27, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 12
I N E O F F I R E
China, Little China
Reunification can happen, once both sides acknowledge their shared past
By SIN-MING SHAW
Now that he has won the election, Taiwan's new President Chen Shui-bian
should accept the challenge laid down last week by Chinese Premier Zhu
Rongji. In dramatic remarks aimed at spooking Taiwanese from voting for
Chen, Zhu said that Beijing is willing to discuss with Taipei "anything
within the framework of one China." The two sides should use this opportunity
to think hard about what concept of "China" they claim allegiance to.
Cross-Strait dialogue has made no progress toward reunification because
Taiwan and the mainland are talking past each other. Terms like "de facto
independence" and "one country, two systems" assume that the nation state
as defined by a physical border and international law is the only possible
starting point for any negotiation. But reunification has never been--nor
should it be--a question exclusively of legalities.
The word "China" with a capital "C" must stand first and foremost for
the 5,000-year-old civilization of which Taiwan has always been a part.
By contrast, communist China--China with a small "c"--has a history of
just 50 years. China's small "c" culture, adopted from European intellectual
tradition, has little to do with the capital "C." In fact, the Communist
Party has tried its best to eradicate "C" throughout most of its rule.
ALSO IN TIME
A Democratic Milestone
In a dramatic transition of power away from KMT rule, Chen Shui-bian
wins election to the island's highest office. The big question now:
Will Beijing take his victory in stride?
Biography: The new President
has a winning smile and the determination of a tiger
Chen Interview: "This moment
is truly historical"
Chiang assesses Lee Teng-hui
Line of Fire: Sin-ming
Shaw on Taiwan's Chineseness
INDIA: Home Away from Home
Bill Clinton is traveling to South Asia at a time when its diaspora
is rising to the top of the American melting pot, making hit movies
in Hollywood and Internet millions in Silicon Valley--and smashing
stereotypes along the way
reach for their roots
Meanwhile: Faces of the New
CINEMA: A gender-bending
Thai film is a smash hit
TRAVEL WATCH: Hong
Kong's Palate Pleasers
existed long before there were nation states; as Harvard University professor
Samuel Huntington notes, the forces of civilization are generally far
more powerful in shaping history than are nation states. This viewpoint
helps clarify the cross-Strait conflict, which is unlikely to be resolved
until the alien "c" civilization is purged from the body politic of China.
edition's table of contents
Taiwan is understandably not willing to become part of a communist civilization.
But in recent years some DPP leaders, psychologically marred by harsh
KMT persecution in the past, have been pushing a "Taiwan identity" that
they claim is unique and separate from Chinese civilization. Instead,
Taiwan should stress that it is part of the unbroken legacy of ancient
Chinese civilization, while the Communist Party, though victorious in
last century's civil war, is not.
China's communist leaders often claim that their mandate to rule is based
in part on having overcome the memory of the country's past humiliations.
But it was not communism that righted the wrongs of Western and Japanese
imperialism. When World War II ended, China under the Kuomintang was one
of the five victorious world powers, an equal among equals and a founding
member of the United Nations Security Council. The Communist Party inherited
what the KMT government had gained, not one square centimeter of territory
more. Exiled in Taiwan, the defeated KMT has learned its lessons. The
ruling party has helped build a prosperous, educated, democratic society
at which Chinese on the mainland can only marvel.
Taiwan did not have to forsake China's 5,000-year legacy to get there.
The past has provided it with ample sources of inspiration to enrich its
present. The basic institutions of modernity--democracy, a market economy
based on private ownership, respect for individual rights--have proven
to be both universal and Chinese. If such values did not appeal to basic
Chinese instincts, modernity would not have taken root so quickly and
smoothly in Taiwan.
By contrast, Beijing clings to a one-party dictatorship based on an ideology
that is not Chinese in origin. It is not conducive to bringing out what
is best in Chinese civilization. In his remarks last week, Premier Zhu
said foreign commentators exaggerate the level of corruption in China.
But he missed the point. It is not just about money but about the basic
values of a society. Nearly everyone in China realizes that communism
is at a dead end, but they must pretend it is alive and well. As a result,
lying in China has become an accepted survival skill. Transferring public
money into private accounts is but a relatively minor manifestation of
widespread moral decay. It is impossible to eradicate corruption, moral
or monetary, because few are untouched by it. The constitution itself
is hypocritical, for the rights of citizens it promises are routinely
China's leaders surely know that many Chinese inside and outside the country
are alienated from the party because it fails to represent the larger
Chinese civilization, which has a tradition of inclusion and tolerance.
For more than half of the past 1,000 years, China has been ruled by non-Han
minority cultures with varying traditions. But communist ideology perpetuates
exclusion and intolerance. The party's narrow mindset impoverishes the
country. Is it any wonder that few significant literary, artistic or scientific
achievements have emerged from a communist dictatorship?
China's future depends on how its leaders resolve the incompatibility
between the 5,000-year-old civilization and the 50-year-old communist
culture. The end result is not in doubt, but it's unclear if the transition
will be smooth or chaotic. What's needed is a courageous, visionary generation
of leaders in Beijing unencumbered by the ghosts of the past 50 years
who can take the country back to the mainstream of Chinese civilization.
Chen Shui-bian should focus Beijing's attention on China's true roots
and avoid the dead-end policy of promoting a separate cultural identity
for Taiwan or hinting at potential independence. Reunification will happen
a lot faster than many people expect, if and when the Communist Party
is willing to place China's interests above its own selfish concerns.
A very big if.
Write to TIME
TIME Asia home
Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN