Thursday, September 2, 2021

No, Taiwan is not China because the ROC still technically exists


The exact face I make when someone says "but under the ROC constitution Taiwan claims China!" 

It's been wonderful this past month to mostly avoid blogging about current affairs. When I get into one of these moods, I find it easier to dive into history, address a long-standing issue in Taiwan-related discourse, or just do travel blogging or book reviews. After a book review and two travel posts with history tie-ins, I think it's finally Long-Standing Issue time.

Often in Taiwan-focused online discourse, I come across a very specific type of viewpoint: if Taiwan wants to be seen as independent from China so badly, they should simply change their name from the 'Republic of China', or but Taiwan is a part of China according to their own constitution, they still claim the PRC! or my favorite (found on Twitter): Taiwan doesn't want to be invaded by China, they want to be China -- they still think they're the real China! 

Let's skip the part where we dissect how people who say these things seem to only be aware of Taiwan's post-1945 history, and literally nothing before that (in some cases they have an extremely biased/blinkered view of what the Qing colonial era was like). We'll skip as well any deeper discussion of whether these commenters are sincere. It seems likely that some are, in that they appear to be real people and not sock accounts. Sometimes, however, the wording of these arguments is eerily similar enough that it's hard to tell what's being repeated because the commenter saw it elsewhere, and what is the product of disseminating specific talking points through intentional disinformation campaigns. 

Instead, I want to go straight to why this entire perspective is misinformed at best, intentionally anti-Taiwan at worst. There's nothing particularly new here that Taiwan nerds won't already know; this is essentially me being lazy. Now, the next time I see it (and there will certainly be a next time), I'll just link this. And now you can too!

Below, I've broken down the (bad) points I've come across and why they're wrong. Variations exist, but they all seem to point back to these main categories of argumentation.

“Under the Republic of China constitution, Taiwan still claims ‘the mainland’” 

On a very technical level, this is true. But on a practical and even official level, it’s not. Or at least, it’s a lot more complicated than “the ROC government claims all of China”. 

Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that both Lee Teng-hui and Tsai Ing-wen have clearly stated that relations between Taiwan and China are state-to-state — two separate national governments — rather than two governments that claim the exact same territory?

Let's explore that a little.

The Constitution of the Republic of China does, indeed, include this article: 

The territory of the Republic of China according to its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by resolution of the National Assembly.

Additional articles to the constitution from the early 1990s denoted the difference between the “free area” (what the government actually controls — effectively admitting that the Republic of China does not control the PRC’s territory) and “the mainland area”, and clarified that only citizens of the “free area” (what we generally consider to be Taiwan) can vote for and be represented by the national government. This is the main reason why Taiwan can have a government that accurately represents it, without having to engage in some farcical game of “who represents Hunan? How about Zhejiang? Gansu?” when nobody seriously thinks that the Republic of China governs these places.

I’m no constitutional scholar, but it stands to reason that this admission that the Republic of China doesn’t actually control ‘the mainland’ is the constitutional basis for statements by President Lee in the 1990s.

This article is extremely biased to the point of affecting the quality of the scholarship, but it offers up a real quote from Lee and a taste of how angry China chose to be:

According to the transcript released by Taipei, Lee said that since 1991, when the ROC Constitution was amended, cross-strait relations had been defined as "state-to-state," or at least "a special state-to-state relationship." Cross-strait relations, he maintained, shall not be internal relations of "one China," in which it is a legal government vs. a rebel regime, or a central government vs. a local one. Lee's controversial statement, not even known beforehand by Su Chi, Chairman of Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), sent shock waves to Washington as well as Beijing. [Note: Su Chi is the same guy who fabricated the "1992 Consensus" well after 1992]. 
For Beijing, Lee Teng-hui's "two-state" theory was identical to the claims by Taiwan independence forces, that treated Taiwan and the mainland as two separate states. Lee had completely abandoned the unification guidelines of 1991, not even paying lip service to the one-China principle. The spokesman of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office criticized Lee for playing with fire....In Beijing's eyes, Lee had made an open and giant step towards independence. The "state-to-state relation" theory went beyond the limit of "creative ambiguity" around the one-China principle and represented a major shift towards de jure independence. 

Often forgotten is this: Tsai Ing-wen, now the President of Taiwan, wasn't just influenced by Lee's shift, she helped craft it

Back in the 1990s, as a law professor, Tsai gave Lee's government legal advice on the island's diplomatic relationship with Beijing, playing a key role in forming Lee's "two-state" policy that depicted Taiwan and mainland China as different countries.

