Chinese Nationalism and China-Taiwan Relations (Part I)

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek with United States
ambassador Patrick J. Hurley, 1945

The China-Taiwan question – a legacy of the Civil War between the Communist and the Nationalist Party of China that ended in 1949 – is perhaps the most dangerous territorial dispute of the 21st century, having the potential to trigger a major armed conflict between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, and the United States. Despite China’s claim that it is a purely domestic matter, the China-Taiwan question has broad international repercussions. It continues to be one of the major challenges in Sino-American relations and a possible destabilizing factor in the entire East Asian region.

The Taiwan question is not only of paramount importance in order to understand the current geopolitical situation in the Far East, but also in order to understand the origin and the nature of modern Chinese nationalism. It is not possible to comprehend why China and Taiwan are still maintaining the fiction of “one China” as a united country, if one does not look back at the roots of the nationalist movements that shook China in the 19th and 20th century, and which until today shape the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang, abbreviated KMT) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Imperial China and the Origin of Chinese Nationalism

For centuries, China did not define her identity in terms of modern nationalism, but rather on the basis of culture. Ethnicity and politics were thus subordinated to what was understood as Chinese civilization. Through this form of cultural statehood it was possible to partly integrate numerous ethnic minorities, such as the Mongols, Manchus, Arabs, Turks etc., into an empire which was in its majority of Han Chinese stock. Until today, China claims to be a multiethnic state comprising 56 nationalities (Hao 2010, p. 14).

One of the peculiarities of China’s history is that her civilization survived for thousands of years despite the presence of belligerent peoples at her periphery which threatened her militarily. In some respects these ethnic groups were comparable to the tribes that invaded the Roman Empire from the 3rd century onward. But whereas the Roman Empire collapsed under the pressure of Germanic and other ‘barbaric’ peoples, Chinese civilization endured defeats and conquests by foreign tribes, surviving until the present day.

Two of the three dynasties that ruled China during the last 650 years of the Empire were founded by foreign invaders. First the Mongols and then the Manchus overwhelmed Han dynasties and governed the Middle Kingdom for a total of 276 years (ibid., p. 80). 

The last Han dynasty was the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which in the late 17th century crumbled due to palace corruption and peasant rebellions. In 1644 troops of the Manchu people, exploiting the weakness of the Ming, attacked China and began a military campaign that ended with the conquest of the whole Empire. 

Northeast China was the area where the Manchus created their first settlements

The Manchus were a confederation of tribes that had settled in northeast China and had created a powerful state called Manchuria. Even before invading China, they had been influenced by Chinese civilization. In 1636, the Manchu ruler Hong Taiji (1592 – 1643) gave his state a Chinese name: Qing (清), meaning pure, clear. He and his successors tried to combine their own traditions with Chinese culture and social order. Hong Taiji’s clan, the Aisin Gioro, remained the leading clan of the Manchus. All Manchu emperors came from the Aisin Gioro clan, including the last Chinese emperor, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi (see Dillon 2010, pp. 14-15).

Shunzhi, the first Qing Emperor of
China (he reigned from 1644 to 1661).

Emperor Xuantong (宣統皇帝), commonly known by his Manchu name of Aisin-Gioro Puyi.
He was the 12th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the last Emperor of China. 

When Western powers first came into contact with China, the Chinese treated them like they had treated other foreign ethnic groups in the past. For example, when the Portuguese occupied Macau in 1553, the Chinese did not drive them away, but forced them to pay a tribute, or “rent”. The Portuguese were not ceded Macau legally until 1887 (Hao 2010, p. 77). Before that date, the Chinese state did not attempt to solve the sovereignty dispute, because in their eyes there was none. This shows that China saw herself as a civilization-state that believed in her superiority and did not regard foreign infiltration as a deadly menace as long as they recognized the authority of the Emperor (in this case through the payment of a tribute).
This does not mean that there were no ethnic conflicts in China, on the contrary. The relationship between Han Chinese and minorities were ambivalent, especially when these minorities were the rulers, as in the case of the Mongol and Manchu dynasties.

