The Amputated Chicken

It was no great surprise to us when the young student we were talking with began describing China as a large chicken. Frankly our Mandarin skills were such that progressing the conversation to this point had seemed a linguistic triumph. The true meaning had presumably been lost somewhere in a tangle of tones and unlearnt vocab.
The young man, in the last grade of primary school, began to draw. The now familiar shape of the map of China quickly emerged, from the long curved eastern coast to the hefty chunk of Central Asia that makes up the outer provinces. Hainan and, of course, Taiwan, were incorporated in the south east of the map.

A few pen strokes more and Manchuria in the north east gained an eye and a beak. Two spindly legs stretched from the mainland to the islands in the south east, which also grew some claws. And there we had it: the People's Republic of China, a giant chook, balancing its bulk on Taiwan.

You hear quite a lot about Taiwan in the People's Republic. Taipei is always in the weather reports. There are cheery and appropriate couplets at the Chinese New Year's Eve variety gala, just as for every province. TV programs describe the unique flora of the island. Conversely, the attention is not disproportionate. Taiwan is just one amongst many provinces, each with their special attractions and problems. There's many things you don't hear about Taiwan, as well. Taiwanese newspapers and institutions are one of the relatively few sites and subjects seriously censored on the Internet.

For the reasons above I can't be sure of the precise day to day story locals get about Taiwan, of how much detail they hear of Chen Shui-bian and his compatriots. I'm not even sure exactly what they're taught about Taiwan in school. They study a lot of national history; colonialism, the downfall of the Qing dynasty, the war against Japan, the defeat and exile of the Guomindang. They study a lot of everything. Highschool students happily volunteer opinions on Taiwan very close to the official line. They seem quite sincere. Nationalism is heady fertilizer to grow a brain on.

To me, it's that historical narrative, of national unity and independence, that makes Taiwan so compelling to the Chinese leadership. Imperial China of the 19th century was in the unusual position of being both coloniser and colonised. The technological gap between China and the colonial, naval powers was mirrored by the decisive advantage in warfare China gained in Central Asia. The Qing Emperors finally consolidated their hold on the western frontier just as European pressure was generating treaty ports and Opium Wars. This crashed headlong into World War II, the war against Japan, and the civil war. China spent a century being torn apart by foreign powers and local warlords, before decisively reunifying under the People Republic. And the last enemy of that reunification was the Guomindang, entrenched in the former Japanese colony of Taiwan. Hong Kong and Macau are now back in the fold, and aggressive Han migration to Xinjiang and Tibet has woven the western provinces more closely into the nation. The obvious closing chapter of that shared national narrative is a return of Taiwan to the motherland.

It's not the only narrative available by any means. During the turbulent period of the Republic of China, and before World War II, Russia supported the secession of the province of Outer Mongolia, so it could gain a proxy state in the east, modern Mongolia. (Inner Mongolia failed in its secession and remains a province.) Mongolia, again, had been a Chinese frontier, and only completely conquered during the Qing. The completeness of this secession, demographics, and Great Power backing all meant that when the People's Republic was founded in 1949 the Communist Party chose to treat their new landlocked neighbour as a settled border. The nation of Mongolia was a done deal, with the lucky Mongolians managing to avoid decades of Maoist oppression, at the cost of enduring decades of reheated Stalinist oppression.

Until recently, the Taiwanese leadership shared the Chinese Communist vision of national reunification, and reinforced the One China narrative. The autocratic governments of the Guomindang retained seats in parliament for the mainland provinces. The rather delicate foundation for the diplomatic talks between Beijing and Taipei was "One government on both sides of the Taiwan strait"; in other words, both sides wanted to run the whole show. The new generation of Taiwanese democrats, including President Chen Shui-bian, are more focused on rights of self-determination. Regional self-government as a virtue in itself is a relatively new idea in Chinese political philosophy, and one in violent opposition to the One China framework of the PRC.

The Communist Party has tied Taiwan very closely to the national myth; there's little room for redrafting. Today's Chinese state is coherent and booming - it's not the fragmented disorder of the Republic. Hanging on so tightly to Taiwan makes it hard to accommodate any alternative approach without implicitly accepting self-determination, or its sibling, democracy. But once the principle is established, the entire narrative begins to unravel. If Taiwan, only returned to Chinese (Republican) control after World War II, was a crucial historic part of China, and it could separate, why not the Uighurs of the north-west, or the Tibetans of the south-west?

The projected solution to this bind is autonomy along the lines of the cities of Hong Kong and Macau. The crucial difference between those post-colonial settlements and Taiwan is 50 years of self-government backed by indigenous military force.  That's an almost textbook definition of a nation-state, and it's not something to be yielded easily. To resolve the issue by treaty seems to require a newer piece of legal fiction, a supra-national entity, a Chinese Union, where Taiwan gained a flag but kept its government, its military, and its sovereignty.

The Taiwanese leadership are restive at the legal limbo of their country, and there are various projected plans for declaring independence, in the expectation of Great Power backing. Though it's clear which side principles of self-determination would put them on, rich world diplomats sound almost queasy at the prospect. A flag and a passport seems a slim reward for the comprehensive carnage of serious hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. The leadership of the People's Republic of China, for their part, periodically make clear that this island off the coast, which their laws and their armies do not control, is a place they will wage frenzied war to have. Their schooling should have taught them they'd be shooting themselves in the foot.
Scrymarch 2005-03-13 15:03:22.0
cam : Wonderful article: As you noted it has only been recently that Taiwan has become more democratic. Hong Kong recently had elections but the elected officials were out-numbered by the appointed officials from Beijing. Is Taiwan's increased democratic nature fitting with a One China and what could be seen as the Chinese people increasing aspirations economically, and maybe even democratically? Or is the Chinese Government and aspirations for democracy orthoginally opposed?cam
cam : China has legislated force against Taiwan: if it seeks independence;
China enacted a law Monday authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence, codifying its long-standing threat to attack the island. The measure could provoke a popular backlash in Taiwan and quickly unravel recent progress in cross-strait relations.

