Books on Taiwan
Update No: 041 - (25/07/07)
For much of Asia, this past month has commemorated the 10th
anniversary of the financial meltdown of 1997. Starting in Thailand with a
plummeting of the Thai Baht, the financial meltdown spread quickly in turn to
Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Taiwan suffered also but
was somewhat inoculated from the worst of the crisis by its strong currency
reserves. Indeed for Taiwan the pain was felt more from the global knock-on
effects than from any local factor. It would be right to say that Taiwan in this
crisis, with its powerful currency, fared substantially better than any other s
of the emergent south east Asian states.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the anniversary of the singular event that has shaped
Asian economics and politics over the past decade went largely unnoticed in
Taiwan. Perhaps this was because Taiwan had another anniversary to remember and
this one unique, and much closer to home.
July also marked the 20th anniversary of the end of Martial Law in Taiwan. This
is the anniversary that was remembered locally and provided the catalyst for
much debate and soul-searching as to how far Taiwan had come in the past twenty
years and, of course, the path it was taking for the future.
A lesson in history
Upon the defeat of the Chinese Nationalist armies in the Chinese Civil War,
the KMT regime, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (affectionately known in
Taiwan as Cash My-check) fled to Taiwan where in May 1949 they declared martial
law following an incident on the island of Penghu (the Penghu Incident) when
seven out of 8,000 high-school students, their faculty and staff exiled to
Penghu from Shandong Province on the Chinese mainland, were executed for
refusing forced military service. A further 100 students were imprisoned.
Martial law, at first brutal and then somewhat more relaxed, remained in force
until 1987. During this period, any mention of Taiwan's independence from China
was ruthlessly dealt with. In 1963 Taiwanese independence activist Chen Chi-hsiung
became the first person ever to be executed for advocating Taiwanese
independence. Chen, who spoke Hoklo, Mandarin, Japanese, English, Malaysian and
Dutch fluently, served as a Japanese diplomat in Dutch-ruled Indonesia during
the period of Japanese colonial rule prior to the Second World War. Inspired by
the Indonesian independence movement, Chen became an advocate for Taiwanese
independence, and served as the circuit ambassador to Southeast Asia for the
Provisional Government of the Republic of Taiwan founded by another independence
activist, Liao Wen-yi, in Japan after World War II. Chen was later kidnapped by
the KMT regime's secret service agents and shipped back to Taiwan via diplomatic
mail, which is exempt from inspection by customs.
The "mainlanders" of this period, mostly military officials and
bureaucrats, but which accounted for around 10 percent of the total population,
saw Taiwan as no more than a staging post from which, with US help, they would
eventually retake the mainland. Thus, the KMT Administration of the period laid
the foundation of the "One-China" policy that has come back to bite
the hand of Taiwan today.
It is worth noting that the Chinese only arrived in Formosa (as the Island was
then called) in the fifteenth century and only ever gained control over the
narrow coastal plains. The interior of the Island-into the early twentieth
century-was controlled by the aboriginal tribes who had been pushed into the
uplands and who, until this day, have not been totally integrated into the local
Chinese society. Ironically it was only when China ceded control of Taiwan to
Japan in 1895 that the seeds of national identity were forged. It was the
Japanese that established control over the wild interior, build railways and
roads and created a civil service. When the Japanese were defeated at the end of
World War II, the Taiwanese expected that America would grant them independence
in the same manner as the Philippines, but it was not to be. At the Cairo
Conference, Taiwan was ceded back to China and specifically to Chiang Kai-shek.
At a time like this it is worth tracing the history of the "China
issue" because fact has long been confused with political myth. The
political claim of Beijing that Taiwan is an "unalienable part of the
Motherland" is tenuous at best. Comparisons of Taiwan with Hong Kong and
even Macau do not pass a reality test.
But, as noted, it was the KMT itself that kept the myth of "One China"
alive. The native Taiwanese have never really had much say in the matter-until
recently that is.
Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and was succeeded, after a brief interregnum, by
his son, Chiang Ching-kuo who became president in 1978 and remained so until his
death in 1988-one year after finally lifting martial law and the ban on new
The KMT remained in power throughout much of the nineties under the presidency
of a native Taiwanese who had been educated in Japan, Lee Teng-hui. Under Lee's
presidency Taiwan rapidly democratized. First came the lifting of the claim to
the Chinese mainland and the dismantling of the remnants of the bureaucracy that
supported that claim-the removal from the parliament of those aged
representatives occupying seats on behalf of non-existent mainland
constituencies was the first to go. In 1995, President Lee allowed for the first
time, direct elections for the presidency and won handsomely only to see his
successor lose to the DPP when he stepped down in 2000.
The DPP had been founded in September of 1987 although officially the ban on new
parties was not lifted until a few months later.