Chinese attitudes towards outsiders were fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, a claim to cultural universalism led the elite to assert that the barbarian could be ‘sinicized’, or transformed by the beneficial influence of culture and climate. On the other hand, when their sense of cultural superiority was threatened, the elite appealed to categorical differences in nature to expel the barbarian and seal the country off from perverting influences of the outside world (Dikötter 1992, p. 29). 

John Barrow, an English statesman who took part in the first British diplomatic mission to China (the so-called Macartney Mission, from 1792 to 1794), describes the rising tensions between the Manchus and the Han Chinese. He states that the Manchus had largely adopted the language, dress, manners and customs of the Han majority, but that after having consolidated their power they had become more assertive towards the Han:

In proportion as the Tartar (=Manchu) power has increased, they have become less felicitous to conciliate the Chinese. All the heads of departments are now Tartars. The ministers are all Tartars; and most of the offices of high trust and power are filled by Tartars. 
And although the ancient language of the country (i.e. Chinese) is still preserved as the court language, yet it is more than probable that Tartar pride, encreasing [sic!] with its growing power, will ere long be induced to adopt its own. 

The Emperor Kaung-shee [Kangxi] indeed took uncommon pains to improve the Mantchoo language, and to form it into a systematic Thesaurus or dictionary; and Tchien-Lung [Qianlong] directed that the children of all such parents as were one a Tartar, the other a Chinese, should be taught the Mantchoo language; and that they might pass their examinations for office in that language. 

I could observe, that the young men of the royal family at Yuen-min-yuen spoke with great contempt of the Chinese. One of them, perceiving that I was desirous of acquiring some knowledge of the Chinese written character, took great pains to convince me that the Tartar language was much superior to it […]. An ill-natured remark […] on the cramped feet and the hobbling gait of a Chinese woman met with their [the Manchus’] hearty approbation; but they were equally displeased on hearing the clumsy shoes worn by the Tartar ladies compared to the broad flat-bottomed junks of the Chinese (John Barrow: Travels in China, Chapter VII).

Manchu women in 1900. One of the visible differences between Manchus and Han Chinese was that the Manchus never adopted the custom of footbinding
Despite conflicts and frictions, since the Han Chinese saw culture as the most important element of the Chinese state and society, it was possible for other ethnic groups to be integrated into the system as long as they were willing to accept the superiority of Chinese civilization. The ambivalent relationship between the Han majority and the various ethnic minorities, however, remained a constant of the nascent modern Chinese nationalism and has not yet been entirely solved.

The modern concept of nationalism in China began to emerge as a result of Western, and subsequently Japanese, economic and military domination.

During the period between the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900), China suffered humiliating military defeats and was transformed into a semi-colony of the West and Japan. Other than previous foreign rules like that of the Mongols and the Manchus, Western colonialism had disastrous effects for China that threatened her very existence. 

Western powers not only did not accept the superiority of Chinese civilization, but they acted according to the new economic logic of colonialism that aimed at exploiting China economically while hindering her industrial or technological development. Chinese intellectuals began to realize that the old imperial system wasn’t working any longer, and craved for political and social change. That was the period in which, influenced by Western thinking and as a form of self-defence, Chinese nationalism developed (Hao 2010, pp. 82-83; Dillon 2010, pp. 105-106).
At first, Chinese intellectuals believed that they could resist foreign aggression by simply adopting Western technology and science while maintaining the essence of the Chinese state and civilization. This concept was implemented by what is known as the Self-Strengthening Movement (自強運動, 1860s-1895). The movement was in its core a conservative project that aimed at catching up with Western technology while rejecting Western culture. This was known as the principle of “Chinese learning as the essence, Western learning as the function” (中學為體,西學為用). This idea was first developed by Feng Guifen (1809-1874), and then by Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909) (see Hao 2010, p. 83; Dillon 2010, p. 106).
However, the movement was only partly successful. It proved impossible to introduce Western technologies without adopting other social and economic characteristics of the West which had created industrial and technological development. Therefore, the movement didn’t manage to stop foreign powers from gaining further territorial and economic concessions in the Empire. 

