Sorry Beijing, But Taiwan Isn’t Turning its Back on History—You Are

The Taiwanese have made their choice; the ball is in Beijing’s court
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole

What happens when a closed authoritarian regime whose ideology is based on foundations of “historical inevitability” sees history move in an unexpected direction? That is a question that officials in Beijing must be asking themselves as Taiwanese society — and by default its political scene — continues to reject any possibility of unification with China.

After nearly eight years of rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing, nearly two dozen cross-strait agreements and booming tourism, China is no closer to achieving “peaceful” unification today than it was a decade ago, when Beijing’s nemesis, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was in office.

For a while it looked like history’s arrow was indeed moving in the direction of political accommodation between two longtime enemies, and the international community happily welcomed the development, believing that a former potential flashpoint that risked dragging the U.S. into a war with China, had been shelved. During that period, trade liberalization, student exchanges, tourism, cross-strait forums, and visits by senior officials became by-words for “peace.” Nobody believed and encouraged the dissemination of this catechism more than Beijing itself, whose strategy wasn’t so much peace in the proper sense of the term as the accumulation of forces that would further drag Taiwan into China’s sphere of influence.

What the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) failed to understand, however, was that while the majority of Taiwanese were perfectly willing to liberalize ties across the Taiwan Strait, they had no desire to unify with China — in fact all the trend lines were shooting in the opposite direction, with both self-identification as “Chinese” and desire for unification reaching new, single-digit lows. Caught up in its own rhetoric, Beijing mistook support for normalization for a growing desire for unification.

By 2014, it had become clear that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the architect of that temporary détente, had exhausted the basket of deliverables sought by Beijing. His popularity at a bottom low, President Ma was dealt a blow by the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature over a controversial services trade agreement with China. This was a blow from which he never recovered. His fate, along with that of his party, was sealed in the nine-in-one municipal elections on November 29 that year, a disaster that eventually forced Mr. Ma to step down as chairman.

Beijing’s (and the conservative wing of the KMT’s) greatest mistake was to ignore Taiwan’s civil society and to focus solely on institutionalized forces — in other words, on the DPP. Yet when it was deemed that President Ma was giving too much to China, or that he had failed to take the initiative and was therefore making concessions from a position of weakness, it was society, not the DPP, that stepped up and halted the whole process. Whether the issue was Chinese influence in Taiwan’s media environment, a “black box” services trade agreement or revisionist Sino-centric changes to high-school curriculum guidelines, society — oftentimes led by its youth — drew lines in the sand, besieging officials and government institutions with resilience and temerity the likes of which had not been seen in decades. Through their actions, civil society changed the face of politics in Taiwan and confronted an ossified establishment (including the DPP) with a serious choice: adapt or die.

Gradually, it dawned on Beijing that all the “goodwill” it had shown since 2008 would not yield the expected results, which presumably were to come in the form of a peace agreement, the opening of reciprocal offices, and perhaps the beginning of negotiations on Taiwan’s political future. Instead, the momentum came to a grinding stop. Nearly eight years on, almost no progress had been made on the political issues. The seemingly implacable force had disintegrated to the point where it felt compelled to insinuate itself in the ongoing textbook controversy in Taiwan — hardly the kind of activity that great powers normally involve themselves with.

CCP officials felt betrayed, their love unrequited. They began wondering what went wrong and complained to those who asked: The Taiwanese, they said, “don’t want anything to do with us anymore.”

With the 2016 presidential and legislative elections approaching, Beijing now faces the very real prospect of losing its preferred counterpart in Taipei. Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the KMT candidate, is not doing well in the polls, and her ideology — a throwback to the early 1980s — has sparked discontent within her own party, resulting in an exodus and expulsions. As if this wasn’t enough, the August 6 announcement by James Soong (宋楚瑜), chairman of the People First Party (PFP), that he was entering the race threatened to split the “blue” vote and, according to most analysts, practically ensured victory for the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Pressure by both the KMT and Beijing on Mr. Soong, 73, not to run were in vain, in large part because of his obstinate desire to get even with the KMT, which expelled him years ago (the animosity, added to the fact that a number of KMT legislators have jumped ship and joined the PFP in recent weeks, makes the possibility of KMT-PFP cooperation in the elections next to nil).

What happened at the KMT, and why it ended up selecting a candidate who, to many, is the antithesis of the forces that have been unleashed by society, remains a disputed issue. What is certain, though, is that Ms. Tsai and Mr. Soong have done a much better job of understanding what Taiwanese society wants and at customizing their rhetoric and policies to reflect those expectations.

