Giant on the move
Chronically isolated Taiwan found a powerful new friend over the past year – its once bitter adversary China. But as Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, a leading figure behind that friendship, reaches his first anniversary in office on May 20, the two sides have shown they’re ready to back away from each other again.
Ma’s first year saw what few could have imagined even two years ago, never mind 60, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. China still claims sovereignty over democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and has threatened to take it by force if necessary. It has said the two sides must ultimately be united.
Dropping the hardball that characterised previous Taiwan presidents, Ma’s government has met counterparts from Beijing to work out the first direct flights, a new tourism accord and investment in each other’s markets, all of particular benefit to recession-hit Taiwan.
Talks leading to those deals lifted mutual confidence to where China has thundered about fighting problems overseas under Beijing’s ethnic unity banner. China has asked Taiwan, which is 98 percent ethnic Chinese, to help combat the world financial crisis, implying that both were victims of the U.S. economy. More recently it suggested uniting to fight influenza A, which also started overseas.
from Left field:
2008 was undoubtedly China's year in the limelight, thanks to the Beijing Olympics. But this year, China's longtime political and diplomatic rival Taiwan gets the World Games
And it's not Taiwan's frenetic, fashionable capital Taipei which will be hosting the event. Instead, the island's second largest city and one of the world's busiest ports, Kaohsiung, will be home to the 16-26 July extravaganza.
China’s upset 4-1 win over Taiwan in the first round of the World Baseball Classic earlier this month was a small but important step for a team that battles for recognition and funding.
Although trounced by Japan and South Korea in earlier matches, the politically tinged match renewed China’s bragging rights over the self-ruled island, which Beijing declares as its own territory and has vowed to bring back to mainland rule, by force if necessary.
By Ben Blanchard and Ralph Jennings
What’s in a word? A great deal if you are Chinese or Taiwanese. Despite unprecedented detente in recent months, China and Taiwan sometimes seem as far apart as ever when it comes to language.
Take, for example, the vexed question of the wording of a future political solution between the two sides.
China claims Taiwan as its own, and views it as a rebel province to be reeled in, by force if necessary. Beijing says Taiwan has been China’s “since days of old”, and it is only because defeated Nationalist forces fled there at the end of a civil war in 1949, and managed to hold off the Communists, that the island is still run separately.
China says it wants “reunification”, to bring back together that which was once whole.
But for many in Taiwan, that’s the wrong word. They would rather term it “unification”, saying that China, or at least the Communist Party, has never run Taiwan and has no legitimate claim over the island. Hence there is nothing to “reunite”.
Trouble is, in Chinese the word “tongyi” can be translated as either “reunification” or “unification”. That makes writing about the issue in English tricky for reporters who seek to stay neutral.
The politics of language go deeper, though. Taiwan, along with Hong Kong, Macau and many in the overseas Chinese world, use the traditional Chinese script, rather than the simplified version used in China and introduced by the Communists.
Some in Taiwan call their traditional script “correct font,” implying that China uses the wrong words.
The official spoken language, Mandarin Chinese, is largely the same on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but Taiwanese often eject a mouthful at foreigners who speak in mainland-inflected Mandarin.
Likewise, mainland Chinese may laugh at foreigners who speak Taiwan-accented Mandarin when in China.
Taiwanese also love throwing in English and Japanese words when speaking Mandarin, which does not happen much on the mainland.
Taiwan is proud, too, of its non-Mandarin linguistic heritage. Taiwanese, also known as Hokkien, as made a big comeback since being supressed by the Nationalists and is now widely used in politics, on the television and in pop songs.
Written Taiwanese, using Chinese characters, is all but impossible for someone who only speaks Mandarin to understand, though they can guess at the gist of it.
Taiwanese is also spoken in China, in the southern part of Fujian province, the origin centuries ago for many ethnic Chinese people in Taiwan, and is generally called Hokkien. In China though, use of okkien in public life gets little official backing.
So while China and Taiwan may talk about moving closer together, they might not always be talking the same language.
Thirty years ago today, China invaded its one-time Communist ally Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”, to the delight of Beijing’s newfound friend, Uncle Sam, which was still smarting from having lost its own Vietnam War.
The attack came on the heels of Washington switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and a closed-door meeting between China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Washington.
Three decades on, it remains unclear just how much Deng told Carter about the incursion and whether Washington offered any assistance such as satellite imagery of Vietnamese troops and military bases.
Until the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department declassify minutes of the meeting, the world will not know for sure whether the United States offered to back China in the event the Soviet Union rushed to Vietnam’s rescue.
Now the great wheel of history has turned again, and 30 years on, the United States is seeking China’s help in applying pressure on another Communist neighbour, North Korea.
China’s foray into Vietnam was brief yet in some ways disastrous. Its troops suffered terribly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese who were fighting on their home soil.
But there is no arguing that the invasion was a watershed event that smoothed the way for China to mend fences with the West. American investors, tourists and students flocked to China. Western and Japanese aid and loans flowed in, while trade and investment mushroomed, helping to transform the world’s most populous nation from an economic backwater into an export powerhouse and the world’s third-biggest economy.
In an apparent quid pro quo, China abandoned its longstanding policy of “liberating” Taiwan and offered “peaceful reunification” in an overture to the self-ruled island it has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war.
Also in 1979, Deng invited Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, prompting the latter to renounce advocacy of Tibetan independence, beseech CIA-armed and -trained Tibetan guerrillas to end their struggle and send his older brother to China on fact-finding trips.
The United States softened its criticism of human rights abuse in China, including the imprisonment of dissident Wei Jingsheng for challenging Deng at the height of the Democracy Wall movement.
American Sinologist David Shambaugh described as a “marriage of convenience” the teaming up of the United States and China to curb Soviet expansionism.
On a lighter note, American culture invaded China. Many Chinese traded their Mao suits for jeans or business suits and dined at McDonald’s and KFC outlets. Hollywood movies and rock ‘n’ roll — once considered decadent by China’s ideologues — swept many Chinese off their feet.
The honeymoon abruptly ended on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. China slipped into diplomatic isolation in the face of U.S. sanctions.
China broke out of isolation and forced the United States to deal with it after menacing Taiwan with war games in the run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996. Bilateral relations see-sawed in the ensuing years, hitting low points when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter over Chinese airspace.
Fast forward to February 2009. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits on Friday, she will be dealing with a richer, more confident and assertive China. Again, but now in peacetime, it will be a China that needs the United States as much as the United States needs China.
The United States needs China to help rein in a nuclear North Korea and help nurse the global economy back to health. But China’s abrupt slowdown in growth and exports shows that it remains yoked to U.S. fortunes.
Photo Credit: A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham