Huangshan, China

Chinese History & Culture

Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?

John F. Copper. Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? Third Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8133-3388-1. 234 pages. Paper.

rom the back cover:

“Readers seeking a comprehensive but economical treatment of Taiwan need look no further… A superb source for informed laymen/women interested in Taiwan.”

“A first-class description…”

“A thorough and accessible account of this interesting country, maintaining a neutral position on whether the island is part of the Chinese nation or not. As an introduction to the complexities of the culture, economy, and history of Taiwan, this book is highly recommended.”

“An excellent introduction to Taiwan.”

Soon after I began reading this compact volume, I understood why such accolades had been heaped upon it by reviewers. Comprehensive; balanced; thorough; accessible; neutral – all these qualities, and more, make it required reading for all who live in Taiwan or wish to understand its current status and potential future.

A prolific writer on Taiwan, Copper has divided his material into seven chapters: 1. The land and the people. 2. History. 3. Society and culture. 4. Political system. 5. The Economy. 6. Foreign and military policies. 7. The Future.

At each step, he seeks to fulfill the promise of the title, showing how a case can be made either for Taiwan as a nation-state or as a province of China. Given the incendiary nature of this subject, he has achieved remarkable success in maintaining a balanced and neutral approach.

For example: He points out that geological, climatic, anthropological and botanical evidence can indicate either Taiwan’s ancient connection with the Mainland, or its separation from it.

Likewise, the history of Taiwan can be cited to demonstrate either its actual independence from a rather indifferent China, or its centuries- old, and increasing, incorporation into the economy and political sphere ruled from Beijing. The society and culture, also, reflect the essential Chineseness of all but the Aboriginal population of Taiwan – after all, they are not French! – but also the distinctive qualities of a people shaped by long periods of separation, and even isolation, from China proper.

Though I had read a bit about Taiwan’s history before, Copper provided some new insights. For example, I did not know that the Nationalist troops who first landed in Taiwan were not filled with love for a populace which had enthusiastically supported Japan’s war effort, including participation by soldiers from Taiwan in the Rape of Nanjing and other atrocities. The greater number of ROC forces that later killed so many civilians thought (wrongly) that they had been sent to quell a pro-communist insurrection. Copper implies that they had been further angered by widespread killing and violence against both Mainlanders and non-Taiwanese-speaking Hakkas in February of 1947, before their arrival.

But he does not gloss over the way Nationalist troops had provoked rage by taking over houses, stripping factories of their machinery, and generally failing to provide basic services right after the wary, nor does he minimize the enormity of the killing of Taiwanese and general repression by the government after the 2-28 incident.

Like many others, I had always been perplexed by the fisticuffs in the legislature and other displays of violence, mostly initiated by Taiwanese-speaking inhabitants. Copper shows, however, that from early days the island was known as “the land of rebellion and unrest” because of numerous uprisings against the government. Even among themselves, however, “Chinese on the island despised the endemic warlordism and banditry” that existed before the Japanese “pacified” Taiwan.

The Christian will wonder how much this propensity towards violence stems from the unusual amount of idolatry on the island.

The chapter on Taiwan’s society and culture helped me to put together the myriad impressions one gets from daily life there, as well as from the popular media. Copper traces various social changes that have taken place over the past few decades, all of which have bearing upon the spread of the Gospel. The social problems which follow in the wake of rapid economic growth, urbanization, industrialization, Westernization, and modernization receive proper attention.

One little fact, mentioned both in the chapter on society and culture and in the on the economy, is that the rapid growth of the number of women entering the work force began to taper off after it was perceived that the absence of mothers from the home led to increased marital tensions and especially to juvenile delinquency. We witnessed one result of that counter-trend (found also in the U.S.) when my wife was invited to help with a young mother’s Bible study in Taipei in the 1980s.

The political system provides the basic data for an argument for a distinctly Taiwanese identity. No two governments could be more different than those of The Republic of China – Taiwan and The People’s Republic of China. Indeed, Copper does emphasize this essential fact in many ways, both by delineating the remarkable degree of democracy in Taiwan, and by pointing out the truly admirable successes of its government since 1949. In general, he gives very high marks to the KMT stewardship of Taiwan’s political development since Chiang Kai-shek moved his administration to Taipei and removed the crowd who had so thoroughly alienated the populace right after “Retrocession” at the end of World War II.

