Thursday, April 17, 2014

Taiwan: Independent or Province of China?

I want to be very clear about my position on the status of Taiwan right from the start of this blog. My position is this: the status of Taiwan is extremely complicated. Not to fear! Complicated as it may be, I am confident that it can be fully understood with a little explanation.

The idea that Taiwan must be either an independent country or belong to China is a false dichotomy, and of course, it depends on what the words Taiwan and China actually mean. So, let's set the record straight:

Taiwan is the name of an island, the "Big Island," if you will, that most people think about when they think of the word Taiwan. There is no country called Taiwan, nor has there ever been one. The history of Taiwan (the island) has been a long and convoluted one, with many twists and turns owing to various waves of immigrants and colonial powers, coming not only from China, but also the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and American colonial powers. Taiwan was first inhabited, it is believed, around 3,000 B.C. by tribes coming from Southeast Asia, and the descendants of these are known as the Taiwanese aboriginals today.

The "modern" history of Taiwan starts around the 16th or 17th century with the first colonization by Western powers. Later, the island was taken again by China for a time, and then by Japan, America, and again once more by China. It is this final sequence of events (Japan-America-China) that needs further exploration to understand the current situation.

By the time Japan surrendered at the end of WWII, it was clear that the PRC was taking control of the Chinese mainland. The ROC government, led by the KMT (Kuomintang, trans: Chinese Nationalist Party) and under the authority of the Allied Forces and the US military, took over administration of Taiwan from Japan, but never officially received the territory as a sovereign government under any of the post-war treaties. When the ROC realized its own defeat on the mainland in 1949, the government fled and reestablished its temporary headquarters on Taiwan, which they refer to until this day as "the free area of the Republic of China." The "official" capital of the ROC is still in Nanking, but it would be quite impossible for the ROC to maintain a presence in Nanking given the current situation!

Since no transfer of sovereign rights was ever established after the transfer from Japan to the Allied Forces (led by the US), and since the Allied Forces / US do not recognize ownership over the island of Taiwan, the legal status of Taiwan's sovereignty remains undetermined. It is certainly administered by the ROC, and not administered by the PRC, this much is clear. At the same time, both governments claim that the territory under their control is part of the same sovereign state as the territory under control of the opposition.

Indeed, this uncertainty has led to a number of politically viable but legally questionable solutions over the past few decades. For one thing, most countries today recognize the PRC as the sole government of China (including Taiwan), but maintain separate "unofficial" diplomatic relations with Taiwan via "Economic and Trade Offices" or some other such nonsense. Taiwan has not been able to join the UN, as indeed, it has not declared independence as a sovereign nation, nor has it been granted independence by the Allied Forces since the end of WWII.

So what's next?

Well, there is a small group of people here on Taiwan that want to unify with the mainland under the PRC government. Thankfully, they are few and far between. There are probably more (but still not many) who would like to unify with the mainland, if the mainland could accept Taiwan's democracy as an independently functioning system, much like the SARs of Hong Kong and Macau. There is even an organization called "The Government of Taiwan" that considers itself to be the true government since ROC was never officially granted sovereignty, and another that pushes for the Allied Forces (specifically, the US government) to exercise their right to administer Taiwan according to the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII. None of these groups have much power, but that is not to say that they are wrong, either. Mostly, the people here want to be citizens of a sovereign state comprised of the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen & Matzu, whether that state is called the ROC or something else (like the ROT, Republic of Taiwan). Why doesn't this happen? The China threat. China has threatened to invade and take Taiwan by force if Taiwan declares independence, effectively stopping most pro-independence movements from ever finding the political viability they need to become a reality.

So, for now, Taiwan is stuck in legal limbo. The best way forward, in my opinion, is to improve Taiwan's democracy and relationships with other countries, while maintaining a relationship with the PRC that doesn't force political or economic concessions that would not be given to other countries, such as the recent CSSTA debacle that sparked the Sunflower Movement. In the end, I, like most locals, hope that Taiwan will one day free itself from the political shackles imposed on it by both the PRC and ROC governments, and that it will make itself a free nation. Unfortunately, that day is still a long way off.

Let's wrap up some terminology:

  • China (One China): a territory, defined by two different governments (the ROC and PRC) as consisting of both the mainland and the island of Taiwan; "political" usage of the name China
  • China (country): the country controlled by the PRC government, namely, mainland China controlled by the Chinese Communist Party; "common" usage of the name China
  • PRC: the government in control of the mainland
  • ROC: the government in control of Taiwan (and outlying islands); possibly acting under the authority of the Allied Forces / US after WWII and the surrender of Japan
  • "The free area of the ROC": the territory of China controlled by the ROC, namely, the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matzu; commonly referred to as Taiwan; capital is Taipei
  • Taiwan (island): the island known as Taiwan
  • Taiwan (province): a province in China, administered by the ROC; consisting of the islands of Taiwan and Penghu; capital is Zhongxing New Village in Nantou County
  • Taiwan (country): the likely future name of the free republic if (and when) the ROC and PRC end their ongoing cold war; indeed, even without the political or legal environment to make this possible currently, this name has already taken root and ROC citizens are proud to call themselves Taiwanese!

So the next time someone asks you if Taiwan is independent, just link them to this article. But at the same time, I hope you will join me and the millions of Taiwanese in our journey for a Free Taiwan.


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