There was a strong bond between the two. Lee saw Tsai as a disciple, while the current president considered her mentor as the defender of democracy on the island.

Tsai herself has said much the same thing:

“We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state,” Tsai told the BBC. “We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan.

I've said before that Tsai's approach to governance shows that she's read The Art of War by Lee Teng-hui. Well, perhaps it's even more accurate to say that she helped Lee write the book. 

People tend to overlook this now (especially when it’s convenient to forget when one is making a unificationist, anti-Taiwan argument), but Lee’s policy shift was groundbreaking. In effect, it ended the illusion that the “Republic of China on Taiwan” controlled or had any practical claim to what we commonly conceive of as “China”. 

Now, if the constitution directly prohibited such a claim, both Lee’s and Tsai’s statements would have created constitutional crises. They didn’t, which means there is room in the constitution to accommodate such policies. Therefore, the idea that ‘official boundaries of the Republic of China’ don’t necessarily match up with what the Republic of China actually claims is at least possible, in the sense that it’s constitutionally viable.
If it weren’t, elections in Taiwan as they exist today would not be possible. They are. Therefore, well, if “p” then “q”, right? And I may not be a legal scholar, but you know who is? Madame President Dr. Tsai Ing-wen. She would know what interpretations of the constitution are possible, and would know to act within them.

So you can’t accurately state that the government of Taiwan “claims” all of China, because it doesn’t. It hasn’t since the 1990s, and that’s only been reinforced by the current administration.

“Taiwan still thinks it’s the real China”

No, it doesn’t. Taiwan is a representative democracy, which means that there would need to be some sort of national consensus among citizens for Taiwan to ‘think’ of itself as anything. Arguably that's always the case, but when it comes to Taiwan, we have reasonable mechanisms for determining what the people think. If you'd like to argue against this axiom, please feel free to be the jerk who thinks people -- even those within a self-governing entity -- aren't allowed to decide how they identify. But don't expect much sympathy: how would you feel if someone told you how you had to define yourself?

For Taiwan to “think it’s the real China”, therefore, most Taiwanese would have to agree that Taiwan is the real China, and that they are therefore Chinese in some sense (whether that’s cultural, historical, political or ethnic — many of these being social constructs and not hard-and-fast categories). 

But they don’t. Most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, a point that has been well-documented since 2008. Though there have been some dips, that number has mostly grown. Among those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese, the data suggest Taiwanese identity is prioritized. These aren’t narrow majorities either. Although of course people in any country will hold a variety of opinions, the numbers here are strong enough to suggest a consensus. 

What’s more, most Taiwanese want to participate in international events as ‘Taiwan’, and there is essentially no support for immediate unification. Even the tiny number who identify as ‘solely Chinese’ doesn’t rise above the margin of error, and roughly corresponds to the number of Taiwanese citizens who actually were born in China. 

Some like to point to support for the ‘status quo’ as Taiwan wavering on whether or not it’s independent from China. It’s true that people tend to support the status quo, but remember, the status quo effectively is de facto independence: it means people want to avoid starting a war over what Taiwan already has. The way things are now, Taiwan governs itself, and a good number of Taiwanese no longer see unification as inevitable. Even articles that obscure support for independence or make it sound like a bad thing admit this:

It’s noteworthy that an impressive majority – almost 75 percent – continue to believe that Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China....For the first time, a plurality of respondents (47.5 percent) now believe that Taiwan independence is more likely than unification.

It's worth noting -- with the usual caveats about poll reliability and pollster bias -- that the percentage of Taiwanese who favor eventual independence is very close to the percentage that want to "decide later", and higher than the number who want to "maintain the status quo forever".

This simply means that there is little to no support for unification, but quite a bit of support for Taiwan continuing to govern itself, while expressing a desire to live in peace. That is, not start a war for formally recognized independence when Taiwan already has most of the practical benefits of it. When Taiwanese say they're against changes that China would choose to be provoked by, it's likely (but not always) the threat of war that they're reacting against. Even those who don't mind the name are aware that "the Republic of China" is never going to "re-take the Mainland". 

It means there is a national consensus: Taiwanese identity is not only a thing, it's the sole identity of the vast majority in Taiwan, and that unification is not desired.

