The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Taipei Trends.
We all love those stories with a clear-cut bad guy. I mean, who doesn’t love to hate a villain like Voldemort of Harry Potter fame? However, the problem with this kind of narrative is that it’s rarely how the world actually works, especially when it comes to large-scale geopolitical issues. This includes the perennial debate over Taiwan’s status relative to China. However, The Diplomat contributor J. Michael Cole seems to have made a career of framing this profoundly complicated question as “good guy vs. bad guy” and does so again in his recent article – “The Great Chinese Lie About Taiwan.”Before you claim I am pro-China, let me first say that I don’t necessarily disagree with most of Cole’s conclusions. His problem is his lack of sophistication in characterizing this globally significant dispute. In his article, Cole is needlessly hyperbolic and a propagandist in his own right. He starts by claiming he doesn’t hate China and that his love for Taiwan is not a “zero-sum game”, but goes on to paint the PRC as a boogeyman across the Strait. Of course no one hates 1.2 billion people, but Cole clearly hates the the PRC. And hate is bad international policy.
Cole starts his parade of hyperbole by referring to the PRC and its role in East Asia as “tyranny.” No observer in their right mind would conclude that the PRC doesn’t have a bloody past and hasn’t been suspiciously aggressive in the South China Sea in recent years, but “tyranny” is not the word for their behavior. North Korea, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Nazi Germany are examples of tyrannical states. China is not like them. Tyrannical regimes don’t send their youth en masse to the universities of their largest ideological and economic competitor.
Furthermore, Cole heavy-handedly labels the Taiwanese as “freedom-seeking”, claims Taiwan faces an existential threat in the PRC, and gets downright biblical when he asserts that Taiwan faces a “David vs. Goliath” scenario. We can make an argument that perhaps, in the long term, the PRC is an existential political threat to the ROC, but the way Cole writes about it you’d think China was moments away from vaporizing the entire island – which would obviously be counterproductive considering China considers Taiwan a part of itself.
While Cole is no warmonger – as he asserts other critics have claimed – he is something of a fearmonger. Labeling China as a nefarious threat is only a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fact is China has been strikingly tempered in its handling of Taiwan in the long term. Mao himself said the Taiwan issue could wait 100 years, which isn’t exactly pressing the point. Remember, for years the KMT line was “counterattack the Mainland!” and that the KMT is an existential threat to the PRC, much as the PRC is a threat to the ROC (albeit a weaker and more isolated one). The KMT actually governed China for decades, fought multiple wars with the Communist Party, and today calls for reunification under the condition of Mainland democratization – which the PRC holds tantamount to dissolution. No other major nation would tolerate this kind of posturing from a subset of what it considered its population.
Another aspect of the Taiwan-China relationship that Cole hints at is that Taiwan was never governed by the PRC, and therefore PRC claims to Taiwan are moot. This isn’t the whole story. Keep in mind there was never Taiwanese rule of Taiwan either. There have only been three real precedents for governing the whole of Taiwan – Qing, Imperial Japanese, and Nationalist Chinese. The PRC makes a strong claim to be the successor to both of the previous Chinese traditions, thus establishing Taiwan as an inextricable part of its territory. That isn’t to say China is right, but to glaze over China’s historical claim to Taiwan as irrelevant is disingenuous and only works to misinform.
In addition to historical and political claims to Taiwan, the fact of the matter is, Taiwan is very much an ethnically Chinese society, more so than many parts of China itself. More than 95 percent of the population is Han Chinese. Mandarin is spoken by the vast majority of citizens island-wide. The local dialect is mutually intelligible with that of Fujian directly across the Strait. The religious traditions are the same. Many of the cultural traditions are the same. While Taiwanese and Chinese society diverge in significant ways, the similarities vastly outstripe the contrasts – so much so that Taiwanese and Chinese societies might actually be the same.
I’m not claiming that Taiwan shouldn’t have the right to self-determination. I agree with Cole that the West should support a democratic Taiwan and resist overt Chinese aggression, which it certainly does even if it is compelled to walk something of a tightrope in its rhetoric. However, this is very much a two-sided issue and the Chinese side has its points. Making China the great enemy, as Cole does, is not only unhelpful, but also cartoonish. If the Taiwanese people, the West, and the world want peace and a democratic Taiwan, independent or otherwise, a more nuanced narrative is required in the general discourse. The Diplomat and its contributors should aspire to live up to the title of the publication and think more diplomatically.