The most popular post/page on this site is Taiwan the Complicated. It went viral on social media around September 2013, and has attracted more than 120,000 hits since it was first published in March 2010. I never really imagined that many people would read it, mostly because I don’t really think that many people are interested in Taiwan in the first place, which was why I started this blog. If you look at the flag counter on the side of this blog, you will see that most visitors to this blog are actually from Taiwan, and I suspect a lot of the visits outside of Taiwan are made by Taiwanese living abroad. We do have the world’s 54th largest population, and sizable diaspora in the US and Canada. This is perfectly fine, because after all, Taiwan’s future should be decided by Taiwanese, and the more we come together to learn and discuss, the better.
What I hope to do on this page, is to present different scenarios on what could potentially solve Taiwan’s situation for discussion. Some scenarios are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other. A lot of obstacles to these would naturally be the People’s Republic of China. Then again, if the PRC isn’t an obstacle, perhaps Taiwan wouldn’t be stuck at its current place. PRC has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, and Taiwan is certainly nowhere close to be able to completely fend off an invasion from the People’s Liberation Army. Many people oppose to changing the current status quo in fear that doing so would trigger an Chinese invasion. But at the same time, if PRC loses its patience with Taiwan and lack of progress towards reunification, they would invade all the same.
My hope is that through discussion, the Taiwanese community and those who care about Taiwan could come to a consensus. Not only to solve the riddle we are in, but also as a self-defense strategy and for survival. It is only with one united voice to the world could we hope gather international support to achieve the next step in Taiwan’s international status.
Scenario 1: Away with “Republic of China”
One of the most confusing aspect of Taiwan-China situation for people who don’t speak or read Chinese is that Taiwan’s government still calls itself the Republic of China 中華民國. It is on the government’s website, it is on the passport, it is on the currency, and it is what Taiwan is officially (i.e. on treaties and agreements) known as to countries that recognize us. When President Ma Ying-jeou attended Pope Francis’ inaugural mass in 2013, he was seated between Chile and Costa Rica as representing China (despite introducing himself as President of Taiwan when meeting the pope). To the rest of the world, China clearly refers to the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國, the state currently controlling the geographical region of China with 1.38 billion people, ruled by the Communist Party of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the world’s second largest economy.
Continue calling ourselves the Republic of China is problematic on several fronts:
It gives the impression that Taiwan is a part of China.
Taiwan has never been controlled by the PRC, commonly known as China.
It gives the impression that Taiwan is trying to represent China.
After losing the civil was in 1949, the KMT government led by Chiang Kai-shek and later his son Chiang Ching-kuo continued to claim ROC as the only legitimate government representing China, meaning both the geographical regions of mainland China (not under ROC control since 1949) and Taiwan (only under ROC control since 1945). ROC continued to hold the seat of “China” in the United Nations until 1971, when PRC took over. The current ROC Constitution and previous provisional constitutional laws it refers to technically still states the ROC territory to include places it no longer has control of. Most countries in the world already recognizes the PRC as the only legitimate representative of China, calling ourselves ROC won’t change that.
It’s inconvenient for Taiwanese citizens.
These are passports currently issued by Taiwan (only government officials travel using the official or diplomatic passport):
The cover has the formal country name in Chinese and English on the top, the national emblem (which has incredibly strong resemblance to the KMT party emblem), the word Taiwan, the word passport in Chinese and English, and then the symbol of biometric passport. This passport is accepted by most countries as a valid travel document. On the page with personal information, under “Nationality”, it says “REPUBLIC OF CHINA”.
Currently holders of a Taiwanese passport can travel to more than 130 countries and territories visa-free or can apply for a visa on arrival. But because of the word China on the cover and in the personal information page, immigration officers of foreign countries that might not be so familiar with Taiwan’s political situation often confuse Taiwanese passport holders as Chinese (PRC) citizens and would insist on seeing a visa (PRC passport holders can travel to 50 countries and territories visa-free/on arrival).
What is there to do?