In what universe does such a national consensus on Taiwan translate into thinking Taiwan is the ‘real China’?

“If Taiwan wants to be considered separate from China, it should simply change its name and constitution.”

Given everything above, it is willfully disingenuous to pretend that Taiwan hasn’t changed these things because it doesn’t want to. 

So why do the name and constitution persist? Why did President Tsai say “Taiwan is an independent country, and its name is the Republic of China” rather than just “Taiwan is an independent country”? That’s clearly what she thinks, and given the consensus that Taiwanese is a distinct identity from Chinese, and the majority identity in Taiwan, the next steps should be obvious.

Some of it comes from Taiwanese who do want to retain some aspect of Chinese identity. Okay, well, I maintain a culturally and historically Armenian identity, yet that doesn’t make me any less American. Through that lens, I can understand the impulse. There is a subgroup of independence supporters who want an independent Taiwan but to retain links to Chinese culture and history, and it’s not my inclination (or job, or lane) to argue against this. 

But mostly, it comes from China. The name remains because there is still fear that changing it would be seen as a ‘declaration of independence’ leading to immediate war. The same is true for the constitution. 

It doesn’t really matter if this is true or not: enough people believe it to create a voting bloc opposed to anything that could be seen as provocative towards China. That voting bloc will be used and courted by opposition politicians. I’m not inclined to see the KMT as a bigger threat than China — at this point they’re basically a puppet of China, and I’m more worried about the puppet master than their marionette — but we need to contend with the fact that they will chase these votes.

But who drives that fear? China. Who intentionally sows discord? China. Who stokes fears of war? China. Who decides what the “tension level” is in the Taiwan Strait? China. Who decides to be ‘provoked’? China. 

So why can’t Taiwan just change its name to Taiwan if it doesn’t consider itself part of China?


Don’t blame Taiwan for this.

"But Taiwan has agreed that it's a part of China as it accepted the Republic of China system!"

If you want to make this argument, please provide references as to when exactly the Taiwanese people were asked if they'd like to host the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek made his appeal at Cairo, not to Taiwan. Then, he showed up and didn't exactly ask if his government was welcome. It's true that at the time many Taiwanese did welcome the KMT. It's hard to know how many of the celebrants were sincere and how many were made to go wave a flag, but we can safely assume that there were some of each. Then, the KMT did a horrible job and the people quite rightly protested this. Sure, after decades of brutality and mass murder and forced cultural and linguistic imperialism towards "Chineseness", Taiwan finally forced the KMT to accept democratization and had Lee Teng-hui as a helping hand in the establishment -- eventually, anyway. 

But while Taiwan got democracy, the people have never gotten the chance to decide whether they wanted to keep the Republic of China structure under which that democracy exists. What's more, every major decision made regarding Taiwan's status was made when the dictatorship was still in place. Leaving the UN and other reactions to the loss of formal recognition, refusing to participate in the Olympics as Taiwan, even the meetings in 1992 that did not lead to a consensus were all done by a dictatorship from China ruling the country under Martial Law while incarcerating, disappearing or executing anyone who objected.

If you think any of this was a "choice" of the Taiwanese people when it was done long before they were allowed to vote for their national leaders, read a book.

Even now, when you see people wavering on Taiwan/China issues, it's almost always due to the threat of war. If you want to know what people really think, ask them what they'd prefer if they could have it without China dropping bombs on them.

“Taiwan may as well accept that it’s part of China, because Taiwanese won’t really fight if China invades.”

Here’s the thing: everybody thinks they know what they’d do in the thick of war, or a national disaster. I like to think that if the PLA came a-knockin’, I’d stay and fight. This is my home, after all. But we can only guess at how we’d act, and there’s no concrete way to ‘prove’ people would fight or surrender without inducing the actual situation. Not even I can say with 100% certainty what I would do, only what I intend.

The best we have are polls asking the question now, to find out what people think they’d do. And the polls are clear: a comfortable majority of Taiwanese say they are willing to fight for Taiwan. (The Diplomat link above paints a slightly grimmer picture, and I'm curious about the disparity, but still there are people who say they're willing to fight.)

This also fits my anecdotal observations: the general consensus I’ve seen is that people will do just about anything to keep the peace if that’s possible, but there is a point where you do have to stand and fight, if the other side forces your hand.

