Unification Can Only Follow Democratization

Taiwan may have been its own country for seven out of the last eleven decades and claim that it has the right to decide for itself its sovereign status, but that does not prevent China from pressing for unification. . In recent years, China and Taiwan have come closer due to increased economic interactions, but why does China still point 500 missiles on the island? A large part of the answer can be found in exactly how complicated the political history of the China-Taiwan dispute is. Historian Orville Schell argues that a broad perspective on the conflict would suggest that the issue of utmost importance to both countries is not unification per se, but democratization of China. Before China should ask for Taiwan, it should continue on its path to democracy and open politics. Taiwan, likewise, needs to put aside its claims to independence and recognize the reality that they are a small island off the coast of a superpower, and that regional peace and stablity matter to everybody, including the Taiwanese themselves. Concentrating on internal politics will only make their claims to self-governance stronger. Schell suggests that China and Taiwan truly share economic interests at the moment, and if they capitalize on that, peace would naturally become the end result. – YaleGlobal

Unification Can Only Follow Democratization

Taiwan may have the right to pursue independence, but regional peace and democratization of China are far more important and worthy outcomes
Orville Schell
Friday, March 19, 2004

Why is Taiwan's relationship with China so intractable an issue? Why, when they share common economic interests – 1 million Taiwanese live in China, working in some 50,000 firms in which Taiwanese have invested over US$400 billion – does China aim 500 short-range missiles at Taiwan?

The run-up to the presidential election tomorrow is one current source of tension. President Chen Shui-bian has initiated a referendum process that might someday be used to ask Taiwanese if they want to formalize today's de facto independence. This infuriates China.

After all, as Mao Zedong told Edgar Snow in 1936, "It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories," explicitly including "Formosa." Since then, China has sought to make good on Mao's pledge.

China's new leadership often evinces a new judiciousness and moderation in its diplomacy. But Luo Yuan, a senior colonel at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, recently declared that if Taiwan's leaders "refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referendums as an excuse to seek independence, they will push [their] compatriots into the abyss of war."

`For its part, Taiwan needs to calm down. Its leaders must understand that ... [it] is a small, vulnerable island, and China an emerging superpower.'

In an age when national self-determination is a hallowed principle, how is it possible that Taiwan – which has been part of China during only four of the last eleven decades, and has never been under the control of the PRC – is shunned by every nation when it deigns to wonder aloud why it should not be allowed to go its own way?

The reasons have deep historical roots. When Mao and the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, they promised "reunification of the Motherland," which included bringing Xinjiang (the Muslim desert regions of the West), Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan back under central government control. It became a matter of national pride for a country that had been guafen, or "cut up like a melon," by predatory colonial powers, to end national feelings of humiliation by restoring itself to wholeness. Communist propaganda relentlessly proselytized for reunification as a "sacred" duty.

As Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau returned "to the embrace of the Motherland," Mao's commitment seemed close to realization. The fact that only Taiwan stands in the way makes unification all the more non-negotiable.

But, there is another dynamic at work. Over the last two decades, almost every other plank of the Communist Party's platform – world-wide people's war, proletarian struggle leading to a classless utopia, a triumph over global capitalism, etc. – has been abandoned. This leaves unification as the last tie to Mao's revolution and justification for one-party rule. China's leadership plays up this "revolutionary" commitment, for it helps generate nationalist sentiment, one of the few things – besides strong economic performance – that legitimizes the Communist monopoly on power.

China's leaders ought to reflect on the fact that their country is no longer the "sick man of Asia." It is increasingly powerful, globally proactive and economically robust. So it is a timely moment to reappraise its position and to begin acting from strength, not weakness. In short, it is time for China's leaders to change the chemistry of their long feud with Taiwan.

After all, China and Taiwan have struggled politically even as their economies become increasingly unified. In due course, they may well be able to become more unified on the political front – if they do not push their disagreements too aggressively. For economic convergence, if allowed to ripen, could set Taiwan and the PRC on an evolutionary course toward common sovereignty.

How can such a scenario be realized? China must declare, loudly and clearly, that greater democracy, not mutant Leninism, is its ultimate political goal, and that as this evolutionary process takes place and the political climate becomes more congenial, they look forward to discussing how to better weave a political, as well as an economic, fabric with Taiwan. Such a declaration alone would give Taiwanese the ability to imagine that they may one day find it in their interest to be part of China.

For its part, Taiwan needs to calm down. Its leaders must understand that, even though "independence" may sometimes seem like a logical scenario, Taiwan is a small, vulnerable island, and China an emerging superpower. Even though Taiwan may have a "right" to independence, its leaders need to remind their people that provocative actions will gain them little.

In 1973, as Sino-US relations were thawing, Mao admitted to Henry Kissinger that, though he did not believe reunification would come peacefully, "We can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after 100 years ... Why is there a need to be in such great haste?"

Mao's advice is not bad. China must take to heart its newfound dynamism and strength, and write a new scenario for its relations with Taiwan that emphasizes persuasion instead of missiles. For the first time in 50 years, China and Taiwan share real interests. What blocks matrimony is China's lack of democracy. Most Chinese would probably like to see this absence remedied as much as they favor full reunification. Only democracy in China can bring lasting peace to the Taiwan Strait.

Orville Schell is a historian of China and dean at the University of California at Berkeley.

Copyright: Project Syndicate