Martial law remembered
With a fresh round of presidential elections in the air, it is unsurprising
that the 20th anniversary remembrances provided opportunity for the present
political players to grandstand. Reminding the public of the excesses of the KMT
during that period, a government spokesperson said that Ministry of Justice
statistics show that approximately 140,000 people were sentenced and jailed
between May 19, 1949, and July 15, 1987, often without a trial and without
evidence. The present government had paid a total of NT$18.29 billion (US$554
million) in compensation so far to 15,771 victims of the Martial Law era.
DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh was blunt: he compared the KMT to a
"caretaker who harmed our people, raped our daughters and stole our
property," adding that the public must not allow the "caretaker"
to administer the country again.
Not surprisingly, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma
Ying-jeou lashed back accusing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of
"exploiting" the memory of the martial law era while failing to offer
a vision for the nation. "[The DPP] is a governing party that fails to make
progress. It is just exploiting a historical scar and doesn't dare face up to
the corruption of its administration over the past seven years."
Former president Lee Teng-hui used the occasion to praise late president Chiang
Ching-kuo's decision to lift martial law as "forward-looking," but
said that the public's demands had led to the decision. "The decision Mr
Ching-kuo made to lift martial law was historic ... a brave, resolute, and
forward-looking decision made by a leader faced by changes ... It was not only
an answer to the public's demands, but also the first step toward Taiwan's
release from a one-party system," he said.
So how far has Taiwan come over the past twenty years?
Despite its ever-growing political isolation Taiwan has, in many ways, become a
model democratic state that gives the lie to claims that Chinese people would
never tolerate "Western-style" democracy. It has one of the freest
presses in Asia - if not the most free - and a system of civil liberties and
human rights that is liberal and tolerant even by Western standards. In a
perfect world Taiwan would be hailed as a model for the rest of Asia and the
emerging world to emulate.
But it is not a perfect world. China remains an autocracy in spite of the
liberalization made in the economic sector and, much of the so-called Chinese
private sector remains beholden to, if not an arm of, government. Despite
concern over China's huge trade surpluses and unfair trade practices - not to
mention the poor quality and health standards of Chinese goods, from pet foods
to toothpaste, the world appears powerless to do anything about it. Then there
are claims of child and forced labour, human trafficking which appear to have a
factual basis for concern but to which Beijing appears to turn a deaf ear. And
let's not even mention the subject of carbon emissions as China's economy
replaces that of Germany, as the world's third largest.
Taiwan meanwhile has done everything right and yet is denied a seat in the
United Nations and even in the more technical bodies such as the World Health
Organisation (WHO) despite the considerable financial and technical
contributions it is now capable of making. More odious is the fact that for
political reasons, China also opposes the IAEA conducting nuclear safeguards
inspections on Taiwan's nuclear facilities. (In fact, China will only take this
position when confronted directly with the issue and probably is quite glad that
Taiwan's extensive nuclear energy programme remains under safeguards.)
Taiwan is a victim of geo-politics although it does not yet admit to the fact.
On the one hand it desperately wants greater room to manoeuvre on the
international stage and believes that it has deserved the right to expect
better. On the other hand, its principal benefactor, the United States, is
increasingly disengaging from East Asia and is looking to Japan - and even China
- as the main regional powers. This has been a long-term trend but has
accelerated since the events of 9-11. Japan has already adopted a new defence
posture and China is increasingly matching its strategic investments into the
Asian region with an expansion of its military capability. China's defence
budget has seen double-digit annual increases in recent years and they are
working to develop anti-satellite missile capability, as well as a nuclear
submarine fleet equipped with long-range nuclear missiles. All this has
consequences not only for the United States but also for Asia and nobody
realizes this better than the Taiwanese. Global and regional powers are already
seeking to accommodate China and democratic or not, Taiwan can count on little
by way of support from the outside, although it would take a big shift in
current US policy to allow China to use military pressure on Taiwan.
Many argue that Taiwan lost its best chance for independence after the 1989 Tien
An Mien riots. That was an opportunity lost never to be regained.
So while Taiwan remains fixed on the path to becoming a modern democratic state,
the problem of China has become more acute over the past twenty years. And while
China is busy investing in the region, Taiwan remains as it has always been, the
largest single investor in China
Fully 50 percent of China's foreign investment is coming from Taiwan. Moreover,
it is the country that is the most integrated into China, with more than 40
percent of Taiwan's exports going there and more than 1 million long-term
China-based Taiwanese businesspeople already living there. Indeed many Taiwanese
companies have contributed already to the hollowing-out of their domestic local
industry by setting up vertically integrated production chains on the Chinese
Just as Taiwan missed the boat in declaring political independence from China,
so too may it have missed the boat in declaring economic independence. Like some
giant death-star, Taiwan appears to be circling around China being drawn ever
closer and unable to muster sufficient thrust to break free.
Thus are the battle lines being drawn in the lead up to next year's elections in
Taiwan. The KMT, keenly aware of its tenuous identity with Taiwan is seeking to
float a policy of a regional common market consisting of "Greater
China" - The mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The DPP continues for its part
to express its view that Taiwan should be left alone to go its own way.
Both parties appear to be missing the point. They are after all economically
locked in to each other and nothing foreseeable is likely to change that now.