Taiwan's Chinese Puzzle


The recent visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives and third person in the formal line of power in Washington, triggered China's anger and brought the planet closer to the prospect of a major conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.

The serious crisis that this visit has caused places all those who think that democracy remains the least bad of political systems before an almost insoluble dilemma. In this case, a real Chinese puzzle!

How to effectively defend the small democracy of Taiwan against the totalitarian and imperialist giant that is China? Perhaps by insisting on the fact that if the legitimacy of international law is on Beijing's side, that which derives from history is, on the other hand, much more debatable, contrary to whatconfidently asserts the official propaganda of the People's Republic...

A military dictatorship for almost forty years...

In this period of widespread democratic decline, Taiwan is a shining exception to the rule that deserves to be saluted. Since the beginning of the democratization of the country, towards the end of the 1980s, it has indeed gradually imposed itself as the most democratic in all of Asia and even in the non-Western world. According to the annual ranking established by the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2020 it joined the very restricted group of around twenty "full democracies" on the planet and ranked 8e world rank in 2021, with a score of 8,99 (out of a maximum of 10). This puts Taiwan just behind the usual champions of the five northern European countries, New Zealand and Ireland, and just ahead of Australia and Switzerland. the ranking of Freedom House is consistent, considering Taiwan a "completely free" country with a score of 94 in 2021.

Such a performance is all the more remarkable as Taiwanese democracy comes a long way. After his defeat in 1949 by the Communist Party of Mao Zedong, General Chiang Kai-shek, who chairs the Republic of China (RoC) and leads the nationalist party of the Kuomintang, has indeed folded with his troops and about 1,5 million of his followers on the island of Taiwan.

The beginning of the cold war, with the conflict in Korea and the protection soon extended to Taiwan by the United States, will prevent the PRC from completing by the conquest of the island its seizure on the whole of the national territory which it considers to be his. On the latter, the population will be imposed a severe military dictatorship, an iron martial law and a one-party rule, the Kuomintang, which would last nearly 40 years, survive the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 and will continue under the aegis of his son Chiang Ching-kuo, practically until his death in 1988.

Taiwan: President Chiang Kai-shek is sworn in for the fourth time (1966).

During this period, the economic development of the island was spectacular, making Taiwan one of the four "little dragons" of the famous "miracle of East Asia", along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. This has led to profound social changes, a rapid rise in the level of education and the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class which is increasingly resistant to dictatorship and demands political change.

In 1986, this put an end to the one-party regime enjoyed by the old Kuomintang, which mainly represented the interests of nationalists from mainland China. The same year, Taiwan saw the creation of the minjindang or PDP (Progressive Democratic Party), which rather carries the aspirations of the local population originating or native to Taiwan and will become its main rival in a multiparty system.

In 1987, the martial law imposed since 1949 will finally be lifted. In 1988, on the death of the heir to the Chiang "dynasty", the parliament, still dominated by the Kuomintang, elected to the presidency Lee Tenghui, incumbent vice president and leading member of the Kuomintang, but the country's first leader to be born in Taiwan. He will remain in office until 2000 and will prove to be the architect of the democratic transition. In 1992, the country's first free legislative elections took place, and the direct universal suffrage for the presidential elections will be established in 1998.

…became a model democracy

The victory of Minjindang, with the election in 2000 of the lawyer born in Taiwan Chen Shui-bian, will put an end to half a century of absolute domination by the Kuomintang.

Chen Shui-bian will be re-elected in 2004 in a still unstable and conflicting political atmosphere. But since then, democracy has been consolidated and firmly established in Taiwan, with a classic game of alternation in power between the two major parties dominating political life. The Kuomintang will win the 2008 elections and will reoccupy power until 2016 under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, the year in which the Minjindang succeeded it, then with the victory of Tsai Ing-wen, re-elected in 2020 until 2024.

In short, Taiwan has become in about thirty years an exemplary democracy in the face of a totalitarian China with exacerbated nationalism which wants to subject it to the spell she booked recently in Hongkong (whose situation and history were very different).

This is also the fear of a large majority of the population of the island, which is apparently satisfied with the democratic system in which it now lives and absolutely does not want to be attached as 23e province to mainland China. This does not mean that it is in favor of formal independence, but it adheres at least to the current status quo which consists in practicing it without proclaiming it.

