Written by John F. Copper.
In 1990 when I published the first edition of Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?, friends and colleagues asked me why I wrote this book and the reason I chose such a title. I replied that a publisher, Westview Press, asked me if I could pen a book on Taiwan that assessed its unusual status in the world community, it being a possible trigger to an East-West conflict, and also a work that might serve professors looking for a reliable source on Taiwan they could teach from. The book sold well and five years later the publisher asked for an updated edition, to which I obliged. It was the first book published on Taiwan to have a second edition, then a third and fourth edition and so on. Meanwhile I won an award for “the Taiwan book,” as it became known. This was encouraging, as the book was banned in both Taiwan and China. I concluded that I had written about issues that were very sensitive yet needed deeper analysis.
Anyway, the story goes back to before 1990. In 1963 I travelled to Taiwan to advance my study of Chinese. I was sponsored by the East-West Center (EWC), but because the EWC did not arrange housing, I had to do that myself. I found a family that had an empty room in Wanhua district of Taipei, the “old part” of the city that was very Taiwanese. I often heard discussions at home and among others in the neighbourhood about Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of “returning to the Mainland” (China) and kicking Mao and the Communists out of power and governing it again. Taiwan had been turned over to Chiang’s Nationalist China at the end of World War II, but his armies were defeated by Mao’s communist armies in 1949 and he and many of his followers fled to Taiwan. According to Taiwanese – that is Chinese who emigrated to Taiwan before 1945 – along with most foreign observers, Chiang Kai-shek’s narrative was unrealistic in spades. It served as justification for his minority government, though it also comported with the fact there was no core local political leadership to step up and no electorate educated in democracy yet.
I left Taiwan in 1964 and returned in 1968. This was a transitional time for Taiwan. Local elections had become more meaningful, while most voters reckoned democracy inevitably favoured Taiwan’s nationhood. I interviewed voters. Some told me they disliked the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT, Chiang’s political party); they recalled the incident in 1947 when the KMT badly misruled Taiwan, causing near economic collapse and triggering residents to “rebel.” They were stopped by the military using their guns against unarmed civilians. However, others talked of how the KMT was the “saviour” of Taiwan’s farmers after the land reform of the early 1950’s and subsequent miracle economic growth. Opinion was quite divided.
But there was a general consensus Taiwan should not become a province of China. China was poor and its government oppressive in the extreme, as revealed by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. In contrast, Taiwan was fast becoming prosperous and democratic. But things changed in the 1980s. Mao had died in 1976 and after a two-year hiatus Deng Xiaoping assumed the mantle of political power in China. He realised China had performed poorly under Mao’s communism and he turned to free-market capitalism. Deng decentralised China’s political system and replaced ideology with pragmatism. As a result, China experienced an unprecedented economic boom.
Perhaps Taiwan would want to unify with China. Taiwan certainly wanted to partake in China’s economic miracle. Chiang Ching-Kuo, son and successor of Chiang Kai-Shek opened up China to visitors from Taiwan. Businesspeople followed in droves. Soon trade and other commerce flourished. Tourism became a big business, with people from Taiwan flocking to China to visit and some to find their ancestors. Then China’s residents visited Taiwan, which abetted the tourist industry there. The thaw in relations and new cross-Strait contacts and the winding down of the Cold War engendered good feelings. Yet many in Taiwan became fearful of China. The China economic leviathan, it was thought, would generate political ties and dependency, which alas it did. A powerful China threatened Taiwan’s hope of keeping its sovereignty and its democracy. Thus, the unification versus separation issue remained alive though it was dramatically reconfigured.
Lee Teng-hui, Chiang Ching-Kuo’s chosen successor and president from 1988 to 2000, had to deal with this situation. Lee faced difficult challenges. He introduced more democratic reform. He dealt with the issue of Taiwan’s status by creating government organisations to oversee and set parameters for unification while he acted in many ways for separation. Lee walked a tightrope. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party – created in 1986 after which its successes led to two-party competitive and more democracy – won election to the presidency. Chen brought to the front and centre the issue of independence. He made statements supporting it and at times took unveiled actions accordingly. This made Taiwan’s relations with China volatile. Chinese leaders in Beijing castigated and threatened Chen. They deeply despised him.
But was this the true story? Chen oversaw closer trade and other economic ties with China, unlike President Lee who sought to slow the growth of cross-Strait commercial ties. China’s strategy to realise Taiwan’s unification with China was to promote economic links and make Taiwan dependent. Hence, some Chinese leaders, in strict privacy of course, said they appreciated and even liked Chen. This seemed a repeat of the history of earlier contradictions regarding the issue at hand. President Chiang Kai-shek equated democracy and independence; thus, he was guarded against democracy. Yet he laid the groundwork for democratisation; he and his brilliant economic planners set Taiwan on a course to realise miracle growth with equity, the perfect recipe to plant the seeds of democracy. He also trained Taiwanese in how to electioneer and rule if, or rather when, conditions change. Though he believed in unification, Chiang Ching-Kuo promoted political reform, which advanced the process of democratisation to another level. This further separated Taiwan from China. Chen Shui-bian made Taiwan much more reliant on China, which was exactly what China’s leaders wanted. These were issues assessed in the subsequent editions of Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? and some of my other publications.
In 2008, during the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, Taiwan moved in the direction of unification. Yet Ma caused a backlash that undermined that cause. In 2016, during the Tsai Ing-wen presidency Taiwan shifted in the direction of independence. But Tsai gained a reputation for being too soft on the issue and not being able to effectively manage cross-Strait relations. Thus the status quo was the “default” policy. However, it was not a solution to the question of whether Taiwan should be a part of China or become separate. One thing I realised long before this but even more now was that whether Taiwan was a democracy or not, or whether it was the right thing for Taiwan to decide its future, were not really germane to determining Taiwan’s status.
After President Truman sent the US seventh fleet to the Taiwan Strait in 1950 to block Mao’s military from seizing Taiwan and incorporating it by force, America continued to define and control the “Taiwan issue.” It was part of the global struggle between capitalism and democracy and communism. From the vantage point of being a student of US foreign policy and also international politics, I argued that other countries, the United Nations and other international organisations, and even global public opinion had little relevance to Taiwan’s status. Only the US mattered. Realism said that. For a time, President Obama appeared to succumb to the impact of China’s rise to adopt a policy of abandoning Taiwan. Then he made a volte-face, though Washington’s Taiwan policy was not affected. Obama wanted to protect his legacy. President Trump oversaw much better relations with Taiwan, but some opined he was playing the Taiwan card to get a better trade deal with China; so warming relations with Taipei may be ephemeral. This is where we are now.
I discussed this in twenty-some other books I wrote on Taiwan, always assessing the temperature of the Taiwan Strait “flashpoint.” What about it being a province of China or a nation-state? Taiwan was more important to the US – militarily as part of what some writers called the “reverse Great Wall” – than it appeared, or people talked about. Yet, to Taiwan, China provided “an offer it could not refuse” and Taiwan became economically dependent. Politically it was another matter.
No matter how much a sore spot the Taiwan matter was, China seemed sincere when it said it would be resolved by 2049; that meant accepting the status quo for quite some time. China had other irons in the fire. Another country would not take Taiwan. Finally, polls in Taiwan showed most people thought unification would happen eventually. The US favoured the status quo. Unification was not in its interest, as it would signify America was a fading power. Thus, the US would continue to protect Taiwan; though that was contingent on the United States remaining a superpower and not surrendering that role to China. These were conclusions I reached in Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? 7th edition.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on China, Taiwan and U.S. Asia policy, including Donald J. Trump and China published this summer and Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? 7th edition published in December.