A subsequent reform movement, known as the Hundred Day Reform (1898), was another attempt, but this time more radical, to modernize China. It was launched by Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) and intellectuals such as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929). 

Following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, Chinese elites were shocked by the humiliation suffered at the hands of Japan, a country that the Chinese had until that moment considered inferior to them. As a response, many members of the gentry formed political organizations to protest against the peace Treaty of Shimonoseki, according to which China, among other things, had to cede the island of Taiwan to Japan.
Reformer Kang Youwei

One of the most important of such organizations was the Self-Strengthening Society, founded by Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Yuan Shikai and others in September 1895. The Guangxu emperor, who was at that time only 27 years old, co-opted the reformist elites and started the Hundred Day Reform movement, which was, however, soon neutralized by palace intrigues (see Dillon 2010, pp. 115-116). The reform programme was too progressive, and conservative groups resisted deep innovations.

The Qing state seemed unable to carry out real reforms and bring about the change more and more people felt China needed. But a new generation of intellectuals and revolutionaries was emerging, and they were increasingly radical in their ideas for the salvation of China. The most famous of them was the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, who would give a major contribution to the downfall of the Chinese Empire and the success of the Republican Revolution.

Sun Yat-sen and Chinese Nationalism

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) is commonly known as the “Father of the Chinese Nation” (國父) both in the PRC and in the ROC. He was the founder of modern Chinese nationalism, and the most important figure behind the revolutionary activities that led to the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, the end of the Chinese Empire and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. He was also the founder of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang), which was established in 1912. After Sun’s death in 1925, the Guomindang created a one-party regime that ruled the Republic of China on the mainland from 1927 to 1949, and on Taiwan from 1949 to 1991. After the democratization of the Republic of China on Taiwan in the 1990s, the Guomindang succeeded in remaining one of the major political parties. The current President of the Republic of China is Guomindang’s Ma Yingjiu, who was elected in 2008 and again in 2012.  

Sun Yat-sen’s theories, based on the concepts of national unity, military strength and economic and social modernization, are still fundamental to understand the idea of nationalism both within the CCP and the KMT.

Sun Yat-sen’s major theoretical contribution to Chinese nationalism are the Three Principles of the People (三民主義, pinyin: Sān Mín Zhǔyì). He used this term for the first time in 1905, but he codified it in his last work, a collection of sixteen lectures delivered at the Canton University between January and August 1924 (Bergere 1998, pp. 352-353).

The Three Principles of the People were of great importance for the intellectual and political history of modern China, because they created a nationalist agenda which was recognized by most political factions as guidelines for national reconstruction. As John Fitzgerald put it:

There was […] no place for political division in Sun’s dream of China. New China was in need of a new state because […] nation and state always appear destined for each other in the nationalist imagination […]. The Nationalist party conceived of itself not as a partisan institution within a national state structure, but as a national institution embracing the “common good” (Fitzgerald 1996, p. 32).

Sun Yat-sen’s non-partisan attitude allowed him to synthesize various ideological currents. He combined nationalism, traditionalism, revolutionary spirit and Christian faith; furthermore, he showed an early interest in socialism, and he favoured the establishment of close ties between China and the Soviet Union, whose leader Lenin he deeply admired, while at the same time keeping good relations with the West. Besides, he co-operated with the warlords when he deemed necessary. The fact that his writings and theories often outlined general principles rather than offering detailed proposals for their realization (one notorious example being the concept of socialism) made his thoughts susceptible of various interpretations, which certainly helped Sun’s rise as an iconic figure of Chinese nationalism revered by both conservative nationalists and communists.
The Three Principles of the People are 民族 (nationalism), 民權 (democracy) and 民生 (socialism). Sun stated that his principles were the same as Abraham Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Hao 2010, p. 87). Before discussing the first principle more in detail, let us briefly examine the meaning of democracy and socialism in Sun’s doctrine. 