Caught off-balance, Beijing has had little choice but to back Hung, whose numbers in the polls currently put her dead last, even behind Soong, a “man of the past” who in the 2012 elections only managed to obtain 2.77% of the vote. Beijing is therefore siding with a candidate who threatens to push the KMT into New Party territory — a party whose ideology only appeals to the 5.5% or so of the “deep blue” Taiwanese population who support unification with China.

Stuck in a rather uncomfortable position, the CCP is once again resorting to threats and warnings, using language that can only be logical if one suspends disbelief. Soon after Mr. Soong had announced his candidacy, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), chairman of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), described the situation in binary terms, with the Taiwanese given the choice between continuing the “peaceful” development of cross-strait ties to “enjoy the peace dividend,” or “returning to the evil ways of Taiwan independence.” He continued: “It must be seen that the forces of Taiwan independence are obstinately and resolutely promoting their separatist position, and this is the biggest threat to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. China’s determination to “protect its territorial integrity,” he said, would “never waver.”

That’s where Marxist dialectics, which decades ago forced ardent communists to engage in self-deception in order to believe, despite the evidence before their eyes, that the U.S.S.R. was some sort of “paradise on earth,” come into play. According to Zhang, the second option (voting for the DPP) would signify that Taiwan is “turning its back on history.” Only voting for the unpalatable Hung would constitute choosing the “peaceful” development of cross-strait ties.

Of course there is no “returning to the evil ways of Taiwan independence” or “turning back on history.” That’s because the Taiwanese have already done so, and did that a long time ago. The reference to “history” is pure Marxist-Leninist thought: Invisible and inevitable forces that are “scientifically” discovered through observation. History in the present context refers to an assumed momentum toward unification, a view that, as we saw earlier, stems from a misreading of the desire for normalization among the Taiwanese, if not the ability of CCP officials to deceive themselves. Thus, rather than turn their back on history, a vote for the DPP (or a KMT that was better at reading public sentiment) would instead represent the continuation of historical trends. However much Beijing seeks to distort reality, an object cannot logically return to its current state.

The majority of Taiwanese, irrespective of their voting preference, already regard their nation as independent, as evidenced by the high support for independence and the “status quo” (i.e., de facto independence). Based on events over the past eight years, this implies that, rather than having only two choices — “peaceful” development or “independence” — the Taiwanese in fact have a third one: independence and peaceful development. The two forces need not be mutually exclusive. The irony, which seems to have been lost on Beijing, is that even under eight years of Ma administration, the Taiwanese had already made their choice: they chose not or, but and.

What they do not want, however, is a “peace dividend” that comes in the shape of a forced political union with China, whose political system and increasingly repressive environment have no appeal among people whose identity is, among other factors, intrinsically related to their liberal-democratic way of life.

Whether the CCP is caught in its own totalitarian logic and is incapable of understanding reality, or President Xi Jinping (習近平) is not receiving the advice he needs from advisers who, given their master’s despotic tendencies, may fear the repercussions of relaying bad news, remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that there is no possibility of “returning to the evil ways of Taiwan independence,” as Zhang put it, for the “evil ways” are already a reality in Taiwan.

As 2016 approaches, the ball is now in Beijing’s camp. The Taiwanese have already made their choice—they want peaceful relations with China and the continued existence of Taiwan as an independent state. If it sticks to its binary options, it is Beijing that will be “turning its back on history.”


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

3 Responses to “Sorry Beijing, But Taiwan Isn’t Turning its Back on History—You Are”

August 08, 2015 at 12:49 am, Black dog said:

Kidnaps observation is very accurate, even better than the scholar who is called expert on cross strait issue. Yes, Taiwanese will not go neck to history that is fir sure.


August 10, 2015 at 8:01 am, Fuankio So said:

Actually, what most China-watchers and Taiwan-watchers miss is a divergence that happened in 1989-early 90s, when China abolished its plan to democratize while Taiwan pushed through the difficult reforms and proceeded to democratize. It is in this grand historical context that Strike Two was called. (Strike Two being a second chance offered to China by former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-Hui during the talks in early 90s. Strike One being the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre itself.) Strike Three was called in 1996 where China threatened the first-ever Taiwan’s direct presidential election with military threat. By the time Strike Three was called the the trajectory was already set firmly.

Most experts look at single points in time, usually election results post 1996, as an indicator of Taiwanese public opinion. Some look at surveys of identity politics or surveys of independence-unification preference. Either way is only an attempt to plot in a single dimension.


August 21, 2015 at 4:55 am, Judy Li said:

Well said! We Taiwanese people indeed “want peaceful relations with China and the continued existence of Taiwan as an independent state”. However most of us also afraid that once we state this openly, missiles will soon come flying. That is the sad truth. Presently we do not have the necessary means to uphold our belief.


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