This last prospect remains unacceptable for Beijing, which absolutely wants to reintegrate Taiwan before the 100e anniversary of the PRC in 2049 based on the fact that its legitimacy to be the sole and unique representative of China under international law and recognition within the UN system is acquired and indisputable.

Taiwan and the world

However, in 1945, it was quite naturally the nationalist Republic of China (RoC) led by Chiang Kai-shek who initially occupied the permanent seat to which the country is entitled within the United Nations Security Council newly established as a member of the WWII Victors Alliance. But, as soon as it won in 1949, the PRC of Mao Zedong also claims this seat. And as the two regimes adhere to the "one China principle", the RoC taking refuge in Taipei dreaming of reconquering mainland China and the PRC of annexing the island of Taiwan, this quickly poses a problem for all countries. of the international community.

After India, which recognized it first, a certain number of European countries – the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway.. – however play the realism and decided to recognize from the beginning of the 1950s the PRC as the only legitimate representative of China, establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing and consequently breaking them with Taipei.

PRC diplomacy therefore developed an aggressive strategy to push its advantage, leading many other countries to follow suit, General de Gaulle's France joining this club in 1964.

The crucial turning point was in October 1971 when the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 2758 by which the PRC was recognized as the sole legitimate representative of China, with the concomitant expulsion of the representatives of the RoC from Taiwan. Japan took the plunge in 1972; then the United States, committed to its policy of relaxation vis-à-vis Beijing, finally did the same in 1979.

Since then and especially with the rise of the PRC, the breathtaking success of its economy which has become the second in the world in forty years and its ability to finance huge infrastructure projects as part of its “Silk Roads” strategy, the downfall continued for the RoC.

Today, only 14 countries in the world, mostly island micro-states, recognize Taiwan: 4 in Oceania, 4 in the Caribbean, 3 in Central America, 1 in South America (the Paraguay), 1 in Africa (Swaziland has become Eswatini since 2018), as well as the Vatican, which will undoubtedly be the “last of the Mohicans”. After Niger, South Africa, Lesotho and Macedonia in recent years, the latest country to switch sides is Nicaragua in 2021.

On the other hand, 57 countries have nevertheless maintained “non-diplomatic” relations with Taipei, including most of the major powers members of the G20, with which the island continues to maintain significant economic, commercial, industrial and financial exchanges. Despite this, Beijing's legitimacy to represent the "one and only" China internationally can hardly be doubted. The same does not apply to its historical legitimacy.

Island History

Until the middle of the XVIe century, the island of Taiwan, which moreover does not yet have a well-established name in Chinese tradition, is inhabited by a Austronesian population, probably the origin of the settlement of much of Oceania, and has remained largely isolated, apart from the unrest agitating the continent.

It has never aroused the slightest interest of the successive dynasties which have dominated China since that of the qin which achieved, two centuries before our era, a first form of unity of the country.

In fact, paradox of history, the island only emerged from its isolation at the very beginning of European colonial expansion in the Far East, when a handful of Portuguese sailors and merchants "discovered" this land, 'they will baptize' Formosa Island or "magnificent island", and establish a first counter there in 1544. They will be supplanted in 1624 by the Dutch, which will dominate the maritime routes of the whole world during all the XVIIe century and settled in Tainan, in the south-west of Formosa, while the ming dynasty, in power in Beijing since 1368, is in full decline and has other concerns with the droughts, epidemics, famines and revolts that plague the Middle Kingdom.

Meeting between the Dutch colonists and the aboriginal populations of Taiwan circa 1635. - Wikimedia

Things would only change with the seizure of power by the Manchus, who in 1644 founded the last Chinese imperial dynasty, that of the Qing. The resistance against these non-Chinese invaders from the north is organized in the south of the country around the coastal city of Xiamen and the princely house of the Tang, which has remained faithful to the Ming, under the leadership of an adventurer member of the Triads and sons of a former pirate and a Japanese mother who will go down in history as Koxinga. Faced with the Manchurian offensive, he decided to withdraw with his troops to the island of Formosa, whose he hunts the Dutch in 1662 to found the short-lived kingdom of Tungning, which was finally defeated in 1683 and absorbed into the Qing empire.