The National People's Congress, the ruling Communist Party's rubber-stamp parliament, approved the anti-secession law by a vote of 2,896 to 0, with two abstentions, defying U.S. appeals for restraint and strong protests by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian as well as some of his political rivals.
Scrymarch : Democracy: I think the Hong Kong elections don't include a strict majority of appointees, but a number of rotten boroughs, for unusual electorates representing business interests, get the pro-Beijing parties over the line.I think a democratic Taiwan does put pressure on One China.  In terms of the One China policies of world powers, a rich, democratic, self-governing Taiwan does put mostly moral pressure on the rich world.  Moral pressure counts for a bit but not much, see East Timor.  Especially now that a market-based Chinese economy makes cool stuff that we can buy.For China itself, the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau are supposed to be the model for future integration with Taiwan.  They PRC leadership have certainly restrained themselves from sending the tanks in, just like they have for normal Chinese cities over the same time period.  They haven't scared the money away, and creating a stable environment where people can prosper is certainly a duty of government.  Beyond that their scorecard is poor.  Their Chief Executive is unpopular, probably inherently - he must have one of the worst jobs in the world.  They tried to muscle through a fairly vicious suppression law, with press muzzling and detention, targeted at Falun Gong and the other perennially unfashionable causes.  To their credit they backed off in the face of mass protests.The big problem in HK and Macau is that governments everywhere are extremely reluctant to let go of their existing powers.  Hong Kong got its elections very late - rather a conspicuous failure of late British colonial policy.  Now the Chinese Communist Party is supposed to underwrite the transition to fuller democracy, and their instincts or affection for it isn't that great.So far as I can tell the party line on democracy is that it's messy and fractious.  Nice to have when you're rich but a bit dangerous for now.  My students were pretty interested in the US election when I talked about it.  Bush wasn't very popular.Compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan's democracy is very robust and energetic.  And messy too, the recent election was extremely close, and involved an assassination attempt on the President.  It was the sort of election to CCP officials' hearts flutter and thank Mao they don't allow other parties at home.  On the other side of the strait, Taiwan has to be asking itself: if China won't let Hong Kong have a real parliament, are they really going to let us have a real army?
Scrymarch : Two abstentions: Bold comrades.  Maybe they were ill.
cam : Hong Kong elections: You are right about the rotten boroughs, I thought I had recalled reading they were appointed. This Economist article describes the set-up;
Only half of the 60 seats are elected in the way most people in the West would recognise: via (proportional representation) voting in geographical constituencies. The other 30 are chosen via so-called functional constituencies, where limited groups of voters--mostly with business interests and so pro-government--have the right to select MPs. For example, the territory's professions, such as teachers, accountants and doctors, each get to elect one legislator. And even among normal voters, there are many who see an increasing need to stay on Beijing's good side, given the territory's increasing integration with the mainland.
As to the rest of you reply, I have nothing more to say other than thanks for sharing. It is a fascinating insight. cam
MillMan : " Today's Chinese state is coherent: and booming"Could you expand on that? Is this in reference to the state level? It's not clear to me. The picture I get from my limited readings is that at the local level, especially in rural areas, the communist party behaves as a Medieval king might, taking money from the local populace at will as the citizens have no recourse. This makes me wonder how effective the required indoctrination of the citizens really is.Cam says you were working there for a year. What regions of the country were you able to observe?
Scrymarch : The Chinese state is booming: Didn't notice this comment for a few days ...Now I think about it "booming" could go be interpreted more than one way, but I mean primarily that the economy is growing and the government isn't making a mess of it.As far as coherent goes this is mainly by contrast to the previous century.  No civil war, no serious threat to the power of the Communist Party, including self-inflicted amputations like the Cultural Revolution.  State enterprises owned by the army are being unwound or sold off, so the the state can focus on what in business terms might be called its core competencies.I was there for about seven months, and I spent a little time reading and getting a working ignorance of the language beforehand.  I'm fascinated by the place but I'm not a guru of any kind.  We worked in a regional centre of Shandong province (between Beijing and Shanghai) and travelled around a fair bit on the Inner Provinces tourist trail and saw some justly famous sights.As for robber baron activity.  I wouldn't be surprised if this happened, there's a sadly long tradition of it in Chinese government especially under the late Qing and the Republic.  I didn't really see any of it.  The Communists cracked down quite effectively on corruption by comparison, though family and friend connections are still crucial, in a way that would be labelled corruption in Australia.There were lots of stories about corrupt or dodgy officials getting caught and prosecuted in the papers when I was there.  They'll even execute high-level officials for white-collar crimes like stealing millions of yuan.The China that I saw outside my flat was not a straightforward tyranny at all.  I think it can be easy to forget, living in a rich democracy, the other ways that people and their government interact.  There seemed to be a few cases where the discretion of local officials softened the impact of strict laws on the books.  These people are their neighbours, after all.For instance, on the main road outside the school there was an informal market where farmers from the nearby villages would come and sell their vegetables.  Periodically it would disappear.  It was an illegal market and the police would tell the vendors to clear off.  It would usually clear off about two hundred metres up the road to a less conspicuous spot.The state will still pry into or force you to change your life if you go against a big policy, like proselytising for a disagreeable organisation, or being a civil servant attempting to have a second child.  Grand liberties are not currently on the table.  But the China I saw left space for small liberties of seeing friends and working hard to build a living.