Article written 15 August 1994.
The Australian government, like the rest of the world, will one day have to make up its mind about Taiwan. But first, the Taiwanese need to decide things for themselves, including their ambiguous legacy and relationship to China. Is Taiwan a province of China? Or should Taiwan become an independent country? That is a decision that might be made by the end of this decade.
There is now a lively debate within Taiwan about its future. One of the consequences of the lifting of martial law in 1986 and the quick development of democratic institutions, has been the growing interest by Taiwanese as to their identity – a debate that has some parallels with Australia’s arguments about severing the monarchical ties to Great Britain.
For many Taiwanese, China is another world away. In any event, only 15% of Taiwan’s population are mainlanders – the remnants and offspring of Chiang Kai-Shek’s supporters who fled the mainland as the communists took power in 1949.
Most of the population are the descendants of Fujianese and Hakka migrants who arrived more than 300 years ago. There is also a small aboriginal population of about 1.5% of Taiwan’s 21 million people. The legacy of colonial rule including Japanese rule for the 50 years prior to 1945, the relatively recent settler origins of the population, and the long period of isolation from China, are some aspects of Taiwan’s unique character.
Taiwan is an Asian tiger, the twentieth largest economy in the world, second to Japan in foreign reserves and with an annual GDP growth rate of 6%. Taiwan is Australia’s fourth largest trading partner in Asia and a growing source of investment and tourism. On present trends, Taiwan will soon eclipse Singapore as the second largest source of tourism to our shores.
Hence Taiwan is hardly an invisible presence. Yet several decades ago it was typical to dismiss the significance of the Australian-Taiwanese relationship.
When Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recognised the Peoples Republic of China in 1972 as the sole legitimate government of China, including the province of Taiwan, it seemed the realistic thing to do. The Republic of China, as the Koumingtang (KMT) government based on Taiwan called itself, also claimed to be the sole legitimate government of China. The “one China” dilemma was solved by choosing the PRC.
The KMT felt betrayed by US and other Western countries severing their official relationships with Taiwan in the early 1970s.
One of the side effects of Taiwan’s isolation was to undermine the legitimacy of the martial law, authoritarian KMT government.
Leftists in Australia and elsewhere bemoaned the Chiang Kai-Shek dictatorship (while often closing an eye to the far worse human rights violating practices of the PRC). With the death of Chiang Kai-Shek and the rise of technocrats to power, and internal dissent, liberalising tendencies were unleashed in Taiwan.
When martial law was lifted, the Democractic Progressive Party, Taiwan’s leading opposition party, was legalised soon after.
Taiwan’s growing economic strength and developing democratic institutions have won for it a new found credibility. Especially since the Tiananmen Square massacres, the PRC has lost its charm in the West.
In the past decade Taiwan moved further down the democracy road with free elections for provincial and legislative (the Yuan) governments. The President of Taiwan is to be elected for the first time in 1995.
The KMT has also undergone change with splits and changes in leadership. The President of Taiwan and Chairman of the KMT, President Lee, is a native-born Taiwanese and representative of the KMT’s more liberal or modernising wing.
In many respects the Taiwanese experience is a counter example to the “Singapore school” that asserts that democracy and economic liberalisation do not necessarily go hand in hand.
In the present Taiwanese Yuan, the Opposition MPs can boast a total of 150 years of imprisonment between them for political dissent. Many of them were jailed for advocating Taiwanese independence.
Sometimes the Taiwanese parliamentary shenanigans are portrayed in the world media as reckless, ridiculous and showman-like. MPs rioting, punch-ups in the Yuan, sessions cancelled for rowdy behaviour, etc. are all part of this story.
However, civility is improving as the (new found) experience of political pluralism – and dissent – are gotten used to.
A significant problem for the Republic of China government is that the main Opposition party, the DPP, is campaigning for independence. Opinion polls, however, now indicate that 20%-25% of the population support outright independence, compared to the support base of the DPP of 35%-41%. Threats by China to invade Taiwan should it declare its independence, is one factor cooling the ardour of the independent Taiwan advocates. But younger Taiwanese are more supportive of the adventurous road. China’s off-declared threats, however, should not be too easily dismissed.
Within the KMT, the old guard of mainlanders are dying off and their sons and daughters are less interested in being “reunited with China”.
There are many signs in popular culture to tackle previously taboo subjects. For example, in the Taiwanese movie The Time to Live the Time to Die (1988) there is a subversive message. The theme of the movie is about a young boy growing to adulthood in contemporary Taiwan. One scene shows the old grandmother, her mind weakened by age and longing to return home to the mainland, dragging her grandson along a dusty path. “Where are we going?” the young child asks. “Across the bridge to China”. Of course there is no bridge that leads to China. “Why do we want to do that? We live here” is the child’s simple response. The film suggests that that is also the way young Taiwanese see things.
Taiwan, the liberalising, economic powerhouse, is an example of a bloodless democratic revolution. A model for China, perhaps, but also for the rest of the world. And like all good models, something to be learnt from and improved upon.
Taiwan is, for the reasons outlined above, very important to Australia. The relationship has strengthened in the last five years with direct air links, semi-official visits of ministers and, especially, by Australia’s championing of Taiwan’s admittance to APEC, GATT and the World Trading Organisation. Australia’s trade and cultural office is now the third largest such office in Taipei. The day Australia will vote to admit Taiwan to the UN now seems a long way off. But if the Taiwanese solve the one China policy by asserting their independence – ‘One China one Taiwan’ – how can their claims be resisted? The principle of self-determination suggest that, ‘if and when’ Australia should be supportive.
I sometimes think that if China’s population was 20 million and Taiwan’s 5 million, there would be little doubt that there would be no ‘Taiwanese problem’. Under the principle of the rights of peoples to self-determination, independence would have been recognised ages ago.
The analogy, however, is misleading. After 1949, both countries were self-declared as the ‘one China’. The administration occupying mainland China was always most likely to win the recognition battle. The strength of the independence movement in Taiwan is a more recent and controversial movement.
I now believe that Australian policy should be supportive of de jure recognition of Taiwan’s status as an independent entity. At APEC and other international fora, Australia has argued that Taiwan should be registered or recognised as a discrete economic zone. This stops short of recognising Taiwan’s status as a free, independent state. Recognition of the latter, however, and the pursuit of that goal by Taiwan would only inflame passions in China and add to the risk of invasion or military incursion. No realist could possibly champion such empty symbolism.