You cannot truly understand cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei until you have visited the Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Memorial Hall on Taiwan. The monument is dedicated to the Nationalist president of China who fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Communist rebels in 1949, and is one of the most magnificent structures of its kind in the world. It consists of an enormous white marble ziggurat topped by a blue-ceramic-tiled octagonal roof, set in a beautiful 120-hectare garden entered through temple-style gateways. The Hall stands 70 meters tall and contains a 21.25 metric ton bronze image of Chiang himself. The elegance, beauty, and sheer size of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial dwarf the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., or indeed any of the architectural tributes to past American leaders.
To anyone familiar with the modern history of China and Taiwan, the splendor of the CKS Memorial cannot help but evoke a feeling of dissonance. Though Chiang's legacy will no doubt be hotly debated for many years to come, there can be little question that he was by any terms a deeply ambivalent figure in the broad terrain of Chinese politics. If nothing else, his having been defeated and driven into exile would make the raising of such a grand structure in his memory smack of "the government doth protest too much." An equivalence here in the U.S. might be if the single commemorative structure on the National Mall as large as all others combined were dedicated to Richard Nixon.
This overcompensation is explained by the particular career of Chiang and his Nationalist (Guomindang or GMD) Party on Taiwan. When Chiang first became President on mainland China Taiwan was a Japanese colony, having been ceded to Japan by the Qing Empire at the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Taiwan was repatriated to China at the end of World War II. The military governor dispatched to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek was so corrupt and oppressive that on February 27, 1947, the Taiwanese rose up in rebellion and declared themselves an independent Republic. On February 28 Chiang ordered military forces to respond with horrific brutality, eventually killing as many as 30,000 people, including an entire generation of Taiwanese artists and intellectuals.
Repression continued after the remnants of the Nationalist party and its military took refuge on Taiwan in 1949. Until 1987 the island was kept under martial law, in thrall to a system that concentrated economic and political power in the hands of mainland emigres and afforded native-born Taiwanese only token participation in the management of their own affairs. The CKS Memorial is a relic of that history. It strives to sanitize and beautify early Nationalist rule of Taiwan, as if the sins of history and the inequities of the political economy could be redressed in art and architecture. Only a regime as insecure as that of the Nationalist Party on Taiwan could have deemed the scale and magnificence of the Memorial as plausible or necessary.
Today conditions on Taiwan are very different. During the "Taiwan miracle" of the 1980's and 1990's, the Taiwanese economy prospered with the development of new high-tech industries, and the government gradually transitioned from a single-party autocracy into a vibrant participatory democracy. But the passions and resentments of past injustices linger.
When I was a student on Taiwan in 1990, during the first administration of a native-born Taiwanese leader on the island, President Lee Teng-hui (a GMD partisan), Taiwanese citizens and leaders were in the early stages of organizing and militating for expanded political freedoms. That winter Huang Hua, a leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (or DPP, founded in 1986) declared "Long live the Republic of Taiwan" at the funeral of a colleague. Such an utterance was made in defiance of both the "one China" principle of Beijing and the official stance of the Taipei government, which to this day still deems itself that of the "Republic of China." Then as now, many DPP members felt strongly that Taiwan should and must be its own nation- that decades and centuries of mainland exploitation had nullified any bonds of kinship between Taiwan and China, and that in any case the ethnic, linguistic (most people on Taiwan are most comfortable speaking Taiwanese, a Sinic language as distinct from Mandarin Chinese as French is from Spanish), and historical characteristics of the Taiwanese people constitute a nationality unique and distinct from that of the Chinese.
The attendees at the funeral were arrested, and DPP partisans descended on Taipei to protest. The natural site for such a demonstration was the CKS Memorial, symbol of mainland oppression. A friend and I went to the south gate of the Memorial, where the demonstration had been planned to convene. Police had forced the protesters to disperse, and the DPP had organized light trucks to ferry people from the south gate of the Memorial to the west gate, where a protest site had been erected before police could be notified of the change. As my friend and I climbed on board one of the trucks a DPP organizer leaned out on the sideboard and waved at us, shouting in English, "Long live the Republic of Taiwan!"
Multiple free and direct elections for the legislature and presidency have been held on Taiwan since that time, and the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is a member of the DPP. She is the second DPP partisan to hold the post. The first, Chen Shui-bian, briefly renamed the CKS Memorial the "National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall," infuriating Beijing. It reverted to being the CKS Memorial when the GMD regained power after Chen Shui-bian's second term. Though not all DPP partisans favor Taiwanese independence, there is still a strong faction in President Tsai Ing-wen's party that fervently supports Taiwanese nationhood, and is prepared to pursue that goal at any cost, even war with mainland China.
Unfortunately, though the people of Taiwan have every reason to desire and even expect independence, any formal change in the status of Taiwan to an independent nation would most certainly result in a cataclysmic conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The reasons for this state of affairs are rooted in the history of Chinese nationalism.