The second principle, democracy, was based on the following four powers: suffrage, ‘power of recall’ (i.e. the right to recall elected representatives), popular legislative initiative and referendum (Sun 1953, pp. 144-145). “Only when the people have these four powers,” said Sun, “can we say that there is a full measure of democracy” (ibid., p. 145). Democracy is definitely one of the elements of Sun’s ideology which allowed him to maintain his role as the father of the nation after the end of Guomindang one-party regime.

The principle of socialism shows Sun’s concern for the economic and material conditions of China. Socialism is not to be understood as Marxism, but rather as a social form of capitalism. As Sun explained:

Judging by Marx’s theory, we would have to say that social change is caused by class struggle and class struggle is caused by the capitalist oppression of workers. Since the interests of capitalists and workers inevitably conflict and cannot be reconciled, struggle ensues and this struggle within society is what makes for progress. Look, however, at the actual facts of social progress in the West […].  

When production is large and products are rich, the capitalists naturally make fortunes and the workers receive high wages. From this point of view, when the capitalists improve the living conditions of the workers and increase their productivity, the workers can produce more for the capitalists. On the capitalists’ side, this means greater production; on the workers’ side, higher wages. Here is a reconciliation of the interests of capitalists and workers, rather than a conflict between them” (ibid., pp. 160-161). 

The Kuomintang (=Guomindang) some time ago in its party platform settled upon two methods by which the Principle of Livelihood (=socialism) is to be carried out. The first method is equalization of landownership and the second is regulation of capital. 

Let us now go back to the first principle, nationalism. Sun Yat-sen’s vision of a united and powerful China was born out of the threat which Western nations posed to the survival of the country. Sun realized that Western imperialism was profoundly different from previous foreign dominations.

China in these thousands of years has been twice crushed by political power to the point of complete subjection, during the Mongol and Manchu dynasties. But both these times we lost our country to a smaller not a larger people. Hence […] the race has not been seriously injured (ibid., p. 8).

Sun believed that Western powers not only had such a large population that they could extinguish the Chinese race were they to subjugate it, but that the methods of Western imperialism were much more subtle and catastrophic for the future of China than simple military domination. He feared the disappearance of Chinese civilization, and he therefore perceived his revolutionary activity as the mission to save China and secure her survival in the modern world.

Accordingly, he described the San Min Zhuyi as “the principles for our nation’s salvation“, as “an idea, a faith, a power” (ibid., p. 1). He believed that the three principles could “elevate China on an equal position among the nations, in international affairs, in government, and in economic life, so that she can permanently exist in the world” (ibid.).

Sun had a clear understanding of the economic nature of Western oppression, which had transformed China into a semi-colony of Western powers.

[H]ow do other countries meet foreign economic pressure and check the invasion of economic forces from abroad? – Usually, by means of a tariff which protects economic development within these countries. Just as forts are built at the entrances of harbors for protection against foreign military invasion, so a tariff against foreign goods protects a nation’s revenue and gives native industries a chance to develop […].  

What is the situation now in China? […] Because of the low tariff, foreign cloth is cheaper than native cloth. Since, moreover, certain classes of the people prefer the foreign to the native cloth, native industry has been ruined. With the destruction of this native hand industry, many people have been thrown out of of work and have become idlers. This is a result of foreign economic oppression. So, political oppression can be easily seen even by the ignorant classes, but economic oppression is an intangible thing which none of us can easily perceive […]. 

Because of this economic mastery of China and the consequent yearly damages, our society is not free to develop and the common people do not have the means of living. This economic control alone is worse than millions of soldiers ready to kill us. And while foreign imperialism backs up this economic subjugation, the living problems of the Chinese people are daily more pressing, the unemployed are daily increasing, and the country’s power is, in consequence, steadily weakening (ibid., pp. 10-13).

