Wednesday, October 10, 2012

National Day/国慶日

A neighborhood near campus.

Today, 10/10, is "National Day" in the Republic of China.  I thought I'd use this opportunity to get people up to speed on what Taiwan is, and what the Republic of China (ROC) is, since, in my experience talking to people, a lot of people don't seem to know.  (Even Baby Boomers who really should know.)

There's nothing here that wouldn't be on Wikipedia, but I like to think that I'm a more interesting writer than some Wikinerd.

First off, what is Taiwan not?

1)  "Oh, that place with all the lady-boys!"
No, that would be Thailand.  And also, it's kind of insulting that that's all you know Thailand for.  It's a pretty incredible country.  They escaped colonization by European powers back in the day through shrewd bargaining and the playing of one power off of another.

2)  "It used to be British, right?  Or is it still?"
No, that would be Hong Kong.  I understand the confusion.  Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have a kind of "China-but-not-China" status in many people's eyes.  Hong Kong is a tiny territory made mostly of islands just off the coast of south east China.  It was a British territory until 1997 when the lease expired (for serious, there was a lease) and the British returned the territory to China.
Hong Kong is currently a special administrative area of the People's Republic of China (PRC), so it's mostly like a separate country with its own laws, except that they don't control their own military or international affairs, Beijing does.

I've gotten the two above reactions when I've mentioned Taiwan to Americans.  It's ironic that many people know so little about Taiwan since American support after WWII is one of the major reasons why Taiwan still exists as an entity separate from the PRC.  But actually, Americans have a pretty good track record when it comes to not knowing much about countries whose internal politics we've mucked about in.  What do you know about, say, Honduras?  Nothing?  I thought so.  Not that I'm any better...

So what is Taiwan?

Taiwan is an island, often also known by its Portuguese name of "Formosa".  It is located off the south east coast of the Chinese mainland.  It's about the size of Maryland plus Delaware.

...but that's not really what you're asking, is it?  You're asking me about a country, right?  Well first off, the country of "Taiwan" exists in the minds of many people in this world we live in, but on paper, doesn't exist at all.  When people say "Taiwan" as often as not, they do not mean just the island of Taiwan, they mean the entire territory that the ROC controls, which includes the island of Taiwan, as well as some other islands surrounding it, some off the coast of the Chinese mainland, and some in the South China Sea.

So, on paper, the country Taiwan does not exist.  The country, "The Republic of China" however, does exist, officially.  It controls territory, it is recognized by some other nations as a nation (Palau, for instance, has diplomatic relations with the ROC) it has its own laws, it has its own military, and it has its own passports.

With that said, the ROC is not recognized by the majority of countries in the world, including the US.  Why?

Well, after WWII, when the Japanese had been removed from China, the government of the Republic of China (established in 1911 after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty) led by Chiang Kai-Shek found themselves in a bit of a situation.  They were a member of the Allied side of the war, so they had won the war along with the US, the UK, the USSR, etc.  However, rather than being able to celebrate this, they found themselves almost immediately plunged into a civil war with Communist rebels led by Mao Zedong.

For various reasons, they lost.  In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek and his government uprooted themselves from the mainland, and along with a bunch of refugees (mainland Chinese who had allied themselves with the government rather than the communist rebels) crossed over to Taiwan and set up a new capital in Taipei.

This is interesting because prior to 1945, Taiwan had been in Japanese hands, having been won from the Qing in war in 1895.  For 50 years Taiwan had been a Japanese colony, and now it found itself with the capital city of a country that had only held the territory for about 4 years.  This would be like if the US had moved its capital from Washington DC to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1902, just a couple years after receiving Puerto Rico from Spain as the spoils of war.  (I'm not sure who the equivalent of the communist rebels who take over the mainland are in this alternate history example I've made up.  Maybe the south rose again?)

So from 1949 until the late 70's, Taiwan was often known in the US as "Free China", as opposed to "Red China".  Baby Boomers, ring any bells yet?  How about "Quemoy"?  It's not just a historical fun-fact.  Check out the map on that Wikipedia article and look at how close Kinmen/Quemoy is to mainland China.  Guess what?  The ROC still controls that territory, along with another set of islands farther north also just off the Chinese coast.  It's pretty amazing really since the islands are within easy shelling distance of the mainland.  Oh, and they were shelled, definitely.  Actually, Kinmen is now famous for its high-quality knives which are a popular souvenir.  What do they make them from?  The exploded artillery shells that litter the island.

So what happened in the 70's to change the situation?  Nixon visited China, the UN voted to give the "China" seat to the PRC and to take it from the ROC, and country after country switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC.  Even the US, one of Taiwan's major allies, gave official diplomatic recognition to the PRC.

But why couldn't countries recognize both governments?

Well, no reason really.  But both the PRC and ROC insist on having it that way.  It was a civil war that split these two entities.  They both claim, to this day mind you, to be the one true government of all of China.

If the ROC had wanted to continue to exist as a separate entity from China under the PRC, their chance was in the 70's when the switch in diplomatic recognition happened.  They probably could have chosen that route then since the PRC was more concerned with internal affairs than with expanding its international presence at the time, but the ROC wanted none of it.  I mean, from their perspective it was the ultimate slap in the face that countries were recognizing those communist rebel thugs as a legitimate government.

Now though, the ROC couldn't get recognition in the UN as "Taiwan" even if it wanted to.  The PRC would not allow it.  Oh, and since they took over the China seat at the UN in the 70's, they have the same incredible veto power that all the other major WWII allies have.  More importantly perhaps, they have about 3,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan ready to fire if the island formally declares independence.  No, you didn't read that number wrong, and my finger didn't slip and land on the "0" key for too long.