Because the confusion mainly concerns people who don’t speak or read Chinese, the most practical step would be to stop calling ourselves the Republic of China in all languages that’s not Chinese. Taiwan is already known as Taiwan to pretty much the entire world, if not as the name of the country, then at least as the name of the island. By taking away the English words “REPUBLIC OF CHINA” on and in the passport, we won’t need to explain that we are not Chinese citizens (these explanation almost always occur in a language that’s not Chinese). I personally particularly like these passport designs:
If we stop calling ourselves anything that has the word “China” in it, it would reinforce the impression that Taiwan by itself is independent of China. Whether other countries would recognize Taiwan as a country is a different matter, but it definitely helps if we are able to say “we want to call ourselves Taiwan, so stop associating us with China”, instead of clinging on to the “legitimate China” from the Cold War-era. This might also help in international organizations where Taiwan is known as Chinese Taipei, and let’s face it, Chinese Taipei is a ridiculous name. It’s like calling the UK British London, the US American Washington, or France French Paris, none of us like it, but we are forced to live with it.
Scenario 2: Stick with “Republic of China”
This is somewhat similar to what the current and past Taiwanese government have been doing. By maintaining the word China as the formal name of the country, it is a very subtle way of recognizing Taiwan as a part of China, only that what the government interpreted as China differs from what the rest of the world believe to be China (i.e. PRC).
The Kuomintang (KMT, its full name means Chinese Nationalist Party) is partial to this approach, not only because the PRC and Communist Part of China don’t have that much issue with it (PRC is happy when Taiwan says it is a part of any China), but also because of KMT’s historical association with the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. Sun Yat-sen, widely considered as the founding father of modern China, founded the predecessor group of KMT in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1894. Later, the group was part of a coalition that led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China. That coalition later became the KMT. Taiwan became a colony of Japan starting 1895 and was not directly involved nor a part of the ROC until 1945.
Since its founding in 1912, ROC was plagued by warlords and factions that fought each other for control of the mainland both regionally and nationally. The new China was briefly all under control of Yuan Shikai, a political opportunist with powerful army who served in the Qing Imperial Cabinet, who forced the emperor to abdicate in exchange of being granted the position of ROC President, and briefly tried to restore the monarchy with himself as the emperor. Yuan died in 1916, and the mainland was divided between regional factions and cliques. Sun Yat-sen passed away in 1925, and Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the leader of the KMT after a brief power struggle within the party.
Chiang Kai-shek was able to unify/defeat the different factions and brought mainland back as a unified China in 1928, but then immediately started military conflicts with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, established in 1921). CCP has been cultivating membership among peasants and workers in the rural areas that became a politicized guerrilla force. While seemingly defeated by the Chiang’s KMT government forces at times during the civil war (1927-1937), CCP stayed low and was able to survive and even thrive when Chiang was forced to focus his efforts on fighting the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, China became one of the Allied Powers. Despite having strong differences and interests with the U.S. and Soviet Union, Chiang somewhat worked with other powers and was able to hold off Japanese attacks to prevent the loss of mainland China. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Chiang’s KMT government took over Taiwan, but was unable to reassert its authority throughout mainland, and civil war between the KMT and CCP resumed, eventually leading to KMT’s defeat and retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Chiang and KMT were only saved because of the outbreak of Korean War in 1950, which led U.S. President Harry S. Truman to order the 7th Fleet to defend Taiwan against communist invasion. Chiang Kai-shek spent the rest of his life in Taiwan as a military dictator leading a one-party state (not unlike modern day PRC) with dreams of retaking mainland China, until his death in 1975.
Taiwan was not involved in the Chinese civil war until 1945, but has to take on the burden of more than a century’s worth of KMT historical baggage. About 14% of Taiwan’s current population is the KMT forces that retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and their descendants. KMT remained the only political party in Taiwan until 1986, was the ruling party until 2000, and maintain majority by itself or through coalition in the parliament until 2016. Many KMT members supporters are attached to the ROC history, with some believing that CCP is doomed to fall, and that ROC is the legitimate government to take over mainland China when that day comes. Most KMT members (and a generation of Taiwanese educated under the KMT regime) feel it is wrong to let the PRC take all the credit for fighting in the WWII against Japan as China, while the ROC/KMT was the one that eventually lead to the victory of Chinese people. For some, it’s a matter of personal/familial pride, while for others, it’s a matter of nationalistic legacy. To people in the younger generation, what the ROC fought for was in a different land that they don’t feel a connection to nor identify with.
How will this play out?
