Time and again I stumble upon pro- or anti-Chinese articles that try to prove or disprove that Taiwan is a part of China. And I always wonder why – in the year 2014 – we are still discussing such issues as if the past had taught us nothing.
Recently I read another one of those posts in which the author tried to show that Taiwan ‘never belonged to China’. This question is as irrelevant to Taiwan’s future as the question whether Alaska ever belonged to Russia is for the United States. There is a clear distinction between politics and history, and this distinction should be maintained and explained, so that people do not confuse the two categories.
Chinese Nationalism and the New State Theory
First of all, we must understand why the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that Taiwan is part of its territory. Simply put, when the Qing Empire was defeated, humiliated and colonised by Western powers, Chinese intellectuals began to absorb Western ideas, among them nationalist ideology, Darwinist theories, and concepts of international law (I will talk about this later). The present Communist Chinese state has inherited the nationalist and militant instincts that decades of anti-foreign struggle have ingrained in the minds of its leaders.
It is vital for us to understand that nationalism was consciously deployed by Chinese thinkers in order to strengthen their state and defend it against Western supremacy. Therefore, there is nothing ‘obvious’ or ‘natural’ about these theories, they are nothing more than ideological constructions made by humans for the purpose of mobilising men and resources in a process of nation-building. Whoever tries to refute Beijing’s current claims to Taiwan is wasting time. Such claims should not be taken seriously. The only thing that should be taken seriously is the PRC’s military capability that backs these claims; the only way to refute Beijing’s claims is by virtue of arms, because a rational discussion cannot take place on the basis of nationalist dogmas. China’s gamble is that, after a long period of self-strengthening, mass mobilisation and economic development, she will get what she wants by peaceful or non-peaceful means.
The Constitution of the PRC sheds light on the ideological components of the Communist state’s territorial and nationalist doctrines. In the preamble, we read:
China is a country with one of the longest histories in the world. The people of all of China’s nationalities have jointly created a culture of grandeur and have a glorious revolutionary tradition.
After 1840, feudal China was gradually turned into a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country. The Chinese people waged many successive heroic struggles for national independence and liberation and for democracy and freedom …
Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the inviolable duty of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.
These passages demonstrate how the Communist state depicts contemporary Chinese history as a heroic struggle of the Chinese people against foreign aggression, the culmination of which is the PRC itself. It is an ideological foundation for pride, self-consciousness, and identification with the state. It defines a “sacred territory” – the combination of a religious and a secular term – which reflects a purely nationalist understanding of human beings. An individual is, according to this view, only a part of a larger national community. Individual freedom must be sacrificed for the freedom of the community; nationalist dogmas have the force of religious beliefs; questioning them is tantamount to blasphemy. This is, as I have argued in the past, a paradox, since the objectives and values of the national community are defined by a small elite. Not unlike what happens in an army, where soldiers must obey orders, so a national community is organised like a hierarchical, dehumanised fighting force in which a few decide what the multitude should struggle for.
Let us now briefly examine the evolution of Western-inspired nationalist doctrines in China.
China and the Principle of Nationalism
“Your idea of despising our enemies [the Westerners] arises because you think that they are still barbarians,” wrote in a letter to a friend the late Qing politician, intellectual and reformist Tan Sitong (谭嗣同 / 譚嗣同; pinyin: Tán Sìtóng), who was one of the first Chinese thinkers to advocate “complete Westernisation” (全盤西化). “This is a common mistake of the scholars and officials of the whole empire and they must get rid of it. A proverb says, ‘Know yourself and know your enemy’ [‘and in a hundred battles win a hundred victories’]. We must make ourselves respectable before we can despise others. Now there is not a single one of the Chinese people’s sentiments, customs, or political and legal institutions which can be favorably compared with those of the barbarians” (Ssu-yu Teng / John K. Fairbank [edit.]: China’s Response to the West. A Documentary Survey, 1893-1923, p. 160).
Tan Sitong belonged to a generation that had to come to terms with the reality of Chinese weakness and ‘barbarian’ superiority. In the last half of the 19th century, the intellectuals of the country desperately searched for ways to rebuild China from the ashes of a system that appeared rotten, inadequate, and despicable. They absorbed Western thought, in the attempt to find in it the sources of China’s renewal. In the cruel world of competing colonial empires, nationalism and Darwinism appealed to the Chinese political elites as means to mobilise, ‘awaken’, and rejuvenate the apathetic, somnolent spirit of the Chinese masses.