Nationalism is, relatively speaking, a very novel force in Chinese cultural history. From 221 B.C.E. to 1911 the Chinese people lived under a succession of imperial dynastic regimes that claimed unbounded and universal dominion. In practice and in theory this meant that all Chinese empires (including those led by non-Chinese houses, like the Manchu Qing dynasty of 1644-1911) assumed that there were gradations of allegiance among their subjects. When, for example, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) wrote an edict to King George III of England commanding him to "tremblingly obey"; Qianlong understood that the British monarch was his subject to a lesser degree than the King of Korea (who sent tribute missions acknowledging the suzerainty of the Qing "Son of Heaven" every three years), who was in turn a Qing subject to a lesser degree than the people of Beijing or Hangzhou.
This norm for conceiving of "China" as a political community changed only gradually over the course of the late 19th century, as faith in and support for venerable imperial institutions was eroded by an escalating series of (retroactively named) "national humiliations 国耻 (the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Arrow War, the Sino-French War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Uprising, etc.)" inflicted on the Qing dynasty by enemies foreign and domestic. By 1903 an 18-year old writer named Zou Rong (1885-1905) was able to galvanize a movement to overthrow the Empire with his tract, The Revolutionary Army, in which he enjoined "You 400 millions of the great Han race, my fellow countrymen, whether man or woman, aged or elderly, in the prime of life, young or child, carry out this revolution (page 126)." This group of "400 million countrymen" was a radical new vision in Chinese politics, an all-or-nothing proposition unlike the traditional imperial concept that variably deemed George III and the King of Korea Qing subjects as a matter of degree.
Of all the "national humiliations" that had created this fissure in Chinese political traditions, the cession of Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (signed in 1895) was arguably the most traumatic and significant. It was not only the largest outright surrender of territory to a foreign power (most other territorial concessions had involved the granting of special rights or powers to foreign governments while still retaining de jure Chinese sovereignty), but entailed the transfer of 2.5 million Chinese subjects to the control of Japan (by contrast, the island of Hong Kong had 7,450 residents when it had been surrendered to the British at the end of the Opium War). For the Qing rulers, operating under traditional concepts of imperial allegiance, Taiwan was not integrally enough tied into their empire to constitute a "core interest." It had only been made a province after the defeat of diehard Ming (1368-1644) loyalists in 1683, and was inhabited by a mixture of unintelligible southerners and strange aboriginal peoples. Thus, to Qing leaders, surrendering sovereignty over Taiwan was only incrementally more significant than surrendering suzerainty over Korea (the core issue over which the war with Japan had been fought).
For educated Chinese, who by 1895 had increasingly been exposed to the nationalist ideas becoming prevalent in industrialized societies, the Qing willingness to surrender Taiwan was shocking. Before the cession of Taiwan, support for the Qing among Chinese literati was still fairly robust. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) himself, the eventual leader of the 1911 revolution that would ultimately overthrow the Qing, petitioned to be employed by the Manchu monarch in 1893. After Taiwan was surrendered to Japan, not only the Manchu Qing dynasty, but the whole imperial edifice and ideology upon which it rested, were cast into irredeemable disrepute. This is reflected in the message of Zou Rong's Revolutionary Army. In an attempt to goad and shame his readers into a new perspective, he writes:
Buttonhole a man and tell him: "Your father is not your real father, he is so-and-so." He will undoubtedly jump up furiously and go into the truth of the allegation before the matter is settled. Again, there is a family, with father and son, husband and wife and brothers all living peacefully together. Suddenly ruffians descend on the house, property is seized, and the household enslaved. The whole family will fight to the death to get back their possessions before the incident is settled. As for saying to anyone that he has two fathers and he not getting angry, or the property of a family being stolen without a fight, such people are more dead than alive, mere stiff carcasses and whitened bones. I am particularly amazed that my fellow countrymen will put up with things as a nation which they would not as individuals, they will put up with things as a nation which they would not as a family...The people of Hong Kong set up a memorial to Queen Victoria, with the words: "Her virtue was in harmony with heaven and earth." The people of Taiwan sang the merits of the Meiji Emperor (of Japan) with the words: "His virtue is far-reaching and his magnanimity great."...Because people are not clear about the distinction between their own race and alien races, men act as brigands and women as whores; they shame their ancestors and defile their clans: what else would you expect? (pages 108-9)
When Zou expressed amazement at what his fellow Chinese will put up with "as a nation" he was in fact presenting them with a radically new way of thinking about political identity. If they really thought of and behaved themselves as "a nation," he implicitly asserted, they would not stand for the cession of Hong Kong or Taiwan, but (like the family in his microcosmic example) "fight to the death" to retain their "property." The powerful appeal of this vision was vouchsafed by the final and total collapse of the more than two-millennia old empire eight years after the publication of Zou's manifesto.