We see that foreign economic domination, brought about by economic mechanisms that Asian peoples had never experienced before in their history, generated intellectual movements which would subsequently lead to “development regimes”, which saw it as their goal to modernize the country in order to guarantee its survival. Most East Asian countries, among them China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, are today imbued with the spirit of economic modernization that was first born at a time when Asian peoples experienced the effects of devious Western economic subjugation, and became painfully aware of their own inability to deal with these new forms of oppression.

As economist Erik Reinert points out, barring other countries from establishing their own industry through protectionism and industrial policy, while forcing them to specialize in the production of certain products – mostly raw materials – was the typical method employed by Western imperialists to impoverish other nations. One of the reasons why the American colonies rebelled against Britain in the 18th century was that the British did not want to let the American colonists build their own industry, but rather specialize in raw materials that would be processed by industries in Britain.   

It is particularly interesting to note that the United States […] fought long and hard against the economic theories and policies that today they vehemently support. The first American Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), was an important theorist with regard to the importance of industrialization […]. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln […] wanted to industrialize the United States under the protection of tariffs – in clear opposition to the advice of English economists and a continuous flow of sarcastic remarks by English politicians and economists over a period of 150 years. The nineteenth-century saying in the USA was `Don’t do as the English tell you to do, do as the English did’ (Reinert 2007, Chapter 5).

Sun Yat-sen had certainly some understanding of the subtle Western stratagem of keeping colonies poor, and he believed that the Chinese people had to be mobilized against foreign domination to put an end to economic subjugation. 

For Sun, the only way to mobilize the Chinese people was the creation of a modern nationalism that could unite all Chinese into a single nation ready to resist foreign imperialism.

Symbol of the Guomindang

Unlike the Communists, who sought to radically change the structure of Chinese society, Sun was a conservative who wanted to utilize the elements of Chinese culture which he considered “good”. According to Sun, the reason why China did not resist foreign rule was the lack of a national consciousness. He believed that the Chinese people saw themselves only as members of a family, or clan, but that they did not feel as members of the larger national community.

All within the clan are collateral kindred; each family is constantly revising its genealogical record, pushing back its ancestry tens and hundreds of generations to the age-long past . [T]his idea of “reverencing ancestors and being kind to the clan” has been imbedded for millenniums in the Chinese mind. So a Chinese ignored the downfall of his country; he did not care who his emperor was, and all he had to do was to pay his grain tax. But if anything was said about the possible extinction of his clan, he would be in terror lest the ancestral continuity of blood and food be broken, and he would give his life to resist that (ibid., p. 33).

However, Sun did not want to destroy the clan structure of Chinese society , but rather use it as a basis on which to build a modern national spirit.

Let us take the clans as small foundations and work at building up the nation upon these […]. If our whole body of citizens can realize a great national unity upon the basis of our clan groups, no matter what pressure foreign nations bring upon us – military, economic, or population – we will not fear (ibid., pp. 33-35).

We can clearly see that for Sun nationalism was a necessary precondition for liberating China from foreign oppression.

These are the two ways of resisting a foreign Power. The first is the positive way – arousing the national spirit, and seeking solutions for the problems of democracy and livelihood. The second way is the negative way – nonco-operation and passive resistance – whereby foreign imperialistic activity is weakened, the national standing is defended, and national destruction is averted (ibid., p. 35).

Sun Yat-sen’s anti-Western, ’emergency’ nationalism that defines itself as a necessity for the survival of the nation and its resistance against foreign menaces, and which advocates social and economic modernization, became the official ideology of the Guomindang, and has remained a major element in the educational system of the Republic of China in Taiwan (where schools still display the portrait of Sun Yat-sen). 

