Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 2

By Holmes Liao and James E. Auer

Three months ago, in November of last year, Hu Jintao was annointed leader of the People’s Republic of China. Until recently, leaders of China were emperors, the last of whom abdicated in 1912. Hu Jintao, like his communist predecessors who succeeded the emperors, resembles an emperor far more than he does a democrat. And, like some other emperors, in one important respect–in his claim that Taiwan is a rogue province of China and that any action by any country that even implicitly suggests that Taiwan is not part of China is provocative interference in China’s domestic affairs–he has no clothes.

In 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter withdrew his country’s recognition of the Republic of China, the government that in 1912 succeeded the imperial court on the China mainland, was defeated by the communists in 1949 and established a government in exile on Taiwan the same year. Carter basically assumed that Taiwan’s noncommunist but authoritarian government would accommodate to some degree a “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland.

Carter was not the only leader to make that assumption. Other countries, both before and after him, switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan recognized today by only twenty-four nations. Additionally, owing to China’s opposition and veto power, Taiwan is not a member of the UN, despite the fact that it has the seventeenth largest GNP in the world and chooses its chief executive and legislature in full and fair multiparty elections.

What happened to the Carter vision? It failed to take into account the will of Taiwan’s public, more than 80 percent of whose ancestors migrated to Taiwan from China about the time English, French and Spanish settlers were coming to North America. In contrast to the 20 percent or less who either came from the mainland with Chiang Kai-shek or are their descendents, the majority of “native Taiwanese”–that is, the aborigines who came to the islands before any Western or Chinese exploration, the Chinese immigrants who intermarried with them in the 1600s and 1700s and their progeny–were considered barbarians by most Chinese Imperial courts. When Japan defeated China in 1895 and asked for a port on the mainland, the Chinese refused and instead offered Taiwan in perpetuity, a fact Chiang Kai-shek misrepresented at the 1943 Cairo Conference when he asked for return of all Chinese territories Japan “stole” including Taiwan.

In 1945 Japan surrendered Taiwan to the United States. Taiwan’s status was left unresolved, a legal limbo that remains today. Even though Japan administered Taiwan severely, most Taiwanese credit Tokyo with helping to build the infrastructure that has made Taiwan the economic success it is today. Chiang Kai-shek’s rule of Taiwan before and after 1949 was more brutal than Japan’s. Few Taiwanese have anything but disdain for Chiang’s regime.