Talking about Taiwan and the South and East China Seas in ChinaAbout Us

Bruce Jacobs - photo by Lin Yu-siang, Taipei, 24 April 2012

Author’s Note: I completed this manuscript in late October 2013, just after my first visit to China in fourteen years, when I gave papers on Taiwan as well as the South and East China Seas. This version has edited the original manuscript as well as added material which hopefully will interest EATS readers. However, I have retained the original writing time-frame.

I have just returned from my first trip to China in 14 years. Up to 1999, I was visiting China four or five times a year for research and administration but, as I left university administration and devoted myself more and more to teaching and research, my visits to China stopped. I had had some invitations to attend conferences on elections in Taiwan, but always chose to visit Taiwan where things were actually happening rather than listen to the old, false "truths" being propounded in China. More recently, I had indirect evidence that I was on the visa blacklist, though I had not directly applied for a visa and was never rejected. Yet, as many of you would know, every time I speak about Taiwan—-as well as about Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang)—I break the Chinese Anti-Secession Law of 2005.

Earlier this year, I received an invitation to present a paper at the China Pacific Forum 2013. I replied that I would come if I could obtain a visa. To my personal surprise, I did receive a visa and delivered a paper quite critical of many of China’s historical claims to the South and East China seas. Yet, I was treated very politely and my paper was not publically criticized. In addition, I was asked to extend my stay and visited the China Ocean University in Qingdao where I gave the same talk about Taiwan that I have given in Taiwan and around the world saying that Taiwan is not part of China. In both cases there was surprise in the audience, but in neither case could questioners marshal evidence to show what I had said was wrong and, in fact, I believe I was able to overcome all of the Chinese arguments quite easily. For example, at a dinner in the Forum I was able to dismiss reasonably easily assertions that a 1953 People’s Daily article and a 1958 Chinese atlas did not represent official views.

Interestingly, after I spoke up at the Forum, two Japanese, who had deleted discussion of the Senkaku Islands, reinserted this discussion back into their talks.

The Forum had some twenty foreigners and I was given special status as a co-chair of one of the three sub-sections into which we were divided. Much of the early discussion was like ships passing in the night. My Chinese co-chair and I tried to get some discussion going, and we made some progress, but this was reasonably new in China and we had only partial success.

At the Forum, I heard that a Chinese general was quite upset by my paper, but he did not say anything to me (despite our having a conversation). Another Chinese came up to me and privately said he enjoyed the paper. Another said that true open discussion was still impossible in China.

I found out that my invitation had been strongly supported by an old friend of more than twenty years in the foreign relations “system” 系統. He also arranged my visit to the China Ocean University.

Perhaps more than anything else, I was surprised by the depth of hate against Japan. A senior Japanese general could not be seated on the Forum platform with the Chinese leaders as Chinese generals objected. In personal discussions, I noted that I in no way defended Japanese wartime atrocities and that we Australians had suffered too, but I also pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party had killed more Chinese than the Japanese had. Furthermore, the Japanese had apologized many times and it was perhaps time to realize that much time had passed, that new people were running Japan, and that China’s constant threats and actions towards Japan threatened to destroy peace in the region.

Some Chinese civilians agreed with me that international tension benefited the Chinese military as it increased military budgets and gave the military leaders more “toys” to play with and more people to control. This has relevance to the recent Chinese air and sea probes around the Senkakus.

I was a bit disheartened by some Chinese from the military and academia who said, “China has risen and become a powerful country. Others now must show us respect and accept Chinese leadership.” Fortunately, some Chinese also disagree with such arguments.

The seminar on Taiwan in Qingdao also was disheartening. Many people knew about President Ma’s attack on Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, but very few understood such basic facts as Taiwan’s ethnic structure. Thus, when I referred to Taiwan’s indigenous (or aboriginal) peoples 原住民, several Chinese believed that this term included Taiwan’s Hokkien and Hakka populations. I had to explain such basic information as Taiwan’s four-fold ethnic structure and the relative size and origin of each of these “ethnic” groups. So, while among educated people in China there was some “detailed” knowledge like President Ma’s attack on Speaker Wang, there was no knowledge of Taiwan in a broader sense. This is not surprising when one considers the restrictions on information about Taiwan in China, but it does lead to great surprises when one points out that people in Taiwan do not identify as Chinese and wish to maintain the status quo, which is de facto independence. Surveys in Taiwan demonstrating the identity of Taiwan’s people as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese have perplexed and mystified Chinese participants at various cross-Strait seminars.

My own feeling is that the division between China and Taiwan will continue to grow. The Chinese argument that people in Taiwan today are Chinese because they came from China holds no water. Settlers from Britain populated what became the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but these countries no longer view themselves as British. Similarly, people in Taiwan no longer view themselves as Chinese.

Closer economic ties too do not bring political integration. Another example is Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have signed a Closer Economic Relations treaty and economic ties are unprecedentedly close. In fact, during the nineteenth century there was considerable discussion about Australia and New Zealand becoming one country and the 1901 Australian constitution has provisions to enable New Zealand to join the Commonwealth. But no one today makes such suggestions and even a potential currency union is no longer mentioned. Similarly, China’s hopes that closer economic ties between China and Taiwan will lead to political unification almost certainly will remain unfulfilled.

Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia