinge upon peace in the Taiwan Strait) seems to be at an impasse.

There is one solution that, though it would require extraordinary forebearance and compromise to be effected, might at once both preserve the dignity of Taibei and resolve many of the structural impediments hobbling Beijing. As I stated in my last post, one of the chief difficulties China must overcome to preserve its stability and prosperity is the supercentralization of its internal political structure. Beijing can not exercise the kind of micromanagerial control relegated to it by the PRC system over the provinces of China, so that even as the Chinese economy expands its progress is retarded by ever-acclerating irrationality, inefficiency, and waste. Though large urban movements as occurred in 1989 have not recurred, local unrest is becoming ever more frequent and destructive in rural areas.

China's only hope of avoiding cataclysmic meltdown is to opt for an eventual program of decentralization. All of the provinces of China must ultimately enjoy a great deal of autonomy and independence from Beijing- even more autonomy than the 50 states of the U.S. do from Washington, as each province is geographically, socially, and demographically more complex than even the largest U.S. state. As this process of decentralization occurs (assuming for the moment that the best-case scenario arrives), the question of the non-provincial territory of the PRC (the so-called "autonomous regions") will naturally come into play.

Beijing is no more likely to ever grant Tibet, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang total independence than it is to Taiwan. Even so, it is not inconceivable that a reformed Chinese government might accede to a "bimodal" polity. In this scheme the 22 historical provinces of China would be fully integrated into a Chinese Federation. The autonomous regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia (Ningxia and Guangxi too, should they so desire) would be bound more loosely into a Greater Chinese Commonwealth. Commonwealth members would have many of the powers of sovereignty (thus the Dalai Lama could return to Tibet, Xinjiang could resolve its own policy toward Uighur language and Islam, etc.), they would only defer to Beijing on matters of foreign policy and defense.

If Taiwan were to join such a system as a Commonwealth member it could retain its own institutions and sovereign independence, and would benefit from the lowering of all logistical impediments to cross-Strait trade. This might seem like an impossibly optimistic scenario, but international trends such as that exemplified by the EU demonstrate that it is the downhill slope of history. A Greater Chinese Commonwealth is no more intrinsically unlikely than a European Union, it only seems so because where Europe had historically been artificially hyper-fragmented China has been artificially hyper-united. If despite centuries of destruction and hardship Europeans have finally moved toward a more rational reconciliation of disparate sovereignties, it is not too much to hope that China, whose suffering has been no less intense, might make an analogously rational move (albeit in, superficially at least, the opposite direction).


cookiesap on-line said...

I like your blog. Your posts are deep, thoughtful, and seem to come from someone who knows what s/he's talking about.

I agree with you that the Chinese political setup must change and is likely to undergo de-centralization, either by default or planned.

Judging with history as my compass, however, such a move could spark violent conflicts, which in turn could ripple throughout Asia.

Would it be fair to say that de-centralization would not be appropriate until the provinces have developed and established a healthy trading system between other provices and countries in the region..?? Preparing ourselves for the inevitable may be better than 'just letting it happen'.

just some thoughts..

Best regards.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Soeren,

Thanks for your kind words. As for when and how decentralization happens in China, that is up to the Chinese themselves. Steadily accelerating interprovincial and international trade is already going on, and the lack of formal structures for reconciling central and provinicial powers and interests is already causing conflict and injury. The New York Times had an article on the front page Monday about a judge in Luoyang who nearly caused a mutiny when she ruled that national law overruled provincial law in a trade-dispute case. The recent chemical spill in Harbin and the mine disaster that took so many lives also demonstrate the urgent need for decentralization- it is the only way to introduce a level of accountability that will prevent such tragedies from happening.