At the same time, he acknowledges criticism from Taiwanese and others that democratic changes were not pursued vigorously or early enough, and that the KMT presided over an autocratic, and in some ways culturally-imperialistic, rule for a long time.

The economy receives well-deserved praise as a veritable “miracle” and an instance of effective government planning and leadership of an essentially capitalistic system. He notes also the role of education and very hard work by the people of Taiwan to propel them to the front ranks in Asia. Copper concludes that, for many smaller countries around the world, Taiwan provides “A model of economic development.”

On the other hand, he notes that Taiwan has become an integral part of the “Greater China” economic sphere, with profound interpenetration of her economy with that of the Mainland. He also acknowledges Taiwan’s dependence upon commerce with the United States and her massive trade imbalance with Japan. All three of these realities make Taiwan extremely vulnerable to external developments.

When he turns to foreign and military policies, and then to speculation about Taiwan’s future, Copper faces head-on the incredibly volatile topic of independence. With a government, land, people, sovereignty, military, and diplomatic relations with at least a few nations, Taiwan meets all the criteria of a nation-state. On the other hand, no major nation recognizes Taiwan as an independent country, at least formally.

Furthermore, China adamantly insists upon reunification with the motherland, and sooner rather than later. Unlike many Taiwanese, Copper believes that China would surely carry out its threat to attack if there is a declaration of independence; use of Taiwan by any foreign power; internal chaos; or a continued refusal to engage in meaningful negotiations. Anyone with any knowledge of either popular opinion in China, or the public statements of its government and military, must agree.

But could China succeed in subduing Taiwan? A careful analysis leads Copper to conclude that neither Japan nor Russia would come to Taiwan’s aid. That leaves the United States, surely the most important “external” factor in this equation. Based on past events, and on recent signals from the U.S., he thinks that America would seek to protect Taiwan from an unprovoked attack, but would not support any unilateral move towards independence.

There are some complexities here, however. What would constitute a formal declaration of independence? Would a plebiscite on the future of Taiwan give the Chinese grounds for attack? How much longer can Taiwan hold off the PRC with incremental diplomatic concessions? Growing impatient, could China not stir up not-so- latent ethnic and class hostilities and incite domestic disturbances which would warrant interference? And if Beijing does give the orders to a restive PLA to conquer the island, could the Americans prevent victory?

On this last point only do I think that Copper misjudges the real situation. Like most people, including perhaps many in Taiwan, he thinks that, given enough time, the U.S. could thwart the conquest of Taiwan by China. A number of recent books point to another conclusion, however. According to recent studies, china has the will, the military might, and a comprehensive strategy that would not only ensure victory but lead to a decisive defeat of the United States. If you find that scenario fantastic, I recommend a careful reading of Stephen Mosher’s Hegemon; Red Dragon Rising, by Timperlake and Triplett; The China Threat, by Bill Gertz; and especially Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, by two brilliant colonels in the PLA, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui.

So what does that mean for those who love Taiwan? Christians, especially, need to pray for God’s will to be done. Part of that will, surely, is that believers on Taiwan will “set their hope fully on the grace to be brought to [them] at the revelation of Jesus Christ,” and not upon any earthly dream, including independence.

We also need to stress the Gospel of forgiveness, lest old grudges continue to tear apart a society already under considerable stress.

To those whose hearts are gnawed daily by fear of the future, the Gospel offers strength for today and hope for tomorrow. The dramatic history of the church in China demonstrates that even persecution, should it come to Taiwan, cannot separate God’s people from His love or frustrate His purposes to build the body of Christ on earth.

And Christian workers in Taiwan who have perhaps become weary from sowing seeds on rocky soil can take heart: The furnace of affliction often melts hard hearts and prepares the way for the Word to take root and flourish.

Copper writes about Taiwan with obvious admiration and affection. Clearly, he highly respects, and wishes the best for, the people who have made this into a uniquely successful modern and democratic Chinese society. Others of like mind will derive great profit from reading the gleanings of his careful and wide-ranging research.