As I see it, if this is the best data we have, the burden of proof is on those who don’t think Taiwanese would stand firm, if they want to make that argument. The polls show they would. If you want to say the data are wrong, prove it

Otherwise, sit down. What Taiwanese say about their intentions is more important than your opinion. 

Whether or not such polls can accurately predict what people would do if a real war broke out, the fact is that some people will fight. Perhaps it’s impossible to say what percentage, but we know it won’t be zero. Without support, those people would be slaughtered. 

Therefore, anyone who thinks that in this situation a massacre can be avoided — that a straight-up crime against humanity can be stopped — by convincing all Taiwanese to surrender without a fight is dreaming. It will never play out that way, so any discussion of the nightmare scenario of invasion must contend with this. Otherwise, it can be dismissed as either hopelessly naive, or actively and disingenuously anti-Taiwan.

Phew. I think that's it, but if there's a common argument along these lines that you think I've missed, by all means speak up and I'll add it if it can be supported.

Quick update: I quite liked this comment on Twitter: 

The whole thread is worth reading, but this is the point I wanted to include. It makes sense: the Queen of England exists for symbolic/historical reasons, and it would be a problem if she actually tried to run the government. Everybody knows this. 

But imagine if there was a large, hostile country just off the coast of England who insisted that England pretend the Queen of England was the true head of government -- not some symbolic relic -- rather than the Prime Minister and Parliament, and failing to keep up the pretense would be grounds for invasion. And there was a small but vocal minority of English people who actually believed it, enough that supporters of this country threatening England could point to them and say it's actually all England's fault even when most people know the whole thing is a farce.

Weird, right? 

Well, that's pretty much the position that Taiwan is in vis-a-vis the ROC and China.


Unknown said...

I'm not well-versed on the subject so please forgive me if I'm mistaken, but one aspect where I feel Taiwanese law and perhaps popular sentiment seem to imply a "kinship" with the Chinese is policies that favour the immigration of people from Hong Kong, Macao and other territories. Do Hong Kong residents have to work for five years in order to become permanent residents? Are they fast-tracked in any way? I'm genuinely curious because I believe I might have seen news in the past that indicated as such. I fully support Taiwanese independence by the way, it's just been my impression that there are different "tiers" of foreigners under Taiwanese law, the most unfortunate of which are the migrant workers, and that certain other groups seem to get preferential status.

Jenna Cody said...

Oh, there are -- and a lot of pro-Taiwan groups want to end that preferential treatment. I don't know how long Hong Kongers have to work before permanent residency because Hong Kong also has (had?) its own category of investment/entrepreneur immigration in which they get ROC citizenship and get to keep their Hong Kong ID card (but obviously not PRC citizenship). For Chinese, I'm not super clear because I've never been through this, but the Ma administration made it easier for Chinese wives of Taiwanese men (it was almost always that gender breakdown) to immigrate to Taiwan, and Chinese immigrants and students are considered something apart from other international students. So you're not wrong, though I don't know the specific rules.

This is more of a Taiwanese law thing, however, and many of those laws were written in the 1920s, when the ROC existed in China but not Taiwan -- a 1920s law is the main reason why a person whose ancestors were ROC citizens can get dual nationality but I can't.

As for popular sentiment, I'm not sure but I'd bet on 'no'. I hear a lot of grumbling about it actually. Chen Po-wei (3Q) of the Statebuilding Party even complained that Chinese spouses of Taiwanese living in China could access Taiwanese National Health Insurance even though they didn't live or pay taxes here, and these spouses should pay more for that access if they get it at all.

I do think there is a real cohort of Taiwanese who would be comfortable with some Chinese cultural/heritage identity, the way I am comfortable in Armenianness, but perhaps don't claim it or don't say so on surveys because of the politicization of what it means to be "Chinese", and the Chinese government trying to co-opt that identity.

But how big that cohort is, I have no idea.

Jenna Cody said...

As for the tiers, yes there is definitely an unfair hierarchy of foreign blue collar workers, then white-collar but "not special" foreigners like myself, then foreign special professionals and gold card types, and I think plum blossom card holders are even better-treated than that. But I'm not sure exactly where one would put immigrants from China or HK/Macau on there, as they seem to be a distinct entity entirely in the government's view. I suspect the Hong Kong/Macau "investment/entrepreneur" immigrants would be much like foreign special professionals in terms of preferential treatment.

And all this really shows in how each group is treated, they don't even try to disguise it as something else.