»  National Review Online

March 27, 2000

   Three One Eight: For China, the 20th Century Is Over

[Note:  This seems to be the first full-length column I ever wrote for an internet magazine.]


In the minds of Chinese people, the modern history of their country is marked off by "incidents," most of them unknown to the general Western public. Each incident is remembered by the digits of the month and day on which it occurred. The grandaddy of all these milestones is "Five Four": May 4th 1919, when the Chinese learned that the Treaty of Versailles had handed over German rights in Shantung to Japan, instead of returning them to China. They took to the streets in protest, and a great movement of national and cultural self-scrutiny followed, of which the founding of the Chinese Communist Party was merely one by-product. There followed "Nine One Eight" — September 18th 1931, when the Japanese moved into Manchuria — and "Seven Seven" — the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7th 1937, the first step in the Japanese occupation of Peking — and a succession of others, most recently "Six Four" — the crushing of the student movement on June 4th 1989.

Chinese schoolchildren of the future may find themselves memorizing the next milestone as "Three One Eight": the Presidential election in Taiwan on March 18th this year, when for the first time in Chinese history, a Chinese head of state was removed by popular vote. The historic nature of Chen Shui-bian's victory (his name is pronounced "Chern Shway Bee-en") can be measured by the fact that the official name of the place he is President of is still "The Republic of China"; and that this entity has been ruled by the Nationalist Party continuously since October 10th 1928, when Chiang Kai-shek assumed the Presidency in Nanking. No significant number of Chinese people has ever been ruled by any political party other than the Nationalists and the Communists, until last weekend. For China, the twentieth century is over.

Well, possibly. It all depends what you mean by "China." The great dragon coiled on the other side of the Formosa Strait was certainly a factor in Taiwan's election; but not much of one, because there was no real disagreement between any of the major candidates on the China issue. No candidate was calling for a declaration of independence, knowing that any such move would precipitate a grave international crisis. Nor was anyone proposing reunification, since practically nobody in Taiwan wants to be ruled from Peking. Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) contains pro-independence factions, and until recently called openly for a Taiwan Republic independent of China, but the President-elect has eschewed all such talk throughout the campaign, and even more scrupulously in the days since his victory. While insisting that Taiwan preserve "sovereignty" — a slightly more ambiguous term in Chinese than in English — he has spoken in a conciliatory way of the need for mutual understanding between China and Taiwan. In a further gesture of conciliation he gave his victory speech in Mandarin rather than in Tai-yu, the language most Taiwanese speak by choice, which Mandarin-speakers cannot understand. Most of Mr Chen's stump speeches in this campaign were delivered in Tai-yu.

Even that last gesture, however, spoke more to the intensely local quality of this election campaign than to international concerns. The most significant division in Taiwanese society remains that between the 15 per cent who are wai-sheng — descendants of the mainlanders who arrived on the island in Chiang Kai-shek's baggage train when Chiang lost the mainland — and the 85 per cent who are ben-sheng, or natives, descended from much earlier Chinese immigrants, mainly peasants and fisherfolk who drifted in from Fujian Province from the seventeenth century onward. (The Tai-yu language is a dialect of Fujianese.) When Chiang's mainland Nationalists began to administer the island after Japan's surrender in 1945 they were resented at once by the Taiwanese, who had hoped for independence, like Korea. They quickly made themselves even more unpopular with high-handed and brutal policies towards the locals. "Worse than the Japanese," older Taiwanese still remember. Indeed, when I first visited Taiwan in the 1970s I got a definite impression that older ben-sheng nursed considerable nostalgia for the Japanese occupation (1895-1945). Under the Japanese, people muttered, you were left alone; and so long as you didn't challenge Japanese rule, you were treated fairly. Taiwanese troops fought enthusiastically in the Japanese Imperial armies, and have even been blamed — whether fairly or not I do not know — for some of the Japanese atrocities in mainland China.