This nationalistic paradigm has had a tumultuous career over the last century in China, but through all the vagaries of Chinese politics it has remained a dynamically vital force and driver of historical events. If there has been a significant change, it is that where Zou's intense sentiments were novel and relatively radical in 1903, today they are ubiquitous and virtually hegemonic. The concept of "national humiliation" that Zou employed in such extravagantly polemical fashion has become an ordinary and enumerable touchstone of identity among Chinese citizens today, as intuitively integral to their understanding of their own past as the enormity of "taxation without representation" is to Americans' understanding of theirs.
The status of Taiwan is thus an exquisitely sensitive flashpoint in the collective consciousness of the people of mainland China. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate polling data about political attitudes in China, any survey will show that passions run high on this issue. In a web survey of Chinese public opinion conducted by the Global Times this past April, 97% of respondents considered Taiwan "an inseparable part of China" and 85% favored military action to achieve "reunification." A survey of the general public and "policy elites" done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2013 showed similar patterns:
One survey question asked Chinese respondents what they saw as the most
likely source of conflict between China and the United States in the
next two to three years. One American elite expressed surprise that even
though the question focused on such a short time horizon, most
respondents still identified Taiwan, despite the positive state of
cross-strait relations at present and the fact that the Kuomintang
(Nationalist) Party, which favors eventual reunification with the Chinese mainland, is
in power...One Chinese elite emphasized that the finding shows how seriously the
Chinese people take the Taiwan issue. Another Chinese discussant
speculated that the percentage of Chinese identifying Taiwan as the most
likely source of conflict may have been even higher had this survey
been done when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was in
power in the early to mid-2000s.
Now that President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party is indeed back in power, tensions surrounding this issue are even higher than they were when the survey was conducted in 2013. What American "elites" do not seem to understand is that the larger culture of Chinese nationalism makes any potential change to the sovereign status of Taiwan an existential threat to the CCP regime in Beijing. A Taiwanese declaration of independence would, in the mind of China's people, be a re-enactment of the great "national humiliation" of 1895. Any government that tolerated such a crime would be as de-legitimized in the eyes of more than a billion Chinese citizens as the Qing imperial court had been in the eyes of Zou Rong back in 1903. Any move by Taipei toward independence would face Beijing with the stark choice between an external war that could quickly internationalize and internal unrest that would undoubtedly make the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989 pale by comparison. These condition, moreover, would not likely change even if we saw a radical revolution in the Chinese political system. If a democratically elected government arose in Beijing one day and Taipei declared independence the next, by day three the new government in Beijing would declare Taiwan in rebellion and launch an attack, or risk falling in turn to another popular uprising.
All of the problems arising from these deep-seated nationalist passions are exacerbated for the present regime in Beijing by its unique liabilities. The radical centralization of the People's Republic and the natural urge of regional interests to seek more administrative and (especially) fiscal autonomy makes the example of Taiwan an especially dangerous one. Beyond this, the lingering aspirations for democratic governance that found brief expression in 1989 are perilously exacerbated by the example of Taiwan's vibrant multi-party democracy operating just off China's southeast coast. For the leadership in Beijing, Taiwan is like a cobra that the Chinese Communist Party is forced to share its bed with, and much institutional focus and energy must constantly be expended to prevent that proximity from becoming fatal.
All of this is to say that President-elect Trump's recent declaration that the U.S. does not "have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," expresses a profound misunderstanding of this issue and its impact on Sino-U.S. relations. For four decades the United States has cultivated a deliberate posture of "strategic ambiguity," to prevent Beijing from launching an attack on Taiwan for fear that we will militarily oppose an unprovoked invasion, while at the same time preventing Taiwan from declaring independence for fear that we will not defend them if they provoke Beijing by seceding. To abandon this fragile homeostasis in search of advantages in commercial or monetary policy is the equivalent of lighting your neighbor's house on fire in the attempt to get a better price for her used car. Such a move would only impel her to forget the sale of her car altogether and do anything and everything to prevent you from committing arson on her house ever again.
Beijing has little room to maneuver on this issue and even less desire to be forced to do so. CCP leaders understand the origins and potency of pro-independence feelings on Taiwan, but understanding such feelings only increases Beijing's perception of their lethal danger. Taiwanese nationalists bravely scoff at the mainland's fury, but no amount of contempt will make that fury any less tragically certain or destructive. The best that Mr. Trump can hope for with his reckless bluster is to destroy his credibility in Beijing, and most likely in Taipei too, because he has already telegraphed his intention to throw Taiwan under the bus in exchange for concessions from China. From there the possibilities become progressively darker, depending on how far Mr. Trump is willing to let the situation roll downhill. If the President-elect insists on calling Beijing's bluff he will quickly find that they are not bluffing. Given how little encouragement the pro-independence forces will need on Taiwan, and how little provocation Beijing is prepared to tolerate (they have passed laws authorizing military force for the mere suggestion of an intention to secede, much less a legal declaration of independence), enough irresponsible rhetoric from Washington could easily lead to a show of force that might quickly spiral out of control. For the sake of world peace we must all hope that Mr. Trump gains wisdom quickly in his conduct of Sino-U.S. relations or, failing that, that wiser heads than his prevail in crafting American policy in the Taiwan Strait.