Stone statue of a warrior on horseback

Statue of Koxinga in Tainan. Click to zoom. - Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The latter, however, continued to have no interest in this island, considered the distant backyard of Fujian province, repatriated the troops brought by Koxinga and even prohibited populations of Chinese origin (Han) from settling there. ! Then, Qing China was largely closed to external contacts in the XNUMXth century.e century and the island of Formosa remains isolated and frequented sporadically by the only fishermen of the Fujian coast.

We have to wait for the XIXe century to truly see the beginning of its progressive settlement by Han populations driven from the coastal provinces of the empire by the wars and famines which accompanied the demographic boom on the continent and accelerated the decline of Manchurian power. This also creates many conflicts with the local populations, which Beijing tries to manage as best it can in a relatively negligent attitude.

It was only in 1885 that the island was granted provincial status with a governor, and formally became a recognized and constituent part of the Qing Empire under the name of Taiwan. However, this only lasted ten years since at the end of the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, China ceded "in perpetuity" Taiwan and the neighboring Pescadores Islands to Japan by the famous Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The island will then remain for half a century, until the Japanese defeat in 1945, under the control of Japan, which will apply the policy of economic and social modernization inaugurated under the Meiji era and will have a determining influence there, the basis of the successful further development. Then, in 1945, Taiwan returned, as we have seen, to the bosom of the nationalist China of Chiang Kai-shek, who withdrew there in 1949 after the victory of the Communists of Mao Zedong on the continent.

An island that was not long Chinese

If we summarize the history of Formosa-Taiwan, the island therefore remained completely independent for millennia; was slightly affected by Portuguese colonizers for 80 years and Dutch for 20 years; dominated by the Manchus in a very superficial way for two centuries and at the end in a more formal way but for just 10 years; then deeply transformed by the Japanese for 50 years, before becoming the refuge of the nationalist RoC for exactly 73 years. The historical legitimacy of the power in place in Beijing in claiming to belong to the national territory of the island of Taiwan, which it administered directly five times shorter than Japan, is therefore neither very solid nor very convincing!

It is therefore rather on this argument that we must insist in order to defend Taiwan's democracy and the right of its people to self-determination and to choose the political regime that suits them. If Beijing can shamelessly assert, like he just did, that Hong Kong was never a British colony (!), we should be able to oppose the fact that Taiwan was almost never a Chinese possession! But it must be admitted that this argument has little chance of success in the face of the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of the PRC.

The solution of broad autonomy found in 1999, when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, known as the "one state two systems" formula, was of course the best possible compromise, but we have seen how long it took fire with the recent pacing of the city-state where the democratic movement has aroused the ire of Beijing. It may also be necessary to encourage the countries which are at the forefront and well placed to act as mediators, such as Indonesia and its partners in theAsean, to bring about an agreement acceptable to both parties that avoids the conflict that they fear more than anything in the Asia-Pacific region.

Otherwise, keeping a bit of optimism, we can also say that the cause of democracy is not lost in the People's Republic of China, even if it is very unlikely for the moment. Indeed, nothing lasts forever and a reversal of the economic situation linked to the ongoing “de-globalization” and to the problems of social inequalities, the environment and public health could well revive the contestation within the apparently dormant Chinese people.

But when he wakes up, to paraphrase Napoleon Iᵉʳ and Alain Peyrefitte, things could change drastically. After all, it is not the traditionalism of Confucianist Chinese society that prevents the country from evolving towards democracy: without this, Taiwan, which would rather have had lessons to give Beijing in this area, would never have become the democratic beacon that we admire today!

It is indeed the conservatism of the Chinese Communist Party, clinging to its hegemonic position and the privileges that go with it, as well as the ultra-nationalist and totalitarian vision of Xi Xinping, which are blocking any development. But no man is eternal. In the meantime, we must stand firm on the principles, by defending Taiwan with all possible arguments and means, firmly but without useless provocations, by doing everything possible to avoid an armed conflict which would seal the rapprochement between the Russia and China and would be a disaster for the region and the whole world.

Jean-Luc Maurer, Honorary Professor of Development Studies, affiliated with the Albert Hirschman Center on Democracy, Graduate Institute - Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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