In the Renovation of the People (1902), Liang Qichao, one of the leading figures of the late Qing reform movement, wrote:
[On] the Asiatic continent there is located the largest country with the most fertile territory, the most corrupt government, and the most disorganized and weak people. As soon as the European race discovered our internal condition, they mobilized their national imperialism as swarms of ants attach themselves to what is rank and foul and as a myriad of arrows concentrate on a target … If we wish to oppose the national imperialism of all the powers today and save China from great calamity and rescue our people, the only thing for us to do is to adopt the policy of promoting our own nationalism (ibid., pp. 221-222).
The very term minzu (民族), the Chinese equivalent of the word nation, was first introduced into the Chinese language by Liang Qichao in 1899. Minzu zhuyi (民族主義/民族主义), or nationalism, was coined by him in 1901 (Christopher Hughes: Taiwan and Chinese Nationalism: National Identity and Status in International Society, 1997, p. 3). Influenced by the Darwinist principle of the survival of the fittest, he believed that only nationalism and the nurturing of an aggressive spirit among the Chinese people would create the unity and willingness to fight that the country needed to oppose Western imperialism:
All men in the world must struggle to survive. In the struggle for survival, there are superior and inferior. If there are superior and inferior, then there will be success and failure. He who, being inferior, fails, must see his rights and privileges completely absorbed by the one who is superior and who triumphs. This, then, is the principle behind the extinction of nations (quoted in: Joseph R. Levenson: Liang Ch’i-Ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China, 1953, p. 116).
The most influential advocate of nationalism was Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary who borrowed Liang Qichao’s term minzu zhuyi and made it the first of his Three Principles of the People. “Considering the law of survival of ancient and modern races,” wrote Sun, “if we want to save China and to preserve the Chinese race, we must certainly promote Nationalism” (Sun Yat-Sen: San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, trans. Frank W. Price, ed. L. T. Chen, 1927, p. 11).
Sun’s concept of nation was based on the Western ideal of national homogeneity and was therefore, per definition, a collective principle:
[F]or 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 (ibid., p. 12).
Sun believed that China was weak and poor because her people had no allegiance to the nation, no will to fight, and no political organisation. He defined the Chinese as a “sheet of loose sand“, a lump of particles without consistency. The Chinese only fought and died for their clan and family, but they didn’t do so to defend their country. For Sun, the traditional allegiance to the clan had to be transformed into loyalty and dedication to the nation.
[T]he Chinese people have only family and clan groups; there is no national spirit. Consequently, in spite of four hundred million people gathered together in one China, we are in fact but a sheet of loose sand. We are the poorest and weakest state in the world, occupying the lowest position in international affairs; the rest of mankind is the carving knife and the serving dish, while we are the fish and the meat. Our position now is extremely perilous; if we do not earnestly promote nationalism and weld together our four hundred millions into a strong nation, we face a tragedy—the loss of our country and the destruction of our race. (ibid.).
As we can see, both Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen understood that nationalism was not a natural, dormant phenomenon that only had to be ‘awakaned’. It was clear to them that nationalism was a tool to mobilise the people, a tool that had to be created and promoted from the top. Its purpose was to turn the Chinese people from a weak race to a powerful nation of soldiers. The militarisation of the Guomindang as well as the Communist emphasis on revolutionary struggle can be seen as the natural consequence of the bellicose and aggressive activism that began in the late Qing.
One of the main goals of nationalist ideologues is to inculcate nationalism so deeply in the minds and hearts of the people that they will perceive it as natural and obvious. In retrospect, every nationalism appears as an inborn characteristic of a people, while, in fact, it is an artificial set of dogmas absorbed through propaganda and indoctrination. From this point of view, the current surge of Taiwanese nationalism is no different from any other nationalist ideology; it is created, nurtured, propagated, and in the end it becomes a dogma that only ‘traitors’ would ever call into question.
The language used by PRC politicians today is the result of the nationalist discourse that developed in China for over a century and has been since propagated in schools and the media. The belligerent, sometimes aggressive, sometimes defensive attitude of many PRC leaders echoes the sense of ‘national humiliation’ and the urgency to save the country from destruction of China’s first nationalist thinkers. This explains why the Taiwan issue is of such importance for the CCP politicians as well as for more conservative Guomindang and pro-unification supporters in Taiwan.
“If the Taiwan authority goes its own way towards Taiwan independence, and if foreign forces step in, we will never sit by and watch,” Jiang was quoted as saying.
In the next post, I will show how the concepts of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ developed in China due to foreign aggression and why they are fundamental principles of Chinese nationalist discourse.