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China and Taiwan: Separated at birth

It was a partition not born out of an ethnic but a political divide and is fraught with complications. Sutirtho Patranobis reports. The controversial politics of President Ma Ying-jeou

world Updated: Jun 10, 2012 01:29 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times

Chiang Kai-shek, the first President of present-day Taiwan, often spent his summer holidays in a house on the banks of the Sun Moon lake, about four hours’ drive from capital Taipei. He told his aides that the area and the lake reminded him of his native place on the Mainland.

It probably won’t be an exaggeration to say that many Taiwanese, especially the elderly, still have memories of the Mainland, the home they had to leave when the Chiang-led Nationalists retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War of 1949.

It was a partition not born out of an ethnic, religious divide — the majority on both sides of the choppy divide are Han Chinese — but birthed out of politics. When the Chiang-led Kuomintang left the Mainland, they left their roots behind. What they brought out of the Mainland has now blossomed into something new; many would call it a progression.

After decades, China continues to regard Taiwan (a little smaller in size than Kerala) as part of its territory awaiting reunification. This in spite of the fact that Taiwan has governed itself since the separation.

The Taiwan Strait that divides People’s Republic of China and Republic of China (Taiwan) is narrow but is fraught with history and sensitivities; China is a one-party authoritarian state with severely restricted individual freedom as well as freedom of speech and expression. Comparatively tiny Taiwan is a new democracy where current Kuomintang party leader and President Ma Ying-jeou wakes up every morning — at least since he won his second election in January this year — to scathing criticism of his politics and policies. Three weeks ago, a day before Ma was to swear in for his second term, thousands of people clogged the roads to the Japanese-built President’s house in the smart, well-lit city of Taipei, demanding his resignation.

An overwhelming street protest in Beijing against the policies of the Communist Party of China? History doesn’t advise it.

Much of the protest was because of Ma’s domestic policies. But protesters included those wary of the President’s, and Taiwan’s, growing closeness to the Mainland; there is alarm on the streets that Chinese from the Mainland could swamp the country, dilute its unique identity, and colonise it in the long term.

“Can the government guarantee our businesses and jobs will be protected?” asks a worker at a restaurant on Taipei’s Shuang Cheng street. Many support the government’s decision not to allow Chinese from Mainland to purchase commercial property in Taiwan.

About to enter the sprawling National Palace Museum in Taipei, our guide, iPad-holding Stephanie, stopped to talk about the history of its exhibits. At the end of the civil war in 1949, more than 60,000 crates of exhibits were packed to be transported from the Mainland to Taiwan.

“Only 4,000 crates reached (Taiwan). They were not even unpacked till 1965,” she said, gliding her fingers on the iPad screen. Since the unpacking, the museum had one of the main tourist draws for the island.

Shared history
Lately, 50% of the visitors who visit the Museum are from the Mainland; they come to look at the fragile ceramics, bronze, porcelain and jade artifacts and the ancient inscriptions that are exhibited. The exhibits give a sense of shared history to the Mainland tourists. “Exactly,” Stephanie said, “it’s our history too.”

Taiwan, according to the government, follows the 1992 Consensus on cross-strait relationship, which denotes the status-quo: “no unification, no independence and no use of force.” According to Ma himself, it’s an agreement “whereby each side acknowledges the existence of ‘one China’ but maintains its own interpretation of what that means…In other words, over the past two decades, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been defined as one Republic of China, two areas.”

Since Ma took over as President in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have had 16 bilateral agreements. Ma’s moves triggered a surge in commerce. The island’s largest trading partner, China now accounts for 40% of Taiwan’s exports.

More than two thirds of this massive flow of goods “is made of parts and components”, said Kao Shien-quey, chief secretary of Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development.

Tourists from the Mainland
“Chinese visitors to Taiwan have increased from around 85,000 in 2007 to 1.27 million in 2011,” Joseph Hua, director general at the Mainland Affairs Council, said.

Until a few years ago, there were no flights between the two countries; today, there are several. Flights from Beijing to Taipei are packed with visitors from the Mainland; there’s a steady stream of tourists from the Mainland at the Museum and the Taipei 101 building.

Earlier this week, Su Tseng-chang, the new chairman of Taiwan’s principle opposition Democratic Progressive Party, reaffirmed his party’s stance that Taiwan’s future should be decided by the Taiwanese people upon being sworn in to the party’s top post on Wednesday.

“Su said the DPP promises to stand firm on its position that nobody but the Taiwanese people can define Taiwan’s status and decide the country’s future. He added that the party promises to ensure everyone in Taiwan is treated fairly, while working to create sustainable growth for future generations,” news portal WantChina Times reported.

Even at the scenic Sun Moon Lake, where there’s a temple dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek’s mother, tourists from the Mainland are now more than welcome. As long as they don’t overstay it.

First Published: Jun 09, 2012 23:03 IST

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