So that's the situation in a nutshell.  For about 30+ years, the ROC ruled Taiwan and the other islands as the "free" territory of China.  They made sure in education and in media to always emphasize to their citizens that they were Chinese people living in China.  They had to, because a lot of their citizenry did not entirely subscribe to that view.  Why?

1)  Taiwan, though already filled with lots of ethnically Han people during Qing control of the island, was only nominally controlled by the Qing.  The Qing never controlled the entire island and ignored it for most of their rule over it.  Also, the Qing Dynasty was not a Han dynasty, it was a dynasty led by the ethnically distinct Manchurian people, and many of the Han people in Taiwan were linguistic minorities anyway, so the Han Taiwanese did not feel a whole lot of fraternity with the Qing government.  They let the Qing know this by revolting on a regular basis during the Qing rule of Taiwan.

(Actually on a side note, why do linguistic minorities like Hoklo speakers and Hakka speakers, or Cantonese speakers for that matter, get counted as "Han" anyway?  Why aren't they classified as different ethnic groups?  Why don't Chinese ethnic classifications make any sense?)

2)  From 1895-1945 the Japanese controlled Taiwan as a colony.  They made sure to teach Japanese in the schools and to tell the Taiwanese that they were Japanese subjects of the god-descended emperor of Japan.  Taiwan was not a part of China when the ROC was formed in 1911.  It did not become part of the ROC until 30+ years later after WWII.  By the end of WWII, Taiwan was quite well integrated into the Japanese empire.  Many Taiwanese people spoke Japanese, many from the educational elite had gone to Japanese universities, and there's a good chance that if Japan hadn't totally lost WWII, they might have formally made Taiwan part of Japan instead of just a colony.  I mean, maybe not, but there was a movement towards doing that by the 40's.  It could have happened.

3)  Chiang Kai-Shek's takeover of Taiwan was maybe not totally legit.  This is a majorly contentious issue, but Taiwan was never formally given to the ROC.  It just kind of happened by default because the ROC was an Allied power and they wanted Taiwan, and no one else could be bothered with it.  In truth though, the Taiwanese, as a freed colonial people, should have been given the opportunity to democratically decide on what they wanted their government to be.

4)  The ROC came to Taiwan when they were in a desperate situation, having just finished a 10-year long war with the Japanese, and beginning to lose control to a communist uprising.  They also by many accounts did not trust the Taiwanese who were, after all, former subjects of China's main enemy in WWII.  The ROC government was extremely totalitarian, and when they lost the mainland to the communists, they instituted martial law and left it in place until the early 90's.  Seriously.  40 years of martial law.

So because of the above 4 points, Taiwanese people had already developed a bit of a separate identity by the time the ROC took over.  Because of the harsh treatment of the ROC government, and because of linguistic (Taiwanese people mostly spoke Taiwanese Hoklo, Hakka, or an aboriginal language at home, and Japanese if they were educated.  The ROC used Mandarin as the one and only official and acceptable language.) and cultural differences between the islanders and the mainlanders who came over with the ROC, this identity of "Taiwanese" never went totally away.  Fast forward to the 80's when the government relaxed its harsh laws, and the 90's when martial law officially ended and the ROC became a multi-party democracy and suddenly it was ok for people to say that they were Taiwanese and not Chinese and to even publish said sentiments.

That makes for the situation we have now.  When I said that the country Taiwan exists in the minds of many people in this world, I was referring to the fact that almost no one refers to the country I am in now as the Republic of China, unless they are talking about international politics or if they're an old-guard Chinese nationalist.  Everyone calls it Taiwan.  When you go to the book store to get a guide book, you look under "T".  The suffix for web addresses is .tw.  Within the country too, you see the word "Taiwan" all over.  "China" mostly only appears in the names of institutions that were created by the government in the past, like the post office and one of the major Taiwanese airlines.

Taiwan is Taiwan in the minds of most of the world's population, including the Taiwanese themselves.  According to most recent surveys, most Taiwanese people think of themselves as "Taiwanese and Chinese".  Second most common is "Taiwanese only" and in the single digits is people identifying as "Chinese only".  So Taiwan as a country is a real thing, if not an official thing.

That's why I think it's interesting that this day, the birthday of the Republic of China, is celebrated still in Taiwan.  It seems like it should have so little meaning to most Taiwanese people any more.  I mean, of course I understand the practical reasons why.  Officially this is still the Republic of China.  They've kept up the pretense on paper even if it has stopped meaning anything in most people's hearts, and it's a fun excuse for fireworks and a day off from work.

Actually, it reminds me a lot of another October holiday: Columbus Day in the US.  Columbus has lost a lot of popularity in recent years, and rightfully so.  He and his men engaged in genocide for basically no other reason than because it was convenient for them and they thought that they could turn a profit.  Oh, and he didn't land in the US either.  (Except maybe for Puerto Rico.)  And yet, Columbus Day continues in the US despite these facts.  It's a nice excuse for a parade, a day off from work, and anyway, to think too much about what Columbus and others who followed him means we have to ask uncomfortable questions about the legitimacy of our own country, so it's much easier to just not do that.

But I should be careful not to put words in people's mouths in regards to National Day.  I am not Taiwanese, and I've only been here for a month, so I can't even begin to claim to know everything.

As a example, one thing I heard that was interesting is that apparently there was an uptick in marriages last year because it was the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the ROC.  Couples felt that it was a special year, and therefore a good year to have a wedding in.  So apparently, the birth of the ROC still means something to Taiwanese people, more than just fireworks and a day off from work, even now.

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