However, as I have mentioned previously, Sun’s nationalism also appealed to the Communists. Mao Zedong was himself an admirer of Sun, though he criticized the ‘bourgeois’ character of Sun’s nationalist revolution. But it was with the ‘Opening up and Reform’ movement launched by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s that Sun Yat-sen began to be rediscovered in the PRC and his role as a national leader reassessed. Sun became a link between China’s past and Deng’s Four Modernizations Programme (Bergere 1998, p. 1).

At the beginning of this post, I said that understanding Chinese nationalism is vital to understand the China-Taiwan question. I shall argue that one element in Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist thinking already prefigured the current territorial dispute between mainland China and Taiwan: it is the idea of “one China”. 

Sun Yat-sen advocated the establishment of a Republic that could unite the whole of China in the boundaries of the former Qing Empire. For him, territorial unity was a major political goal. Reflecting the old ambivalence between the Han majority and other ethnic groups within China, Sun Yat-sen’s idea of the future role of non-Han peoples in the newly founded Republic was extremely complex: 1) Sun was an anti-Manchu leader who, as we have seen above, regarded the Manchus as a foreign element and wanted to re-establish a Han rule over the country; 2) nevertheless, Sun Yat-sen defined the borders of the Republic of China as the borders of the Manchu Empire; 3) Sun categorically opposed the independence of ethnic minorities. He advocated the unity of all peoples of China, and the territorial integrity of the nation. 

Bust of Sun Yat-sen in Sun Yat-sen Museum in Macau SAR, People’s Republic of China

On the one hand, Sun seems to have believed that China was basically a Han Chinese civilization and the other ethnic groups should be subordinated to the Han: 

The Chinese race totals four hundred million people; for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common language, common religion, and common customs – a single, pure race (Sun 1953, p. 5).

On the other hand, he insisted that the Republic of China would unite the five major nationalities. He even believed that these nationalities would have to lose their distinctive characteristics that made them different from the Han:

We shall establish an united Chinese Republic in order that all the peoples – Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Tartars and Chinese – should constitute a single powerful nation […]. The name “Republic of Five Nationalities” exists only because there exists a certain racial distinction which distorts the meaning of a single Republic. We must facilitate the dying out of all names of individual people inhabiting China, i.e. Manchus, Tibetans etc. In this respect we must follow the example of the United States of America, i.e. satisfy the demands and requirements of all races and unite them in a single cultural and political whole, to constitute a single nation with such a name, for example, as “Chunhua” (= 中華, pinyin: Zhōnghuá) (Sun Yat-sen: Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary. A Programme of National Reconstruction for China. Taipei 1953, pp. 180-181).

We can see that the problem of the relationship between the Han majority and the ethnic minorities, which is a constant worry of the government in the PRC today, already existed in Sun’s version of Chinese nationalism. The present ethnic conflicts in Tibet or Xinjiang are, from this point of view, nothing more than the inevitable consequence of this type of pan-Chinese nationalism already formulated by Sun Yat-sen and adopted by all Chinese nationalist leaders, from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping etc. For them, there is and can only be “one China”, and this China has to comprise all ethnic groups and have the same territorial extension of the Qing Empire (with some pragmatic exceptions, such as Mongolia). From the perspective of the KMT and CCP, allowing Taiwan or any other region of the former Qing Empire to become independent from China, amounts to betraying the very principle of Chinese nationalism.

The idea of self-determination of any part of China is not contemplated in this doctrine, nor there is any clear guideline for regulating the relationship between the Han and the ethnic minorities. The general attitude since Sun’s times seems to have been a mix of partial ‘Sinicization’ and the propagation of government-sponsored pan-Chinese nationalism. This kind of nationalist policy could be observed in Taiwan under Guomindang one-party rule (around 1945-1991), when Taiwanese nationalism was strictly prohibited and Chinese nationalism was the official state ideology. Another interesting example is Hong Kong, where after 1997 the Chinese authorities have been trying to propagate pan-Chinese nationalism, in order to instill in the Hong Kongers the “national spirit” that the former British colony lacked. 

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