The conflict between the incoming mainlanders and the local Taiwanese led to another of those numerical landmarks: "Two Two Eight," the mnemonic for February 28th 1947, when Nationalist troops opened fire on Taiwanese protesters. Taiwanese resistance to Nationalist rule was thereafter ruthlessly crushed, but resentment simmered for years. President-elect Chen's own party, the DPP, had its roots in that resentment. With the passing of time and the great rise in prosperity brought by Taiwan's economic success, passions cooled. Chiang Kai-shek's son, who succeeded Chiang in the Presidency in 1975, skilfully co-opted educated and conservative Taiwanese, bringing many into the Nationalist Party. The man Mr Chen defeated, Lee Teng-hui, is a ben-sheng, though a staunch Nationalist. Thus that victory speech in Mandarin may have been targeted not only at the gentlemen in Peking, but also at the Nationalist Party and the wai-sheng who remain its firmest supporters.

Certainly Mr Chen cannot afford any triumphalist attitudes towards the defeated Nationalists. In the first place, they mainly defeated themselves. The Nationalist Party split on the issue of reform — reform, that is, of Taiwan's corrupt business-Party alliances. A principled Nationalist, Jimmy Soong (Soong Chu-yu — he is a wai-sheng) ran as an independent against the official Party candidate, an old warhorse called Lien Chan. But for this, Chen would not have got in — he garnered only 39 per cent of the vote. The Nationalists still control the commanding heights of Taiwan's public life — the legislature, the judiciary, most of all the army, whose generals may pose difficulties for a DPP Commander-in-Chief.

Taiwanese society also faces some fundamental systemic problems the new President will have to deal with, arising out of the transition, not yet complete, from a family-centered, "low-trust," self-reliant "tiger" economy to a more modern, open type of society in which the unemployed cannot survive by calling round on relatives for loans, and old folk cannot depend on their children to take care of them. Labor is strong in Taiwan, and wants a 40-hour work week. The Gaoshan, Taiwan's polynesian-race aborigines, want more autonomy and land settlements. There is growing agitation for more involvement by women in business and politics. The environment is a hot topic: Taiwan is physically a very beautiful place, much despoiled during the rapid economic advances of the 1970s and 80s, and there is now a thriving conservation movement. Mr Chen sees all of these as his issues. In Europe, his party would be called "center-left"; in the U.S. he would be a New Democrat. His Vice President is in fact a woman, Harvard-educated Annette Lu; and he has promised to fill 25 per cent of his cabinet positions with women.

And yet not all politics is local, not in Taiwan. From across the straits the dragon watches, brooding. No-one should underestimate China's recent threats. As fast as Mr Chen can conjure up new ambiguities to keep things quiet, the communists are retreating from ambiguity and demanding "recognition of the 'One China' principle" as a precondition to any dealings with Taiwan's leaders. China is feeling its strength, and cares less and less for the rest of the world's opinion. I have seen it said that the victorious allied campaign in Kosovo gave China a fright, and made them cautious about antagonizing the U.S. Nonsense: The lesson China's generals have taken from Kosovo is that while U.S. arms were able to wreak great material damage on a small country, they were not able to destroy the army of that country, because they were not willing to take any casualties. An army that dare not take casualties is frightening to nobody.

Will China move against Taiwan? Or against the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, still held by Taiwan? Nobody knows. "We shall listen to what the new leader in Taiwan says and watch what he does," said the only official Chinese response to Chen's election victory. "Let us see where he will lead cross-Straits relations." These bland formulas may represent a genuine willingness to wait on President Chen's approaches. They may, on the other hand, be a smokescreen put up to conceal furious internal squabbling in Peking — as similarly anodyne remarks, we now know, hid the bitter factional fighting over how to deal with the student movement of 1989. This is an open moment in modern Chinese history, from which many possibilities diverge. One thing, however, no one can take away from it. Last Saturday — Three One Eight — 22 million Chinese people peacefully threw out their head of state and installed a new one. Mindful of the perils to come, the people of Taiwan are none the less entitled, as Churchill told his own countrymen on V-E Day, to a brief period of jubilation.