Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What kind of animal is Taiwan really?

With the news today that Air Canada is bowing to Chinese pressure not to call Taiwan "Taiwan", I decided to delve into the murky waters of what Taiwan actually is. Is it a country? Is it merely a province of China? What should it be called, and does it actually matter?
The last question is probably the easiest to answer. Clearly, it matters very much to Taiwan, whose very existential integrity is at stake. And it seems to matter just as much to China, which loses no opportunity to point out that it considers the island as part of its own territory, and which uses its vast conomic clout to insist that the rest of the world recognizes that too.
Taiwan is an island of 23 million inhabitants, formerly known as Formosa, and located about 180 km off the east coast of China. It is technically known as the Republic of China (ROC), as opposed to the People's Republic of China (PRC), which is the official monicker of what pretty much everyone usually calls China. It has a tangled and complicated history, being annexed by the Qing dynasty of China, ceded to Japan, then established as the ROC in both the mainland and on the island, before abandoning its mainland claims and retrenching to its island base after the Communist revolution in China. For some years, the ROC represented the whole of China at the United Nations, until it lost its seat to the PRC in 1971 (it is now the largest economy that is NOT a member of the UN).
Although the people speak Chinese, and are ethnically identical (with a small indigenous population), in many other respects it is defiantly un-Chinese is nature. It is a multi-party democracy with a semi-presidential system. Internationally, it is highly-ranked in terms of healthcare, freedom of the press and economic freedom, and has one of the best-educated populations in the world.
However, China (i.e. the PRC) has consistently claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and, under its One China policy, it refuses diplomatic relations with any country that officially recognizes the ROC. Just 19 brave countries now maintain official relations directly with the ROC, mainly small and internationally unimportant states in the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean. This is the reason that Taiwan participates in most official international forums, rather confusingly, under the label "Chinese Taipei" (Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan). And it is for this reason that China is insisting, under unspecified threat of retribution, that Air Canada and other international air carriers describe its Taipei destination with the abbreviation "CN" for China, rather than Taiwan. It's a small and you might think picky requirement, but it is in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping's increasingly aggressive China-first policies. Marriott Hotels and even the Man Booker International Prize for literature are other examples of organizations that have had to kow-tow recently.
So, what kind of animal is Taiwan, really?Well, as we have seen, that is very hard to pin down. Taiwan believes it is independent, and for the most part it acts that way; China, on the other hand, sees it as merely a wayward and troublesome province. Like several other regions with contentious and convoluted histories (e.g. Palestine, Kashmir, Ireland, etc), it partly depends on when you decide to start history. I have to say, though, that to me Taiwan will always be Taiwan.

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