Jonathan Manthorpe, a journalist who has covered China and Taiwan for the Vancouver Sun and other newspapers, has written the supremely useful single volume history of Taiwan, from its pre-Chinese Malay-Polynesian origins to the present day. The book is titled Forbidden Nation, and as the name suggests Manthorpe devotes most attention to the interaction between Taiwanese nationalism and the dynasts and colonialists who have suppressed it: mainland emperors, Japanese imperialists, the Chiang Kai-Shek regime, and now the Communist rulers of Beijing.
Manthorpe does not conceal his sympathies for the Taiwanese underdogs in these struggles, but he works his way through the story fair-mindedly and accessibly. The book is mercifully short, but powerfully lucid.
Taiwan has existed for 400 years as a strange fusion of Chinese California and Chinese Benedictine monastery : as a land of remarkable economic opportunity for ordinary people and also as a refuge for classical Chinese culture in times of threat.
In the 17th century, Taiwan emerged as a stronghold of loyalism to the native Ming dynasty after the mainland was overrun by Manchurian invaders. Taiwan preserved cultural traditions persecuted by China’s alien, barbarian conquerers – a precedent that Chiang Kai-Shek had very much in mind when he chose Taiwan as his bolthole in 1949.
The alien barbarians eventually asserted their authority over Taiwan too, but not very effectively: Through the centuries of Manchu rule, Taiwan won a reputation for staging “a rebellion every three years and a major rebellion every five” against the exactions, oppression, and corruption of the Qing emperors in Beijing
The decisive date in modern Taiwanese history is the year 1895. Modernizing Japan goaded the Manchu dynasty into war in 1894. China lost of course, and Japan claimed Taiwan as prize . Taiwan’s reforming local leaders seized the chance to declare an independent “Taiwan Republic,” 20 years before Sun Yat Sen’s revolution on the mainland. The Japanese army made short work of the republic.
Today, Taiwanese make a point of praising Japanese rule to all who will listen– mostly it seems to vex and annoy Beijing. And indeed compared to the Japanese record in Korea, Japan’s policies in Taiwan look reasonably enlightened. While mainland China was plunged into revolution, warlordism, and civil war after 1895, Taiwan was enjoying strong economic growth, the beginnings of universal education, and surprisingly competent and effective government. Manthorpe however does not romanticize the Japanese, and duly itemizes the other side of the ledger, including the probability that the Japanese used chemical weapons against rebellious indigenous tribes.
The Taiwanese did not abandon their rebellious ways under Japanese rule. They rebelled 19 times during the 60 years of Japanese rule. On th e other hand, the intensity of Taiwanese resistance subsided with the passing years. Elite Taiwanese accepted appointments to the upper house of the Japanese Imperial Diet. About 80,000 islanders voluntarily enlisted in the Japanese imperial forces during World War II. Maybe here is the most telling fact: Taiwan radio rebroadcast Emperor Hirohito’s Aug 15 1945 speech announcing Japan’s surrender. It would be 6 more weeks before Nationalist Chinese military forces arrived in the island to take power. During those 6 weeks, the Japanese administration continued to govern the island without challenge.
Within three years of the Nationalists’ arrival, however, Taiwan would be wracked by the bloodiest uprising – and worst repression – in all its tumultuous history. The Nationalists (or Kuomintang, KMT for short) shocked Taiwanese with their extreme corruption and stupid brutality. The Japanese executed dissidents. They did not take bribes, however, and they respected the property rights of those Taiwanese who did not involve themselves in politics. The KMT did neither.
“The dogs have gone and the pigs have come,” appeared scrawled on walls all over the capital as the KMT appropriated Japanese imperial property to its own use. (60 years later, the party still owns it.) The KMT nationalized businesses and imposed monopolies; individual KMT soldiers stole everything they could lay hands upon. On the mainland, the KMT’s bizarre financial policies had generated a hyperinflation, and that too was exported to the island. Agricultural production collapsed, public health was neglected, medicines stolen.
On Feb. 28, 1947, KMT officials arrested a woman for selling contraband cigarettes. They beat her savagely, she called out, a crowd gathered, a riot erupted. The KMT responded with mass, indiscriminate violence. At least 28,000 people were killed; leaders of Taiwanese society were arrested, tortured, and murdered. Taiwan’s new democratic government has built a museum to commemorate this “two-two-eight” incident, which I had the chance to visit during my time on the island. It occupies a building that once housed Japan’s radio station on the island.
The KMT would rule Taiwan as a police state for almost 40 years. Manthorpe again does justice to the good and bad of KMT rule: the amazing economic development it oversaw – and also the stifling repression, including some 45,000 summary executions between 1949 and the end of martial law.
The memory of that repression remains one of the great themes of Taiwan politics to this day.
Chiang Kai-Shek died in 1975. He was succeeded by his son, Chiang Ching-Kuo, who had been educated in Stalin’s Soviet Union and put his education to good use running the KMT’s secret police forces. The younger Chiang seems in many ways to have been at least as ruthless as his father, in many ways more competent – and also considerably more shrewd. As the United States drew closer to Communist China in the 1970s, the younger Chiang perceived that a small authoritarian island could expect little consideration of its vital interests. But what if the island were not so authoritarian? What if it were a democracy? Then its interests could not be so easily disregarded. Chiang relaxed the rigor of his rule, and in 1983 he chose a native Taiwanese, former Taipei mayor Lee Teng-Hui, as his vice president – and thus successor. On July 7, 1987, martial law was lifted. Ching-Kuo died in January 1988. In 1996, Taiwan held its first free, fair, and competitive elections.
Manthorpe lucidly describes the current state of play of Taiwan politics, a battle between two coalitions: “Blue” (the successors to the KMT, committed to closer relations with the Mainland including eventual reunification) and the “Green” (the old opposition movement, now in command of the government but often criticized for their alleged neglect of bread-and-butter issues in favor of symbolic moves toward independence).
There is more to be said than Manthorpe says, but most readers will find that what he says is sufficient to orient them.
Perhaps though there few additional things ought to be said.
Manthorpe illustrates an important point about American foreign policy – which is that values always do matter, however little foreign-policy practitioners may like it. Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s transformed the US-Taiwan relationship. The US might well have abandoned an authoritarian Taiwan to the mainland. It came close to doing so in 1949-1950, and again in 1971-1978. It cannot and will not abandon a democratic Taiwan .
The “democratic mission” of the United States is much more than a moral injunction – it is an important observable fact about the way the United States usually behaves. Here is the great intellectual paradox at the core of what is so inaccurately called foreign policy “realism”: “Realism” argues that foreign policy should be based on the actual conduct of states, not our wishes or preferences. Yet in its actual conduct, the United States is guided as much by morals as by geostrategy. So the first fact that any “realist” must accept about the United States is precisely that Americans do not behave as “realists” predict they should. Theories do not get more self-refuting than that. If an old Stalinist like Chiang Ching-kuo could recognize that truth, what excuse do the rest of us have for overlooking it?