Taiwan's Dire Straits

China's Patient Pursuit of Taiwan

Peking's recent proposals for the reunification of China have been met with disdain in Taipei. A cartoon in one daily sums up the official attitude. It portrays a ragged cyclist who comes upon a fancy car and calls out to its driver, "Do you want me to lend you some money?" It is a contemptuous allusion to Peking's proposals to "help Taiwan economically" and to the difference in living standards on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Annual per-capita income is about US$2,000 in Taiwan—10 times greater than in mainland China.

Peking’s other proposals, like the invitation of several Taiwanese leaders to the mainland, are treated with equal ridicule. Most Taiwanese newspapers say there is no chance of negotiating anything with leaders they still refer to as “bandits.” But in private some Taiwanese seem concerned. In their opinion Peking’s proposals are not aimed only at dissuading the United States from selling arms to Taiwan.

When Peking proposes re-establishing mail service with Taiwan or transferring [Kuomintang party leader and former President] Chiang Kai-shek’s ashes to the mainland—to be buried in the land of one’s ancestors has an almost religious meaning for traditionalist Chinese—such proposals go straight to the hearts of the Chinese of Taiwan, to whom the [ruling] Kuomintang has been repeating for more than 30 years that there is only one China [namely, Taiwan]. Peking will attempt to apply direct pressure to the Taiwanese population to change the Kuomintang’s attitude.

The Kuomintang will have to revise its position in the face of this propaganda offensive. The Twelfth Congress of the Kuomintang in April 1981 has already signaled a change. There is no more talk of “reconquering the mainland” or of an “armed uprising” in mainland China. Now the rallying cry is, “Unite China according to the three principles of the people.” Those principles—democracy, nationalism, and the people’s livelihood—formulated by Sun Yat-sen in 1924 have always been the nationalists’ official ideology.

What does the new slogan mean? Professor Wei Wu of the University of Taiwan says, “Communist China will have to face so many problems in the coming decade and the crisis of confidence in the regime is so great that the mainland Chinese are going to pressure their leaders to abandon Marxism.” The “three principles” would thus become the mainland’s new ideology.

Behind this optimism lies Taiwan’s wish to reaffirm its identity in the light of Peking’s new ambitions. For the first time since Mao came to power in 1949, the leaders of Communist China seem to think they can benefit from “digesting” Taiwan in much the same way they think they can benefit from capitalist-style management in the special economic zones in Kwangtung and Fukien provinces.

Faced with the prospect of one day becoming a special economic zone under Peking’s control, Taiwan has reaffirmed that the reunification of the two Chinas is conditional upon the abandonment of socialism. This is another way to prolong indefinitely a status quo to which Taiwan has adjusted very nicely over the past 32 years.