Saturday, March 14, 2009

Two Chinas, one dilemma

China has just concluded a parliamentary session this week with the PRC premier Wen Jinbao stating that, according to the BBC, "he is so desperate to visit Taiwan that he would be prepared to crawl there if he could not walk."

It wouldn't matter whether he chose walking or crawling, many Taiwanese feel, as long as it meant that he drowned.

Okay, wishing death on a head-of-state is a bit harsh, but a lot of Taiwanese would give just as soon Wen stay on his side of the Formosa Strait. Not only are they not interested in a visit by Beijing's leadership, they're looking for an exit from the opera stage.

Until the 1990s, Taiwanese could be counted on to share with their Mainland counterparts the dream of "One China." Beijing was busily sweeping Hong Kong and Macao back under the red carpet, and it was only Taiwan — that renegade province that hosted the Kuomintang (KMT Nationalists) since 1949 — that was holding back that dream.

Beijing dangled the prospect of a "One Country, Two Systems" incentive in front of Taiwan, but the gap in democratic values, economic development, and freedom in general simply held back Taiwanese from taking the deal.

As time has worn on, a democratic Taiwan in which citizens could speak their mind — a novelty in the late 1980s when Taiwan's democracy seemed to bud at about the same time as South Korea's — began to toy with the idea of scrapping the whole "One China" thing altogether.

Taiwan is still officially the "Republic of China," but little by little there have been qualifications to this nomenclature as Taiwanese have sought to assert the national identity that has built around their island home. "Republic of China on Taiwan" is much preferred, and some just want to scrap the "China" part altogether. Ask almost anyone from Taiwan where they're from and who they are and they will proudly answer: "Taiwanese" ... "from Taiwan."

Though they speak Mandarin, they no longer identify themselves as Chinese. This is in part because the all-encompassing power of the KMT is a thing of the past and Taiwan has no shot in hell at forcibly reunifying China under Taipei's terms. That's a pipe dream that died when MacArthur was not given the go-ahead to invade Mainland China during the Korean War.

Taiwanese also have an indigenous culture and tradition on which to partly base this new identity. When Taiwan was an imperial outpost of China's or an island colony of Japan's, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan (currently 2% to 30% of the population, depending on definition) hadn't really coalesced, but that has changed.

And this means that the gap in perception between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese is even wider than before. Yes, many Taiwanese rely on Mainland China as a venue for investment and labor, but that's all the more reason to keep this "other country" politically separate: fear of being swallowed up.

So Beijing is waiting patiently for a chance to bring Taiwan back into the fold, while Taiwan is looking for an excuse to quietly make for the exit. It's hoped that they can slowly back out and China won't notice, but it's hard when Beijing keeps such a watchful eye. That watchful eye means blocking Taiwan from getting nation-level recognition on the world stage, including the UN.

But many Taiwanese feel that now is the time to reassert that effort. And that means PM Wen's words are not welcome. No, he will not set foot on Taiwanese soil unless he can recognize Taiwan as an equal of China, maybe even as an independent nation.

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