Focus topics

Taiwan is a highly emotionally charged topic for the Chinese

If China decides to take Taiwan by force today, the vast majority of the Chinese would genuinely support it. Any Chinese openly against it would, at the very best, be inundated with the accusation of being a traitor. At worse, they could face imprisonment or physical violence from patriotic compatriots. The “Chinese” we are talking about here include Chinese citizens both in China and outside, and Chinese spending their impressionable years in the country but holding foreign passports now. 

Taiwan is a highly emotionally charged topic for the Chinese, topping a long list of issues rooted in the history of China being bullied by Western powers in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Also on the list are Hong Kong, Macao, and big swathes of territories robbed by Russia, which also played a big role in the breakaway of today’s Mongolia. 

These issues feature hugely in history textbooks for school children and college students and official media in China. They were and are very well absorbed, fostering a national victim mentality that seems to be difficult to overcome and a trauma that never heals. They have also been used to fit into the narrative of the Chinese Communist Party, which portrays itself as the sole savior for the nation from its deep humiliation. This is one of the founding myths of the People’s Republic. And it is used as a key justification of the party’s rule until today. 

Nancy Pelosi pushed emotions to a new high 

The loss of territories to Russia in the 19th century has, for obvious reasons, been downplayed in recent years. But Taiwan, backed by the United States, keeps flaring back to being a hot spot in international relations. Every new episode will conjure up the bitter past: It was exactly because of foreign intervention, mainly from the US, that the People’s Republic, when founded, wasn’t able to take Taiwan. And now, look, the US and its allies, still want to keep Taiwan from reunifying with the motherland. Their ultimate purpose, according to the Chinese, is to use Taiwan as what US general Douglas MacArthur called an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in its effort to keep China down. 

What makes the Chinese even angrier is the fact that Taiwan has been benefitting greatly from exporting to and investing in China since the 1990s. China is so important economically that some Taiwanese pop stars have settled down in big cities like Shanghai to stay closer to the big market, although they may have to think again now with the souring relationship between the Taiwan Straits that see no sign of improvements.

The recent visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the mainlanders’ hatred of the US and Taiwan to a new high. There was a very loud chorus on social media calling for and then the genuine expectation of Pelosi’s flight being shot down. The safe landing of her plane in Taipei triggered a big sigh of disappointment and even frustration, which even somehow made the following military exercises lusterless.

Yes, military action can be talked about lightly like this. In general terms, the Chinese are big-time realists, having faith in money, military force, social Darwinism, and sheer power in international relations. “Political power comes from gun barrels” by Mao Tse-tung is a saying known by heart by everybody and always has strong resonance in the Middle Kingdom. 

‘China is unique

Then what about the will of the Taiwanese people? What if, the result of a hypothetical referendum in Taiwan is a resounding yes to independence? 

There are different approaches of the general public in China to these questions. 

The first is cynicism about public opinion in democracies: It is not trustworthy because it’s always a result of manipulation by a power-thirsty politician, who represents, at the end of the day, only the rich, or different groups of the rich. The second is more straightforward: Taiwan is our land, what people living there think is simply irrelevant. If Taiwanese politicians have the guts to initiate a referendum, that move by itself will be a punishable provocation. 

Supporters of reunification by force would also cite cases outside of China in the pre-democratic history of major democracies, and in contemporary times, most conveniently in Russia’s dealing with independence-seeking Republics like Chechnya. If Ukraine eventually falls into the hands of Putin, that will be a platinum case.

Referendums in Scotland and Quebec on independence, and the peaceful divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are unheard of by the majority. For those having some knowledge of it, they can also be conveniently explained by the panacea explanation: There must be economic/financial interest behind it. Or another one-size-for-all argument for any issues regarding China: China is unique, the Taiwan issue is different, it has been Chinese territory since ancient times.

Taiwan’s convoluted history 

If confronted with the question of whether the Chinese enthusiasm for Taiwan’s reunification with China is a result of some kind of manipulation, the answer will be a categorical NO. How dare you?, a Chinese citizen might reply. Welcome to the land of fallacies comparable to the beliefs of Trump lovers and conspiracy theories. 

The history of Taiwan since the Age of Exploration is much more complicated than that of most parts of China. It was colonized twice, by the Dutch in the 17th century and by the Japanese during 1895-1945. As a result of WW II, it was returned to the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek. His government represented China as a major founding member of the UN. However, Chiang Kai-shek and his followers were defeated by the Communists in the 1945-49 civil war and retreated to Taiwan. 

Local Taiwanese at that time had to adapt to and accommodate a corrupt ROC government, whose brutal rule left a big scar on the mind of the local Taiwanese and a pestering rift between Taiwanese and mainlanders. To add to the insult, Taiwan was kicked out of the UN and gradually lost diplomatic ties with all but around a dozen countries, following the diplomatic thaw between the US and the People’s Republic in 1972. 

The Orphan of Asia is the title name of both a novel by a Taiwanese writer and a pop song. The former told the identity plight of the Taiwanese; the latter lamented the land’s isolation. However, the pains touchingly described in these works will, alas, undoubtedly fall on a deaf ear of nationalist listeners on the mainland. 


    Forging prettier numbers
    A big payoff from US-China climate cooperation
    At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?
    China’s true soft power