PRC is currently the world’s second-largest economy. With a huge population that’s quickly moving into middle-class and large areas still yet to be developed, China is an incredibly attractive market for foreign investors and companies. With money comes power. In the hope of staying on PRC government’s good side, few countries will support anything (i.e. suggesting Taiwan is not a part of PRC) that will lead to hostility with the PRC. Taiwan, by continuing calling itself the ROC, will have to live with all the inconveniences mentioned in Scenario 1. Unless an unforeseeable change in mainland China leads to the collapse of CCP, Taiwan will likely be stuck in its current situation for a very long time.
Scenario 3: Taiwan SAR, China
When Deng Xiaoping, then Chairman of CCP’s Central Advisory Commission, met with Winston Yang Li-yu, a Taiwanese-American professor at Seton Hall University, New Jersey in 1983, he envisioned Taiwan to become a special administrative region (SAR) of the PRC after unification, similar to what Hong Kong and Macau are today. Under the “One China, two systems” principle, a SAR could continue to have its own political, legal, economic, and financial systems. Deng went as far as saying that Taiwan could even maintain its own military.
Under this scheme, Taiwan would become a part of the PRC, which will represent China internationally. Like Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan will have power to enter into and negotiate agreements with other countries and territories on issues such as visa requirement, mutual legal aid, air services, extradition, handling of double taxation, etc. In participating in international sporting events, Taiwan could compete separately as “Taiwan, China” (Hong Kong and Macau usually compete separately in the Olympics as Hong Kong, China and Macau, China). In international organizations that require statehood to be members, such as the United Nations, SARs could send people to participate as a part of the Chinese delegation.
Deng also suggested that Taiwanese will be able to participate in the governance of PRC. Presumably he meant electing members for the National People’s Congress (PRC legislature) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a political advisory organization to the PRC government, similar to advisory legislative upper houses in other countries), which both currently consist of members supposedly “representing Taiwan” (usually people who were born in Taiwan or had Taiwanese ancestry, but immigrated to the mainland for several generations).
There are also differences between a Taiwan SAR and Hong Kong and Macau SARs, according to Deng’s proposal. Deng suggested that Taiwan would maintain its own military, as long as it won’t threaten the mainland. People’s Liberation Army, PRC’s armed forces are currently garrisoned in both Hong Kong and Macau. Deng affirmed that PRC would not send any civil or military personnel to Taiwan, while currently PRC maintains a liaison office, commission from its foreign ministry, and the aforementioned PLA in both Hong Kong and Macau.
What’s not to like about this?
While this scenario is what the PRC is planning for Taiwan once unification happens, very few Taiwanese support “One China, two systems” across the entire political spectrum. For those leaning towards unification with China, namely the KMT and its allies, they insist that if there is to be “One China”, it has to be the Republic of China. For those leaning towards Taiwanese independence, they object to becoming a local regional entity of China. For this scenario to work, it involves a lot of trust, which PRC is not known for in Taiwanese people’s mind. Looking at how PRC is interfering with Hong Kong politics and judicial affairs even though it promised autonomy until 2047, we get a sense of what might happen should Taiwan one day decides to become a SAR. While our current international standing is ambiguous, at least we still have our own say in the complete government system, executive, legislative, and judiciary. Having the Taiwan Strait between us obviously helps.
Scenario 4: Peace Agreement
This is a variation of Scenario 3. There may come a point in the future when Taiwan no longer has the support of the international community to maintain its de facto independence. Maybe China would be the most powerful country in the world then. Maybe the U.S. decides to repeal the Taiwan Relations Act. Under the circumstances, or in anticipation of these events happening, Taiwan may have to choose to negotiate a peace agreement with China. Depending on external factors, and depending on how much and how fast China wants Taiwan, Taiwan may be able to leverage for certain things. For example, Taiwan would agree to become a special administrative region of China the way it is outlines in Scenario 3 for 50 or even 100 years, and is able to decide its own affairs without interference from China. If China interferes, the way we see it does in Hong Kong today, then Taiwan gets to hold a referendum deciding its own future.
This would obviously be a huge gamble on Taiwan’s part, because there is nothing guaranteeing China’s compliance to the terms of the agreement, and there may be little Taiwan could do once in the agreement. In addition, China could easily go back on its own words if Taiwan does hold a referendum and decide to become independent. China is unlikely to agree to any international parties serving as a mediators, because it considers Taiwan to be a domestic issue.