Is Taiwan a nation-state?
不吐不快 - 保護台灣大聯盟(TDA)
作者 Gerrit van der Wees   
In the discussions about Taiwan and its international status, there are always two recurring themes, which play an important role in the ongoing debate on how to proceed in resolving the future of the island. One question is: “Is Taiwan a nation-state?” The second question is: “Do the people on the island consider themselves Chinese?”
In this essay, we will briefly present some historical perspectives, and then discuss both themes in more detail. One fundamental historical fact is that prior to the Japanese period (1895-1945), Taiwan was not an integral part of China, but an outlying area, which was only briefly ruled as a province of China (1887-1895). A second historical fact is that in 1895, under the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty, the Chinese Imperial government ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity: note that this is quite different from the arrangement with Britain regarding Hong Kong's New Territories, which were leased for 99 years.
Then, moving to Taiwan’s status after World War II: this is a matter of hot debate, and the positions taken depend very much on the origin of the person(s) taking the position: the native Taiwanese, who lived on the island during the Japanese colonial period, initially considered it a liberation, but after the February 28 massacre of 1947, considered the Kuomintang’s rule an occupation by a foreign, repressive regime.
To the Chinese Nationalists, who came over from China with Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan became their last bulwark in the struggle for sovereignty over the Chinese mainland. They perpetuated their Chinese Civil War at the expense of democracy on the island, and the human rights of the Taiwanese: Martial Law lasted until 1987, while the system of representation brought over from China (a parliament representing “all provinces of China”) was not ditched until 1991-1992, when President Lee Teng-hui pushed through his democratic reforms.
It is thus totally incorrect to state that “Taiwan split off from China in 1949” –an erroneous description which is repeated ad nauseam in international newswire and newspaper reports.
The right way to phrase it would be: “Taiwan was a Japanese colony until 1945, after which it was occupied by Chiang’s KMT — the losing side of the Chinese civil war.”
All through the 1950s and 1960s, the Kuomintang authorities clung to their forlorn claim to represent all of China. By the end of the 1960s, this position became untenable. US normalization of relations with the PRC took place, leading to US de-recognition of the Kuomintang authorities as the government of China. We emphasize the latter, because it is an essential argument in the discussion of the question ″Is Taiwan a nation-state?”
Another significant point to be made is that the United Nations decision of 21 October 1971 dealt with the representation of China in the UN of China. The relevant text of the now-famous UN Resolution 2758 states:
“Decides to restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China and to recognize
the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of
China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang
Kai-shek (emphasis added) from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the
United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”
Taiwan was not even mentioned, and the Taiwanese people were certainly not democratically-represented at that time.
De-recognition of “Taiwan” in the 1950s through the 1970s was thus de-recognition of the Kuomintang’s claim as ruler of China. In other words: the United States, Europe and most other nations have informal ties with “Taiwan” because of the KMT’s claim of sovereignty over China.
As stated earlier, this claim continued until President Lee’s reforms in 1991-1992, but even at present, the conservative remnants of the KMT are clinging to the old and empty “Republic of China” shell, and are preventing the DPP government from ditching the anachronistic symbols of the old claim to be government of China: the flag, national anthem and Constitution, which defines the territory of the ROC as encompassing China, Mongolia and Tibet…..
Then we fast-forward to the present: Taiwan is now democratically-governed, and fulfills all the requirements of a nation-state according to the generally-accepted definition of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on rights and duties of states: It has: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) a government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. The United States was a signatory to this Convention, so it is rather peculiar that some in the US government and think-tanks now argue that Taiwan is not a nation-state.
The situation is very similar to that of the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s: only a handful of countries – such as France and The Dutch Republic – recognized the US at that time. Others were wary of incurring the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth, Great Britain. In fact, it was well into the 1800s before a majority of nations recognized the nascent republic in the Americas. Indeed, Taiwan does have diplomatic relations with 24 other countries, albeit small ones in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Africa.
A key point is that after Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the situation is fundamentally different from that of the 1970s; however the US and European policy towards the island is still essentially the same as in the 1970s, clinging to an outdated One China” mantra, which perpetuates Taiwan’s political isolation.
The “One China” policy now is as inappropriate as it was in the period 1949-1979, when the West isolated Communist China. Now, the West is unfairly and unjustly isolating a free and democratic Taiwan, basically because an undemocratic China is still fighting the tail end of a Civil War in which the Taiwanese had no part.
Thus, Taiwan is an independent nation-state. The only question is how it should be recognized internationally: the old Kuomintang claim of sovereignty over China has been rejected by the international community. But now Taiwan has a democratically-elected government which represents the 23 million people on the island. Wouldn’t it be right and reasonable to recognize it as such?
Do the people on the island consider themselves Chinese?
Another reason why the West should rethink its policies towards the island, and start to normalize relations with Taiwan is the change in self-perception on the island: during the five decades of Kuomintang rule, the Nationalist Chinese instilled in the population a perception that they were “Chinese”. Any expressions of Taiwanese identity were discouraged: Children in school were punished if they spoke native Taiwanese Hoklo.
However, after the onset of democratization this started to change: people on the island began to rediscover their Taiwanese identity, history, geography and culture. The graph below shows the trends in self-perception from the early 1990s until the present: In 1991-92, the percentage of the respondents considering themselves “Chinese only” was approximately 50%. In the 1990s, this started to drop significantly, and at present only about 5% of the respondents consider themselves “Chinese only”.
The transitional category of people who consider themselves “both Chinese and Taiwanese” started in the early 1990s with approximately 30%; then it showed a bulge in the mid 1990s, because people made the transition from “Chinese only” via “both Chinese and Taiwanese” to “Taiwanese only.” At present, it is back to approximately 30%.
The most significant change is shown in the “Taiwanese only” category: it started low (approximately 20%) in the early 1990s – due to the five decades of indoctrination by the Kuomintang – but then mushroomed in the late 1990s. At present, opinion surveys show that some 60% of the respondents indicate they consider themselves “Taiwanese only.”
The data on which this graph is based are derived from a variety of sources: the data in the early 1990s are from the Taiwan Election and Democratization Study of National Cheng-chi University in Taipei, while the data for the later years are from the Academia Sinica and Mainland Affairs Council.
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