China and Taiwan -- Polls Apart

Sam Crane teaches Chinese politics and philosophy at Williams College and is the author of "Aidan's Way."

Democracy has transformed Taiwan, and the change demonstrates how political participation can shape national identity and international politics.

Fifteen years ago, it was easy to accept the idea that Taiwan was a part of China. Most people on the island defined themselves as Chinese, and their government was named and was acknowledged -- though not diplomatically recognized by many countries -- as the Republic of China. The official policy of the People’s Republic of China demanded that Taiwan be viewed as a province of the mainland, and the United States vaguely accepted a “one China” principle.

Some things are not so straightforward anymore.

Mandarin discourse is still useful on the streets of Taipei, and the Chinese cuisine is the best anywhere. The National Palace Museum remains an extraordinary trove of Sinological art treasures.


National identity, however, is more than cultural practices and traditions. Linguistic and other affinities are not enough to classify Taiwan as “Chinese,” just as the United States could hardly be considered part of a “British” empire anymore.

What matters for any national identity is politics. And Taiwan’s domestic politics have long been detached from China’s. Since 1895, a mainland government has ruled the island for only about four years, 1945-49. When the Nationalist Party lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, it maintained for many years that it was the government of all China, though it never was.

Since democratization began in Taiwan in 1986, the “return to the mainland” myth has further receded. Free and fair elections have turned people’s attention inward.

The democratic political life shared by millions of Taiwanese is forging a common civic identity distinct from China’s. This Taiwanese national identity is not merely an invention of those who want to publicly declare independence, something that Beijing’s leaders say they will go to war to prevent. It is the natural evolution of democratic participation.


Nowhere is this more evident than in the notion of the “status quo.” For mainland China and the U.S., it refers to the “one China” principle, a reflection of the politics of the 1970s -- before democracy took root in Taiwan. For many Taiwanese, perhaps most, it has come to mean the situation that has actually prevailed since 1986, an empirical independence that allows them to rule themselves without Chinese control.

But the people of Taiwan are not unanimous in seeing themselves as wholly separate from China. Debates about national identity are a central feature of the island’s boisterous democracy.

The momentum of nationhood, however, seems to have reached a point of no return. Taiwan is a democratic nation; China is not. It is difficult to foresee circumstances that would allow for real unification.

The dilemma for Taiwan is the contradiction between its democratic development and its geopolitical context. China’s nationalist passions are real. For any mainland Chinese politician, President Hu Jintao included, to be seen as soft on Taiwan independence is to open oneself to charges of treason. Even if political liberalization were to emerge tomorrow, Chinese demagogues could argue that a separate Taiwan is a wound to the nation’s pride. So Chinese leaders continue to threaten and isolate Taiwan.


If the Bush administration thinks the Taiwan question has faded, it is sorely mistaken. Taiwan is not really a part of China any longer. It has grown into a thriving and mature democracy where people join together in constructive self-government and see themselves as a nation like any other. The status quo has changed.